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A newcomer plunges into talent guild wars

MEMO TO: William Daniels

FROM: Peter Bart

THIS IS A FAN LETTER OF SORTS, Bill. You seem to be one of those Zelig-type characters who always pops up at opportune times. Thirty years ago, you were around when Dustin Hoffman was advised in “The Graduate” to pursue a career in plastics, and surely you had no idea that the line would become the most quoted dialogue bite of that era. Now, here you are again, ambling in from the sidelines to sweep the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, a post once held by the likes of Ronald Reagan, James Cagney and Charlton Heston.

And again, your timing is fortuitous. Insiders feel that Hollywood is heading into an especially angry and troubled period on the labor front, so who wanders into the middle of this mess? None other than amiable Bill himself, the only actor I know who can make a Brooklyn accent sound vaguely patrician.

The presidency of a guild can be a pleasant gig in normal times, entailing lots of free dinners and foreign travel, but I doubt if you will get to enjoy it for long. For one thing, you’ll have to heal the wounds inflicted on SAG by your contentious predecessor, Richard Masur. Masur is the sort of person who can walk into a meeting of pacifists and, within minutes, create a state of war. It will be up to you, Bill, to focus your guild’s energies, not on internal conflicts, but on the business of improving the actor’s lot at the bargaining table.

In your new role, to be sure, you’ll find allies at the other guilds. After many years of relative calm, the multinational corporations that rule Hollywood may find they have some battles on their hands.

The major guild contracts are soon to expire: The WGA pact on May 1, 2001, SAG on July 1, 2001, and DGA on July 1, 2002. There are some hot issues on the table: The writers and actors are incensed over TV residuals in the U.S. and overseas. They also want to end the special deal permitting Fox to pay lower residuals and upfront minimums, not to mention WB and UPN.

SMARTING FROM CHARGES of passivity on the part of past WGA regimes, John Wells, the macho writer-producer and newly elected WGA president, has pledged to take a more aggressive stance. He also has a savvy new executive director, Robert McLean, to work with. The writers also are out for blood on the credits issue. They don’t want to see a director claim it’s “a film by” when a writer wrote the script.

While the writers and directors are at each other’s throats, Bill, you have an especially intriguing issue at SAG to deal with: Namely, how to lure some superstars back onto your team. A generation ago SAG foolishly blew off a few of its stars by insisting that SAG officers couldn’t have their own production companies. The guild clearly could use the help of its stars to win their demands.

As you know all too well, Bill, one key issue motivating the actors, as well as the other guilds, is the curious Great Divide that characterizes show business. The lowest paid and the highest paid are doing OK, but the great majority of artists and artisans in the middle are struggling to make ends meet. Distinguished character actors are earning scale and seasoned writers without a hit on their credits list are having trouble finding a gig. There’s no way of solving a problem like this at the negotiating table, Bill, but it adds an element of heat to the bargaining.

ANOTHER FACTOR YOU’VE NOTICED, Bill, is the absence of leadership on the part of management. The epoch when Lew Wasserman would summon the town’s CEOs together and mandate labor policy is long past. The men who run show business today have vastly differing agendas, not to mention conflicting egos, and no one seems eager to sit around a conference table. “The old-time studio chiefs may have been impossible to deal with, but at least they were all interested in keeping Hollywood working,” says one veteran negotiator. “Today the top guys are more interested in Berlin or Beijing.”

Try negotiating around that issue, Bill.

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