On July 30, a group of 50 commercial talent agents met at the Sportsmans Lodge Events Center in Studio City, Calif. where they considered advising their clients to break from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) position of protecting a pay-for-play royalty system.
The commercial agents, members of the Association of Talent Agents (ATA), met in seclusion, if not "in secret," as one source described the gathering, almost three months into the commercial strike between SAG and the producers of television commercials. The producers favor successive lump sum payments rather than pay-for-play residuals. Until this issue and other matters -- including actor royalties for Internet commercials -- are decided, the bitter and prolonged strike is bringing tremendous pressure to bear on agents.
The SAG strike has caused reduced production throughout the commercial industry and has forced widespread layoffs and economic hardship. The stakes in the strike have continued to rise and, on Aug. 1, a poignant chord was struck with the news from New York that the executive administrator of SAG's talent agency department, Anthony LeGrand, had died of a massive heart attack in front of Sardi's while walking to work at 1515 Broadway.
At the May 1 outset of the strike, the union carefully orchestrated it's spokespersons at a Bryant Park kickoff rally. There, even actor Richard Dreyfuss, an Academy Award-winning Best Actor and an experienced corporate spokesperson was careful in his response to such questions as "What is the greatest challenge facing the union in this commercial strike?" Tellingly, Dreyfuss replied that a staff spokesperson at SAG would be better suited to answer the question. Asked what the union's greatest strength was, Dreyfuss then said, "Their unity."
Unity is a big issue in the SAG strike. By and large, celebrities from entertainment and sports have not crossed the picket line. The few exceptions, however, have received a lot of attention. They include British actress and film producer Elizabeth Hurley, who filmed an Estee Lauder spot but later apologized and claimed she was unaware of crossing a strike line. Earlier in the strike, golf star Tiger Woods refused to cross the SAG picket line and thus delayed a commercial project. Recently, however, Woods reportedly crossed the SAG picket line to do a spot. "I think GM (General Motors) must have really leaned on him," a SAG spokesperson said. Typically, talent agents jealously guard their contractual relationships with actors, and invest time and money recruiting the best talent. At the same time, agents work between actors and the ad agencies and producers, seeking to foster a professional atmosphere, selling talent, scheduling, resolving conflict and processing payments. It is the agent who is paid directly by commercial advertisers; the talent agent deducts their commission and then pays the talent their share of fees and residuals.
SAG board member David Jolliffe told Playbill On-Line that as a result of the July 30 Meeting, the commercial agents opted not to advise their clients to accept the producers' plan because "the numbers just don't work." After the meeting, Jolliffe said the commercial agents support the union "100 percent."
"They did run some numbers," Jolliffe said, "but they said, 'Buy-outs definitely don't work for us.'"
Barbara Dixon, spokesperson for the Association of Talent Agents (ATA) returned a call at press time and told Playbill On-Line that, "Nobody representing ATA in that room advised agents to break with SAG on any of the positions taken in the negotiations to date. It's not our position to do that."
After learning of the July 30 talent agent meeting from Playbill On-Line, Ira Shephard, lead counsel and negotiator of the Joint Policy Committee for Talent Union Negotiations (JPC) said, "I think it's the first step toward agents reconsidering their position in support of SAG. They have obviously started to more carefully look at the industry's proposal, which is ultimately in the actors' best interest. And I'm hopeful with a little more time, they'll hop on the bandwagon and try and convince SAG to abandon its current destructive position."
-- By Murdoch McBride