SAG misses its ‘Norma Rae’ moment

No reason to believe studios will capitulate

PITY THE LEADERSHIP of the Screen Actors Guild. They’ve been preparing for their “Norma Rae” moment, and by the time they got there, it seems like everybody — including Norma Rae herself — is pleading to just end the movie.

After eight months of labor discord in Hollywood, people are plain worn out. And while nobody should applaud the studios for their behavior, there’s no reason to believe they’ll utterly capitulate now, meaning the incremental gains for which SAG continues fighting don’t look worth the threat of bringing the town grinding to a halt from an actual strike or even a pronounced slowdown.

Like a youngest child, SAG has a hard time professing shock over how strict mom and dad are. The guild, after all, is fifth in line this cycle — a point the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers stresses on its website, accentuating that its framework for new media has already been accepted during “four other separate negotiations this year,” and that there is “no valid reason” to alter that just-molded template.

The ever-pragmatic Directors Guild — aided by the Writers Guild’s collective sacrifice — recognized that management would bend only so far. So they leveraged the WGA strike to secure a taste of new media. At the time, DGA officials stressed — accurately — that the true value of new media remains nebulous and will have to be revisited in future negotiations.

STUDIOS OBVIOUSLY won’t be motivated by conscience, remorse or questions of fairness. Yet if injected full of truth serum (which given the jolt to their systems would probably kill them), the moguls would say: “OK, we confess: In hindsight, we screwed you on DVDs. But that was then, and this is now. This isn’t the same world as when we made those deals, and we need to keep options open to avoid ending up like the newspaper or music industries, which scares the hell out of us.

“We do paint a rosier picture when talking to Wall Street, but read between the lines. We’re like politicians, with a separate spiel for each constituency. As for the untold riches promised by original Internet production, as the DGA concluded after months of research, that’s at best years away.

“Many of you are hurting from lost residuals due to fewer network repeats, but that hurts us, too. Because the audience won’t sit still for reruns anymore, we have to spend more producing programming year round.

“Oh, and you know all your concerns about ‘artists rights,’ creative integrity and control over use of your image? We don’t pretend to understand them. When we talk, it’s about money. That’s why you’re actors, and we’re not.”

OF COURSE, the studios could stop haggling over pennies, but that’s sort of like telling an insurance company to quit low-balling you. That’s just what they do — relying on any sane person to give up first.

All these factors merit consideration as the guilds look ahead. While each discipline has its own unique priorities, there certainly could have been greater coordination and consensus regarding feasible goals going in. Strategically speaking, the WGA might have possessed more leverage had it waited and walked out with the actors. Similarly, SAG and AFTRA’s intramural Keystone Kops act hasn’t helped either’s cause, what with several prominent SAG members telling their guild that enough’s enough. (Even Sally Field, who played Norma Rae, endorses the AFTRA agreement.)

Before the current round of labor negotiations began, I joked that the situation was mercurial because, historically, directors only care about themselves, writers are bitter and actors are nuts.

Frankly, most of what’s transpired has done little to invalidate those views, but the analysis omitted another key consortium: The studio moguls, who have cried wolf so often in their past protestations of poverty, they’ve lost the ability to effectively communicate with talent. It’s a rift they’d be wise to address once calm prevails, unless the studios yearn for an encore when these guild contracts expire in 2011.

Admittedly, achieving temporary labor peace won’t redress earlier wrongs, but it will hopefully establish a threshold for what comes next — and maybe help frame the frequent disparity between happy endings and realistic ones.

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