Saturday, February 23, 2008

A-list actors want action on contract

Determined to avoid another strike, major stars pressure their guild to stop posturing and start negotiating.
By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 23, 2008
Two of Hollywood's biggest stars -- George Clooney and Tom Hanks -- dropped in at the home of Screen Actors Guild President Alan Rosenberg this week to deliver a message: Start negotiating.

With the writers strike fresh in their minds, the high-powered actors want to head off another labor disruption that could paralyze the film and television industry.

So during a two-hour meeting Tuesday night, Clooney and Hanks -- joined by Sally Field and Rob Lowe -- urged Rosenberg and guild negotiator Doug Allen to tone down their rhetoric and get to the bargaining table, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting.

The session was the latest in series of efforts by top stars to nudge guild leaders into early negotiations on a new SAG contract to replace one that expires June 30. Actors strongly supported the writers during their recent 100-day walkout, but are anxious to begin work again after Hollywood's costliest work stoppage in two decades.

Separately, a large number of influential SAG members are pushing their guild to adopt restrictions on who would be allowed to vote on the film and TV contract.

On Wednesday, a group of actors presented a petition to SAG leaders calling on the guild to implement so-called "qualified voting." The petition was signed by more than 1,000 actors, including Kevin Bacon, Glenn Close, Ben Affleck and Ethan Hawke.

Despite such big-name support, the proposal is likely to face stiff resistance from the guild's national board because it could disqualify many if not most of the guild's 120,000 members from voting on the principal contract.

"I'm totally against the idea," Rosenberg said. "It disenfranchises . . . people who are already marginalized."

Nonetheless, Rosenberg said the idea gained enough support to justify bringing it before the guild's 71-member board, which has the authority to impose such restrictions.

Rosenberg declined to discuss the meeting at his house, other than to acknowledge that Clooney, Hanks and the others wielded tremendous influence in the guild.

"Their participation is crucial to our success," he said.

The actors also declined to comment. Participants at the meeting agreed not to publicly discuss the session, according to the people with knowledge of the meeting.

Rosenberg called the session after Clooney, Hanks, Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep took out a full-page advertisement in Hollywood trade publications last week calling on the guild to begin negotiations immediately.

Concerns about the guild's negotiating posture came to a head recently when Allen, SAG's chief negotiator, and Rosenberg criticized a new Directors Guild of America contract that subsequently became the basis for the writers agreement.

The men vowed to press not only for improved pay in new media but for something neither writers nor directors won -- an increase in residuals from the sale of DVDs.

But during Tuesday's meeting Clooney and his colleagues objected to what they perceived as saber-rattling by Allen and Rosenberg, and stressed that actors were reluctant to endure another walkout, according to the people with knowledge of the meeting.

Hanks said he was concerned about the plight of actors who had been out of work during the writers strike.

Clooney grilled Allen about concerns he had heard from SAG members in New York that the leadership was too close to hard-line guild activists in Hollywood.

Field highlighted the urgency of beginning early talks.

The actress, who won an Oscar for her role as a fiery union leader in the 1979 movie "Norma Rae," had previously butted heads with Rosenberg.

According to witnesses, the two fell into in a heated exchange at the end of the SAG Awards dinner last month when Field, star of the ABC drama "Brothers & Sisters," pressed Rosenberg to fast-track negotiations and questioned his leadership. Rosenberg's wife, "CSI" actress Marg Helgenberger, intervened to defend him, according to one of the witnesses. "He became very agitated," said Field's publicist, Heidi Schaeffer, who was not among the witnesses. Rosenberg declined to comment.

During Tuesday's meeting, Rosenberg stressed that he wasn't looking to go to war with the studios and said he and Allen already had begun informal discussions with studio chiefs, the sources said. The SAG officials met with Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger on Friday and discussed a possible timetable for talks.

Guild leaders have said they won't begin formal negotiations until they have completed a series of meetings with members, scheduled to run through mid-March, to identify their chief bargaining goals.

"Our lines of communication to management are open, have been and will continue to be," Allen said. As to the timing of negotiations, he said: "We haven't made that decision and when we do we'll make an appropriate announcement."

Allen would not discuss the petition on qualified voting, saying it was a matter for the board to decide.

The role of nonworking actors within SAG, and whether they exert too much influence, has long been a contentious issue within the union.

At SAG, any member in good standing can vote on the film and TV contract. Members qualify for membership if they have appeared in a principal or speaking role in a SAG film, video, television program or commercial. Also eligible are extras who have worked at least three days on a SAG-covered show in their lifetimes, and people who qualify to join through a sister union.

That has rankled many working actors, who complain that a majority of SAG's members consistently earn less than $1,000 per year.

"I believe that the Screen Actors Guild will be strengthened at the bargaining table if only those members who have a stake in bargaining are the ones voting," said actor Ned Vaughn, one of the organizers of the petition.

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