Board officially approves national exec director

Is SAG’s hardline faction beginning to soften?

In a 71% vote, SAG’s national board on Sunday approved the appointment of David White as the guild’s permanent national exec director. That margin of approval means that at least a few members of Membership First voted in favor of the new two-year deal for White, who had been serving as interim exec director since January.

Membership First had a firm grip on SAG’s national board from 2005 through last fall, when a slate of moderate candidates won seats amid the impasse between the guild and the majors in settling a new feature-primetime contract. Amid SAG’s internal politicking, the moderate coalition in January ousted national exec director Doug Allen, who had advocated a tough stance with the studios and had been favored by the Membership First coalition.

With Membership First losing clout among SAG voters in the past two elections, the naming of White is a sign that the guild’s approach to the next round of contract talks is likely to be less abrasive than in the previous round, which dragged on for more than a year.

Sunday’s national board meeting, held at the BevHilton, was the first to take place under the presidency of Ken Howard, elected last month over Membership First leader Anne-Marie Johnson and Seymour Cassel. Howard didn’t attend the meeting due to a longstanding commitment to appear at a charity event in New Jersey but issued a statement praising White’s ability to listen to the concerns of all sides on complex issues.

Johnson, however, had pushed for the guild to mount an exec search committee for the new SAG topper and was unhappy that the guild failed to conduct such a search. White was hastily enlisted by SAG’s moderates in January because of his familiarity with the guild, having previously served as SAG’s general counsel.

“Although David and I have a very good relationship, I’m disappointed that this board did not choose the route of searching for the best and the brightest,” Johnson told Daily Variety. “Maybe that would have been David White, but we’ll never know.”

The top post at SAG has been the focus of boardroom fights in the past. Membership First fired Allen’s predecessor, Greg Hessinger, in 2005 weeks after coming into power.

The moderate coalition has been satisfied with how White’s run SAG over the past nine months. He’s closed half a dozen deals — many that Allen had allowed to run past expiration — and he’s operated in a low-key manner that contrasts sharply with Allen’s thorny approach, particularly in the area of SAG’s relationship with its fellow Hollywood unions.

White’s contract, which runs through February 2012, also elevates him into the chief negotiator post. SAG is due to launch negotiations with the majors in less than year on its feature-primetime deal, which carries a June 2011 expiration. Longtime SAG exec John McGuire had occupied the chief negotiator slot since Allen’s ouster.

SAG didn’t disclose how much White will be paid, but it’s understood his annual salary is about $420,000 per annum — a reduction he requested from his one-year deal as the interim chief, partly due to the 35 staff slots that were cut earlier this year as a result of a deficit.

“We will continue to get our house in order — financially and strategically,” White said in a statement. “I have great confidence in the guild’s ability to navigate the dramatic changes taking place in our industry. Screen Actors Guild has a remarkable history, and we look forward to the extraordinary future that we know awaits us.”

White previously served as the guild’s general counsel from 2002-06 before becoming managing principal of Los Angeles-based Entertainment Strategies Group. During his tenure as general counsel, White directed the 40-person legal and governance staff.

White was a labor and employment attorney at O’Melveny & Myers before joining SAG in 2002.

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