SAG's Rosenberg goes on an outreach mission

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True to his word to focus more on agency relations, SAG president Alan Rosenberg has launched a series of meetings with guild members nationwide to address the thorny topic.

At each stop, there is one big elephant in the room: How can SAG finally secure a new agency franchise agreement more than five years after the last pact expired?

Such an agreement with the Association of Talent Agents -- which expired in January 2002 -- would restore a broad safety net for SAG members over commission structure, contract lengths and other issues. The guild's most recent attempt at a new agreement was rejected in a 54%-46% vote in April 2002.

The big gripes back then were that the proposed pact would have broadened agents' ability to charge commissions on actors' residual earnings and removed financial interest on talent agency investments. But in the absence of any franchise agreement with the guild, agencies have been unencumbered by any such restrictions anyway.

Since the 2002 rejection, the ATA has rebuffed SAG entreaties to renew negotiations for an agency franchise agreement. The association continues to collaborate with the guild regularly on issues of interest to an acting community they share in common, but there is little the guild can do to force the ATA back to the bargaining table -- except to reinstate enforcement of the SAG rule on agent representation.

Gone unenforced for years, Rule 16(a) of the last franchise agreement and supported by SAG constitution and bylaw precepts, states guild members can only be represented by agents who are signatories to an agency agreement with SAG. The punishment for running afoul of the rule, if enforced, would be dismissal from the guild.

But SAG officials have been loath to reinstate the rule, in part because any A-list actors thumbing their noses at the guild might undermine its authority with membership.

"What are they going to do, kick Meryl Streep out of the union if she keeps her agent?" quipped one industry wag, speaking hypothetically.

So far, Rosenberg and SAG national executive director Doug Allen have confined their public remarks on the issue to suggestions that a strong agency franchise agreement is needed to protect actors' interests. Both have repeatedly pledged to step up efforts to re-engage with the ATA since Allen's joining of the SAG staff on Jan. 8.

Also, Allen has met informally with ATA executive director Karen Stuart at least once, exchanging perspectives on various issues, sources said.

The recent SAG "outreach meetings" with branch members -- held March 22-23 in Atlanta and March 24 in Miami -- dovetail with continuing efforts to document allegations of agents' abuse of clients in the absence of a franchise agreement. Some of the abuses involve non-ATA agents, SAG officials acknowledge.

Most commonly, complaints involve agents who charge commissions higher than the industry norm of 10%-20% for representation of various professional categories.

The ATA and its New York-based affiliate the National Association of Talent Representatives rep about 130 agents. Officials at both groups maintain that the long-expired last agency agreement -- whose basic tenets date back to the 1930s -- was greatly outdated, and they suggest agents and even actors are better off without it.

Rosenberg might lead one or more of the "outreach meetings" with membership that the guild has been conducting on the issue, as he chairs guild's national agent relations committee. Zino Macaluso, national director of agency relations, has chaired the meetings held to date, with others planned sometime this spring for Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

"The discussions that we are having are internal discussions," SAG spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt said. "You could characterize them as informal member focus groups."

The ATA's Stuart stressed that the association shouldn't be viewed as a SAG adversary.

"We've had a relationship with SAG for 70 years," she said. "With or without an agency agreement, ATA agents remain allies with SAG to confront the challenges of their members and our clients, today and in the future."

Meanwhile, actors and other performers who are members of AFTRA are protected in their agent dealings by franchise agreement struck in 2002 between that union and the ATA and NATR.

AFTRA national executive director of AFTRA Kim Roberts Hedgpeth said members seem still happy with the pact.

"There certainly were issues that members had some questions about (in 2002)," she said. "But they were all ultimately addressed, and we were able to reach an agreement that both sides were happy about."

The refusal of ATA execs to restart franchise agreement talks with SAG is traceable in part to an even earlier stillborn pact with actors. That previous deal on a new agency franchise agreement was scrapped in February 2000 after then-SAG president William Daniels took office.

SAG and ATA/NATR reverted to working under the previous long-standing agreement while returning to negotiations for a fresh pact. So it was not received kindly when those efforts also proved for naught with the 2002 rejection of yet another proposed pact.

High-profile actors including Richard Dreyfuss, Jason Alexander and Rob Schneider led opposition to the '02 proposal, which then-SAG president Melissa Gilbert and a majority of the guild's national board had recommended for adoption.

Kent McCord, who was then SAG treasurer and now serves as first national vp of the guild, sided with those who opposed the pact. McCord was unavailable for comment, but a well-placed source suggested that at least some of those who opposed the '02 franchise agreement have softened their stance on some of the relevant issues and might be more amenable to a new ATA accord.

A top branch official voiced support for Rosenberg's outreach mission.

"I am thrilled that president Rosenberg and our very capable staff are meeting directly with our members to bring them up to speed on an issue that so desperately needs resolution," SAG Chicago president Todd Hissong wrote in an e-mail exchange with a reporter. "I hope our members take full advantage of this effort and come to the meetings with open minds and honest questions."

The SAG road show is expected to reach Chicago in May, Hissong said.
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