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SAG trying to restart talks with agents

October 14, 2002|Anita M. Busch | Times Staff Writer

The newly elected board of the Screen Actors Guild, seeking to open lines of communication after a three-year battle that ended in defeat for the nation's talent agencies, on Sunday said it would try to reopen its dialogue with agents over whether to ease restrictions governing their business practices.

But there's a catch. SAG, which represents 98,000 actors, will try to jump-start the talks even though its membership already has said no to the agent's make-or-break issue: giving agents more leeway to receive investments from and invest in companies that also produce.

That is not likely to sit well with the Assn. of Talent Agents or its East Coast branch, the National Assn. of Talent Representatives, which have tried and failed three times in the past three years to come to a resolution. It is unclear whether they will even sit at the table with the guild yet again.

The Assn. of Talent Agents will meet to discuss SAG's offer on Tuesday. "ATA is extremely disappointed," said Karen Stuart, the group's executive director. "SAG has known now for years that this is an element that needs to be bargained. I am concerned that there were no discussions or meetings with the ATA prior to this board meeting. Most disturbing is that they've argued that they need to fix their own voting system, and yet now they draft a resolution based on a vote that came through a process that they themselves are questioning. What they've done is completely counterintuitive."

Under the current system, SAG has no restrictions on who votes on their referendums. Their voting membership includes working and non-working actors, and SAG is considering a change in the voting rules.

SAG and the agents have been working without a franchise agreement since April, when the guild's membership voted against a referendum that would have, among other things, changed the financial rules restricting agents. The defeat of the referendum marked the first time since "Gone With the Wind" was in theaters that agents had not worked under an agreement with SAG.

The issue has split the union, with some high-profile members, such as Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, supporting change, and others, such as Jason Alexander and Rob Schneider, opposing it. Proponents say agents need to be able to compete in a changing economic environment; opponents argue that if their talent agencies are linked financially with companies that also produce, the talent representatives would effectively become employers.

There was even a difference in opinion among SAG's former presidents. Patty Duke and Richard Masur threw their support behind the referendum, while Charlton Heston and William Daniels were against it. The current president, Melissa Gilbert, supported the change.

However, in practice, talent agencies have been working for corporate America for years, ever since former CAA power-broker Michael Ovitz entered into a consultancy agreement with Coca-Cola Co. in 1991. Today, many talent agencies represent actors and corporations, including beverage companies, aerospace firms and retailers.

So far, though, no agency has entered into any major financial equity agreement with outside production entities, although many have explored it.

SAG acknowledged that "the prior referendum defeat reflects member opposition to changes to financial interest rules" but said it is setting up a national executive negotiating committee to try to reopen talks.

The resolution was unanimously passed Sunday by the board in a meeting at the Universal Sheraton in Universal City. The board met for three days. On Friday, SAG national executive director and CEO Bob Pisano delivered a "state of the guild" speech.

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