It's been six months since Screen Actors Guild members turned down the Guild's proposed agreement with the Association of Talent Agents—tossing aside a 75-page book of regulations that governed the relationship between actors and their agents. The book has since been replaced by a proliferation of general service agreements, or GSAs. According to SAG's national director of Agency Relations Zino Macaluso, GSAs have been circulating at virtually all the major talent agencies that belong to the ATA. He estimates that some 20,000-25,000 performers may have signed these contracts.
Macaluso has inspected more than 500 GSAs, and said they vary widely. "What they look like depends on a number of factors," said Macaluso. "It depends on the bargaining power of the performer involved, on the agent's relationship with the Guild overall, and what the agent is willing to alter in the GSA so it looks more like the SAG regulations. You have many ATA agents who are presenting GSAs and are extremely flexible about what goes in them. You have many who are extremely inflexible and are unwilling to change even one word. It really depends on the agency. There's an indefinable quality about it."
Of course all GSAs must conform to a template approved in December by the state Labor Commissioner Art Lujan. This template worried the Guild because it included no limits on commissions—aside from the state-mandated 20 percent—no limits on the length of contracts, no conflict-of-interest protections, and allowed the agents to commission all of the actors' gross compensation. It seemed, if they wanted, that agents could use the GSAs to do as they pleased.
Yet agent commissions have for the most part remained at 10 percent. The major change is that this 10 percent has now spread into new areas previously non-commissionable.
"A lot of the GSAs make everything commissionable," said Macaluso. "That becomes the issue of negotiation and bargaining for the performer when he or she signs on. Actors must decide what they will allow to be commissionable. Under the SAG rules, an agent was unable to commission penalty payments, meal penalties, per diems, and most residual markets unless the agent was able to negotiate above scale residuals. That's completely gone under a GSA."
Many GSAs cover a period of between one to three years—not seven, as permitted by the state—but Macaluso said he had seen numerous contracts that eliminate a performer's right to terminate the contract due to a lack of work.
One agent who spoke with BSW denied this was the case, saying GSAs still include the actors' right to terminate but may have altered the time limits that qualify as a "lack of work."
What should actors do if presented with a GSA? The Guild is urging all members not to sign GSAs until they have brought them into the Guild and walked through them with someone on staff. Macaluso said he has had only two or three performers refuse to sign GSAs, but he did say members were troubled by the contracts being put before them.
"The members are upset not only because they are going to be paying more money," said Macaluso, "but because they are having to change their orientation in their relationship with their agents. Normally they would simply sign a SAG contract and could go off and just be creative. Now the performer is forced into a business relationship with their agent where they have to negotiate what's acceptable. Many of them can't afford attorneys. They have to rely on the simple flagging of issues that SAG provides, and have to go in and bargain on their own."
Macaluso said this is especially difficult for the journeymen actors who may not have much bargaining power with their agency. "They feel unprotected—which they are—and they feel abandoned, and that there's really no way out if they want to remain in the biz and stay with a particular agent they've grown accustomed to."
If performers feel particularly aggrieved, they could bring an action against the labor commissioner's office, individually or as a group, said SAG. At this point, there has been no organized effort among members to petition Lujan, though Macaluso said the Guild has made the case to Lujan on their behalf.
"What the labor commissioner needs to understand is that these people are now aggrieved," said Macaluso, "and we hope that he will seize the responsibility that he has to rise to the challenge and help us to make sure our members are protected in the marketplace."
SAG specifically wants the labor commissioner to issue an opinion as to whether financial interest of the nature agents are seeking is valid, and to possibly turn the SAG regulations into state practice.
SAG and the agents may strike another deal. Said agent Mitchell Gossett at Cunningham-Escott-Dipene, "These contracts are binding, and SAG has said actors are allowed to work with us, but if there was a deal and agents became franchised again, then we'd all revert to SAG contracts once the GSAs were terminated or right away, depending on what deal was struck with SAG."
Gossett said he hasn't had problems with the GSAs, nor has he had clients who have asked to negotiate any of their points or refused to sign them. "Lawyers and managers have reviewed them for clients and have signed them and sent them back," said Gossett. "I think they were most afraid that the GSAs could charge 15 percent to 20 percent commission, which they can, but they don't."
If SAG and agents ever return to the bargaining table, one could imagine agents using these GSAs as leverage. It's hard to imagine agents would return to commissioning only a portion of actors' salaries, now that they have been allowed to commission everything.
Gossett denied that the GSAs could function as a bargaining tool. Asked if agents would go back to commissioning only part of actors' earnings, Gossett replied, "Agencies have always been committed to the actor. We're partners. These GSAs show actors will continue to work with agents because they want to."