Hollywood’s already started hoping that 2007 won’t end up a sequel to 2001’s labor woes.
After four years of peace, fear of major labor trauma has begun rippling through the town as both SAG and the WGA West undergo seismic changes.
First, the guilds elected a pair of relative unknowns — TV actor Alan Rosenberg at SAG and Emmy-winning animation writer Patric Verrone at the WGA West — following campaign promises that they’ll go to the mat with studios and nets during their unpaid two-year terms.
Tough campaign talk is one thing — everyone running for election talks tough. But then the WGA board stunned Hollywood by firing exec director John McLean a week after the election, essentially for his lack of success in getting non-union work (mostly reality TV) under guild coverage.
Instead of the usual glazed-eye reaction to labor developments, Hollywood’s now asking: “Who are these guys? Do they mean what they’re saying? What will happen if they start cooperating with each other?”
With his New York accent and gravelly voice, Rosenberg conveys plenty of intensity. And when he says, “It’s hard for me to close my eyes when I see injustice being done,” it’s easy to see his political roots.
Rosenberg traces his political awareness to 1950, when a cousin married a black woman; his move into union politics came after President Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. In reaction, he ran for the Actors Equity Council.
Now he rattles off hot-button topics he’s facing in his new job: basic-cable agreements, commercials, DVD residuals, SAG’s lack of a franchise agreement with most major agencies and getting high-profile actors more involved (he’s married to “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” star Marg Helgenberger).
Rosenberg gets emotional when he talks of an actor friend earning less on “Deadwood” than that same actor earned 45 years ago on “Wagon Train.” Asked if he’s angry about the wage compression for actors, he pauses.
“Anger is not the right word, but I’m definitely troubled by a lot of what is going on,” he says.
Rosenberg stresses he wants to get along with all the town’s unions — an unsurprising statement for a new SAG president. But he was particularly pleased by Verrone’s victory as the head of the harder-line of two slates.
Verrone’s ascendancy underlines the WGA’s status as the town’s most unpredictable and aggressive union. In retrospect, observers now say, McLean was the obvious candidate to take the fall for the guild’s loss of nearly 1,000 TV jobs in recent years.
Verrone’s basic message — which received 68% backing — went something like this: We’re not going to have any clout at the bargaining table if we don’t reverse this slide.
One observer notes dryly, “I think all this kind of wakes up the starched-shirt crowd.”
Two areas are particularly troubling for keepers of the peace: The volatile DVD issue remains high on the agenda for both guilds, even though studios have made it clear they have no intention of giving any more than the minimum mandated by the 20-year-old formula; and the guilds could start to get along better with each other — Verrone even suggests that joint bargaining should be explored.
But labor experts are deeply skeptical, asserting that the unions tend to be hamstrung by brutal internal battles and differing agendas that make it impossible for them to agree on much. “The inability of the unions to get along with each other is endemic to the entire labor movement, so it’s hard for me to see them getting together on anything but the most fundamental issues,” one notes.
Verrone’s a Queens native and a Mets fan with a trademark New Yorkish sense of humor. On being told he doesn’t look 46, he replies, “We’ll see what I look like when I turn 48.”
Verrone’s spent two decades on such series as “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” “Futurama” and “The Simpsons.” He’s currently exec producing an untitled Cartoon Net series starring Andre Benjamin; spouse Maiya Williams is a writer for “Mad TV.”
He was raised in a union household, but his transformation into a union activist came much later, while working on the toon series “The Critic” about 15 years ago.
“My wife was pregnant, and all of the sudden I heard from the guild that I was in danger of losing my health benefits,” he recalls. “A few years later, I became the key organizer in what turned out to be a successful campaign to get Fox to place ‘Futurama’ under guild jurisdiction.”
At a time when the overall clout of U.S. unions has been diminishing, Verrone’s campaign pledge was fairly simple — a tenfoldincrease in funds spent for organizing, from 3% to 30% of the $20 million WGA West budget.
The unions’ pronouncements present a troubling scenario for the town’s power players, who already have plenty to worry about between an unstable box office, ever-rising costs and piracy — along with painful memories of 2000 and 2001.
Four years ago, Hollywood suffered from severe work stoppages (though there were no strikes) as a result of contentious contract talks with the WGA and SAG marked by extensive cooperation between the two guilds. SAG lit the fuse with a six-month strike against advertisers in 2000 — Hollywood’s longest work stoppage ever — and sent the town into a frenzy of stockpiling to withstand possible strikes the following year.
No one’s yet forecasting a similar nightmare scenario, but there’s plenty of angst: The WGA contract expires in October 2007; SAG and the Directors Guild of America contracts expire in July 2008.
The X factor in all this will be the role played by the DGA, which has traditionally maintained an ultra-low profile during contract talks. In contrast with SAG and the WGA, the directors have had about as much internal strife as a Zen garden; the DGA’s convention recently re-elected Brit helmer Michael Apted as president by acclamation.
If the DGA enters the fray in the next round of Hollywood’s labor negotiations, it could change the whole dynamic.
“No one really cares deeply if the WGA strikes,” one insider notes. “But the actors and the directors can shut things down.”