While there's no shortage of industry speculation about the Screen Actors Guild's current negotiations with producers over the film and theatrical contract, there is one issue now on the table that has taken personal managers by surprise. Along with SAG's struggle with producers to increase the income of "middle-class actors," the guild is reportedly asking producers for new contract language that prohibits producers from contracting with actors' personal managers. The new language would make companies liable for booking deals with parties that are not franchised under California's Labor Code.
The issue of personal managers flouting labor law has been a source of continued frustration for the Association of Talent Agents and National Association of Talent Representatives, who are legally the only representatives who may negotiate employment on behalf of actors. Yet casting directors typically turn a blind eye and negotiate with managers, as well.
While some managers are taking SAG's proposal quite seriously, others view it as an attempt to temporarily pacify agents, who have been engaged in a prolonged contract struggle with SAG since talks broke off Nov. 8. Agents want to be able to own and be owned by production companies. They claim that the financial restrictions in the guild's agency franchise agreement are outdated and believe that the illegal booking of deals by managers—who are allowed to own production companies—has left agents at a marked disadvantage. SAG claims that a loosening of the restrictions would create a conflict of interest.
"I think that [SAG] is just possibly giving what I consider a knee-jerk reaction at this time," said manager Phil Brock of Studio Talent Group. "We tend to think that you've seen a blurring of lines in this business, and I think you're going to see further blurring. I don't think there's any way around it right now, because agents are not necessarily serving their clientele as they once did. So should agents and managers roles possibly be redefined? Yes. Should managers' roles be made narrower? Probably no. Maybe agents' roles should be made wider."
Brock predicted that SAG would eventually become more rather than less tolerant of personal managers.
"The board members of SAG are dealing with managers more and more as actors' representatives. So I think in the long run you're going to see SAG and AFTRA being much more cognizant of managers than they used to be and more willing to deal with managers' rights, as well. I think they're going to have to because you have a situation now where many actors are represented in many cases solely by managers. I don't think SAG can cut off that section of the industry legitimately anymore." In fact, according to the ATA, only 20 percent of SAG's 98,000 members have a franchised agent.
There are managers who view this proposal with more caution. The former president of the Talent Managers Association, Paul Bennett of PB management, explained that he is indeed taking the proposal quite seriously.
"I don't think this is anything minor," emphasized Bennett. He did, however, question SAG's claim that the guild's members had specifically asked for this issue to be part of current negotiations. "I think that the major constituency, the actors of SAG and AFTRA, would not ask for this, considering that most of them have managers," said Bennett. "Many actors look for managers sometimes before agents. So for SAG to say that actors are asking for this—I don't know that they're necessarily reading the members of their unions."
Bennett also expressed disappointment that SAG did not include managers in any preliminary discussion on the topic. "I think that it's somewhat short-sighted that the agents and SAG are putting managers in the middle of their difficulties, as if we're the cause of them, and yet they won't even sit down and include us in the conversation. If you really want to come to a resolution, then why not include everybody? I think the best way to solve anything is by making sure that the people who are discussed are involved."
Bennett explained that while there have been attempts made by managers to become involved in a dialogue on the subject, he did not know of any response on the part of SAG. Due to the media blackout currently in place during negotiations with producers, SAG would not comment on this matter.
And while it may be doubtful that producers would agree to SAG's proposal—many managers themselves engage in production, making it tough to enforce—the biggest crackdown on managers may be yet to come. As reported June 10 in the Los Angeles Times, state senate president pro tem John Burton, who agreed in April to schedule legislative hearings on the ATA conflict-of-interest issue, has set his staff to work on a wide-ranging review of entertainment business practices. Burton's researchers have reportedly concluded that any legislative attempt to crack down on talent agencies would have to be accompanied by a crackdown on managers—possibly accompanied by a more severe legal punishment for non-agents who book jobs for their clients. At the moment, managers who violate this law are only subject to recision of contracts and nonpayment of commissions by any client who complains to the labor commissioner.
When asked if he was concerned about the state senate hearings, Brock replied, "The 'big seven' management companies are taking an attitude of wait-and-see. But we will be watching what happens in Sacramento very closely, and we are prepared to speak to the legislature directly if necessary."