John Burton, the powerful California Senate president pro tem, has accused the Screen Actors Guild of extensive distortions in its hard-sell tactics on a tentative deal with Hollywood agents.
Burton, in a letter Tuesday to SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert, said the guild has created false impressions in trying to persuade members to approve a revamp of its master franchise agreement with the Assn. of Talent Agents. Burton, who conducted hearings last fall on the issue, also said SAG needs to correct the information as soon as possible before voting begins next week.
“I am sure, that with ballots about to be mailed concerning the SAG-ATA franchise agreement, you share my belief that SAG members should have the benefit of true and complete facts as they weigh this very important decision,” Burton concluded.
The decision by Burton — one of the state’s most powerful politicians — to insert himself into the SAG controversy is a reflection of the high stakes attached to the issue. SAG is being advised by Clinton/Gore PR specialists Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane in promoting the deal.
SAG said its information is accurate and Gilbert disputed Burton’s assertions, saying a no vote will force SAG members to depend solely on state law to protect themselves against possible abuses by agents.
“While state law may serve that role to some degree, it is no replacement for a detailed set of regulations that clearly define agents’ responsibilities in the critical and sensitive areas of scope of representation, financial interest and commissions,” Gilbert said in a written response to Burton. The new deal, she wrote, will govern the actor-agent relationship “with a level of detail and specificity that state law simply does not provide.”
But former SAG prexy William Daniels told Daily Variety the guild should take Burton’s views seriously. “I think his opinion could open SAG up to legal challenges,” he added.
The issue has split SAG’s elected leaders, with the national board approving the deal by a 57-44 vote; no votes came from such high-profile members as Richard Dreyfuss and Elliott Gould. On Tuesday, Rob Schneider asked a SAG rep to stop distributing pro-deal material on the set of Disney’s “The Hot Chick,” in which he stars.
Schneider said he made the request because the material was not balanced. “The guild is acting as if SAG is 100% behind this, when there is a lot of opposition,” he said. “I want set reps to be here to check on working conditions, not promote a political agenda.”
SAG spokeswoman Ilyanne Kichaven defended the activity by set reps, saying it is consistent with staff carrying out board policy.
SAG staff and leaders are painting a portrait of agents being unleashed if SAG members do not OK the deal, which eases ownership restrictions on agencies. The guild contends that ATA members will have the power to sign actors to new deals — dubbed general service agreements, or GSAs — that lift the current 10% limit on commissions and expand the range of thesp revenues that can be commissioned to include all forms of compensation.
But Burton asserted that SAG is overstating the impact of December’s approval of a new GSA by the state labor commissioner. He said the counsel for the Senate Select Committee on agents and managers has found the new agreement substantially similar to past GSAs.
“The GSA is simply a broad and general template from which parties begin to negotiate,” Burton told Gilbert. “The GSA does not, and legally cannot, replace the protections of the California Labor Code, whether enumerated in the GSA or not.”
List of objections
Burton, who has asserted that state law would have to be changed in order for agency ownership rules to be eased, disagreed with the SAG fact sheet on these points:
- No limit on financial-interest investment in or out of a talent agency, and that “any percentage” of outside investment from indie producers, advertisers and/or advertising agencies will be permitted, subject only to state labor commissioner approval; “This statement is misleading in the extreme,” Burton said.
- No limit on commissions; Burton said the state limits commissions (traditionally to 20%) through the labor commissioner, and added that the figure may be reduced if franchise agreement protections expire.
- No limit on length of an initial agency contract; Burton said the state Labor Code provides for a cap on the length of personal services contracts.
“I could go on, as the fact sheet contains more errors and omissions than these few key issues to which I draw your attention,” Burton added. “However, I think the point has been made. Again, I am suggesting you review the document and correct it immediately.”
‘Parade of horribles’
Burton cited previous opinions by the Committee Counsel and Legislative Counsel that the labor commissioner cannot exceed statutory authority, adding, “It seems clear that the commissioner would not, and could not, approve a contract containing the parade of horribles outlined in the fact sheet.”
Gilbert’s letter admitted the state law limits commissions to 20%. But Gilbert said Burton cannot prove the labor code overrides the new GSA.
“At a moment when our obligation is to provide our members with facts necessary to determine their futures, we do not feel that reliance upon untested hypotheses or speculation is appropriate,” she said.
The coalition opposing the deal quickly posted a copy of Burton’s letter to its Web site, actorsrights.org, on Tuesday, and SAG treasurer Kent McCord, who is leading that movement, said the letter showed SAG is ignoring the protections for actors in state law, adding. “It shows that if the union won’t protect us, the state will.”
SAG said its recaps of the new GSA agreement are accurate.
“SAG’s membership needs greater protection than California law provides, and that is why the proposed Agency Franchise Agreement should be approved,” it added.