NFL player unanimously hired as new director

While the Writers Guild has been putting Hollywood on strike alert, SAG has been uncharacteristically quiet in recent months.

In a departure from the usual Machiavellian wrangling, peace has prevailed among SAG leaders as they’ve awaited Monday’s arrival of Doug Allen as national exec director. Allen, who’s held the No. 2 slot at the National Football Players Assn. for two decades, has gotten off on the right foot even before doing a day of work.

On Oct. 21, SAG’s leaders unanimously hired the former NFL linebacker (Buffalo Bills, 1974-76) in a three-year deal and gave him a standing ovation after a rousing speech exhorting them to take a tough stance at the bargaining table.

“A bad contract is worse than no contract at all,” he told the board.

Allen’s no pie-in-the-sky idealist. In a recent interview, he said, “I will always be asking myself two questions: Does it make sense, and is it good for SAG?”

Since then, he’s been crafty enough not to say or do anything to inflame the easily provoked SAG factions.

For now, his obvious weakness is an unfamiliarity with Hollywood intricacies, but Allen, a hardcore movie buff, professes he’s eager to learn. SAG president Alan Rosenberg notes that Allen was hired by acclamation in a rare show of boardroom unity.

Even labor execs are impressed with the choice.

“It’s like a casting choice — SAG decides they need a tough guy who’s been in the trenches,” one noted. “This guy fits the bill.”

Associates point to his background, which has included dealing with plenty of union disunity — a failed player strike in 1987, followed by decertification as a legal tactic to guarantee free agency in 1993 — and the creation of the Players Inc. marketing/licensing subsidiary that now generates more than $100 million annually.

“He’s been through strikes, and he understands prime donnas,” noted Clay Walker, who worked with Allen as a Players Inc. exec for a decade. Player agent Leigh Steinberg, who’s repped more than 60 first-round NFL draft choices, believes Allen’s been crucial to the success of the NFLPA.

“Doug has real clarity of thought,” Steinberg said. “The NFL brand is pure gold, and he had a big part in taking it into another dimension by embracing corporate partnerships, which wasn’t easy because most players really aren’t very marketable. So it strikes me that the difficulties that actors face makes this a perfect marriage.”

Rosenberg, who launched his tenure by getting the board to fire Greg Hessinger as SAG chief exec, zeroed in on Allen last summer after Allen was passed over by WGA West.

“What I like is the combination of him having worked in a related field and his coming in with a fresh perspective,” Rosenberg said. “Players Inc. is so successful that they’re able to rebate dues to the players. But what most impressed me was that he was a straight shooter and very humble. He’s got no ulterior motives and a real John Wayne kind of aura.”

Allen’s even told the SAG leaders that they should explore finding ways to generate more revenues via licensing and marketing. Rosenberg’s suggested some kind of programming along the lines of “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”

Allen’s not promising the world quite yet but notes that the guild’s already managed to generate content through the SAG Awards and the SAG Foundation’s Conversations program. But SAG’s truly tricky turf.

In 2001, newly named exec director John Cooke was so taken aback by the squabbling that he quit before he even started; successor Bob Pisano received three “no confidence” votes from the Hollywood board during his acrimonious three-year tenure, which ended in early 2005; and a bitterly split SAG board fired Pisano successor Hessinger in October 2005, weeks after Rosenberg and his allies came to power, prompting a breach-of-contract lawsuit that was eventually settled.

Since then, Rosenberg’s leadership has come under fire from former allies upset over what they perceive as a lack of aggressiveness and a willingness to compromise with former enemies. In early October, a few weeks before Doug Allen came aboard, SAG’s Hollywood board rebuked Rosenberg by choosing Kent McCord over Rosenberg associate Anne-Marie Johnson for the post of first VP.

The subsequent absence of contentiousness doesn’t imply that smooth sailing is in the SAG forecast. All his experience with the NFLPA may not have equipped Allen for the challenges the guild faces:

  • SAG has to prep for tough contract negotiations that may start when/if the WGA is on strike next year. SAG’s contract expires in June 2008.

  • SAG hasn’t had any oversight on the Big Five talent agencies (plus more than 100 others) since its members voted down Pisano’s proposed revamp of the agency franchise agreement five years ago.

  •  SAG’s delivery of residual checks is often months behind and won’t improve unless members approve a dues increase, with ballots going out on Jan. 16. SAG members voted down an increase in 2004.

  • A steady stream of top SAG execs have departed. Three remaining execs have “golden parachutes” that will pay more than $700,000 combined if they’re fired by Allen.

  •  SAG’s required to negotiate its deals with AFTRA, which continues to sign TV programs shot on digital at lower rates than SAG’s since jurisdiction hasn’t been settled. SAG members voted down mergers in 1999 and 2003.

Added to all that is SAG’s near-legendary ability to turn internal conflicts into death battles. But Allen’s looming arrival has quelled the SAG sniping for now.

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