If you’re eager to find signs of hope in a cold cruel world — proof petty grievances and resentments can be set aside to pursue a larger objective — look no further than the planned merger between the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists.
SAG and AFTRA will hold an informational meeting Thursday under the heading “Shape the Future of Your Union.” But the past might be more significant given the relationship’s fractious history, and in terms of how the overlapping organizations finally reached this stage.
It’s taken a long time for performers to look beyond what kept them apart, as evidenced by failed attempts to merge in 1998 and 2003. Then again, for a group whose highest-profile members appear to experience a disproportionate number of botched marriages, the inability to draft what amounts to a satisfactory pre-nup was perhaps to be expected.
This time around the atmosphere feels different, although like some Balkanized countries hanging on to ancient ethnic hostilities (one more way to confuse SAG with the old Soviet Union), voices are already railing against the prospect of the two uniting in advance of ballots being sent to members Feb. 27.
The dissent hardly comes as a surprise. Insecurities associated with the business — pronounced in the best of times — have been exacerbated by the chaos new technology has unleashed, causing talent to fret about every opportunity and residual check left unturned. Nor has it helped to see reality-TV amateurs gobbling up real estate and media oxygen on the most widely distributed channels.
Those dynamics, however, all argue in favor of consolidation. At a minimum, bringing AFTRA-represented shows into the fold should help mitigate against the familiar network practice of using alternative genres as a hedge against actors walking (or being locked) out.
For talent, the nature of their employers — and when time comes to sit across the bargaining table, mutual opponent — has changed. The studios that employ them have grown bigger, more diversified and skewed to a global marketplace. Trying to bring them to their knees — or at least get them to cough up more favorable terms related to the Web — isn’t easy under ideal circumstances, much less when they can play AFTRA against SAG.
Perusing letters and counter-charges filed amid the internecine squabbling between SAG’s two factions back in 2008, the merger-friendly Unite for Strength and Membership First, one from actress Amy Brenneman neatly summed up the case for merging: “The real choice in this election is whether you want SAG and AFTRA to fight for us together, or continue fighting each other … [since] competition between our two unions makes it harder to get fair pay for our work.”
As obvious as that might seem, opponents have vehemently resisted it — and have no shortage of forums to express their disapproval.
Bickering and divisions within the performing community have often bordered on silliness, from SAG’s absorption of extras in the 1990s (later giving them the more prestigious-sounding name “background artists”) to sniping about lesser players sharing a membership card with the likes of Meryl Streep. The latter mind-set was articulated by Membership First’s position that actors shouldn’t be subject to the whims of “weathermen in Peoria.”
If that betrays a degree of snobbery, it’s a rift studios have clearly leveraged. Of course, the same execs who love having pictures taken with movie stars aren’t above posing with the Kardashian clan and “Jersey Shore” gang when that’s where the money is.
As we’ve seen, with SAG anything can happen — the organization has a historic penchant for melodrama — and there are plenty of niggling details to sort out. Moreover, the requirement of 60 percent to ratify the deal means that decisive majorities in both groups will need to grasp the inherent wisdom in getting together.
Still, while mulling over the merits of unity, the just-released trailer for “The Avengers” played during the Super Bowl, in which Samuel L. Jackson seeks to rally the Marvel heroes by saying they’re “hopelessly outgunned.”
Facing that kind of overwhelming threat, be it megalomaniacal villain or media conglomerate, the rational response is to team up — even if some members are, invariably, stronger than others.