Biz watches, waits as SAG taps leaders

Ballots go out Tuesday to elect guild president

With the industry still struggling through an economic hangover, Hollywood execs and talent alike soon should get a strong sense of the mood and direction of the rank and file.

Ballots go out to SAG members on Tuesday to elect a new president, additional officers and several board members by the end of September. WGA West and East ballots follow Wednesday, as writers fill like positions on a similar timeline.

In the race for SAG president, Anne-Marie Johnson -- first national vp and an ally of outgoing president Alan Rosenberg -- is running against Ken Howard, a relatively new player in SAG politics. Seymour Cassel and Asmar Muhammad also are running but are considered longer-shot candidates.

Johnson is a leader of MembershipFirst, a SAG faction that's taken a harder line against studios and networks in recent contract talks; during film and TV negotiations, Johnson campaigned unsuccessfully for a strike-authorization vote of members. Howard represents a so-called moderate faction dubbed Unite for Strength, which advocates merger with sister performers union AFTRA.

At the WGAW, former guild president John Wells is running again for the top elective office and is opposed by Elias Davis, a member of the Writers United group that swept outgoing president Patric Verrone into power in 2005. WGAE president Michael Winship is unopposed in his bid for re-election.

Verrone's tenure has been marked by a solidarity with SAG and a willingness to lead writers through a 100-day strike in 2007-08.

Judgments on the worthiness of the walkout vary, but its effects still are being felt. A recent WGA report detailed erosion of scribes' employment and paychecks from just prior to the strike until now.

Davis holds views similar to those of Verrone. Wells is a well-known writer, showrunner and producer who ran the WGAW from 1999-2001. His relationships with producers are touted as an advantage by supporters but are criticized by some others as too cozy to allow hard bargaining.

When the DGA cut its deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers in the midst of the writers strike in early 2008, Wells without benefit of a formal elective position publicly encouraged writers to accept it as a template for a WGA deal. The stance angered some; others applauded its call for pragmatic bargaining.

Pay for new-media projects figured big in the last round of contracts talks, and such issues remain an area of active debate. The looming votes by actors and writers could shape the tenor of that discussion for months and years to come.