As the drama surrounding the Screen Actors Guild has played continuously for more than a year, nearly every quarter of the entertainment industry has been heard from: SAG officers and national board members; stars and journeyman cardholders; producers, grips, and truck drivers. Agents and managers, however, have not been as vocal, and their discretion speaks to their dual role in the business. They have a vested interest in seeing their clients get as much money as they can from their employers, but they need the industry to keep operating without a work stoppage, particularly a year after the writers strike. As a result, when talent representatives speak, it is frequently anonymously. Nevertheless, Back Stage found two talent reps willing to talk on the record about the failure of actors and producers to come to terms on a new television-and-film contract: manager Bruce Smith, president of Omnipop Talent Group, and agent Tony Martinez of GVA Talent Agency. Both are based in Los Angeles.
Though each has criticism for all parties involved, Smith tends to favor the approach adopted by the guild's self-described moderates: board members from the New York and regional branch divisions as well as the Hollywood-based faction Unite for Strength. Martinez seems more sympathetic to the Hollywood-based faction Membership First, which is known for taking a more aggressive stance toward employers and SAG's sister union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The representatives were interviewed separately but were asked the same questions. (Smith was interviewed by phone, and Martinez responded by email.)
Back Stage: How does the division within SAG itself affect managers and agents?
Bruce Smith: It breeds a fear of a strike. I think every agent or manager wanted pilot season to go on after [the writers strike] last year. We were all crippled by that. To have two seasons like that in a row, my fear would be that so many small companies would go under. So I'm always trying to be the conscience of my clients, without seeming like I'm against what they're fighting for. I'm totally in favor of what they're fighting for, just not the way they're fighting for it.
Tony Martinez: Established actors who have been working their whole lives are very concerned about their financial future. These are people who rely on residuals to feed their families during the slow times. Thanks to the way SAG has fumbled the ball, actors are looking at a [massive] reduction in television residuals if shows end up being rerun on new media as opposed to network television. That's going to be catastrophic, because less revenue also means a lot of actors won't be eligible for health insurance.
Back Stage: How does the instability within the guild affect the business overall?
Smith: If you backtrack a few months to the fall, when people are trying to plan their pilot seasons, [SAG] made the producers nervous about a strike that may or may not happen. And no matter how much people said, "I don't think that strike is going to happen," [producers] had to look at the bottom line of "But what if it did?" When pilots landed on my desk, there was a proliferation of pilots that were covered by AFTRA.
Martinez: There's a lot of negative energy out there directed toward SAG. This creates a lot of tension in the talent that we represent. These actors come to us asking our opinion, and these questions have forced agents to take sides.
Back Stage: Membership First still has almost 48 percent of the vote. What happens if it regains power? How does the business weather this back-and-forth situation?
Smith: I just keep looking at the Alan Rosenbergâ€“led SAG, and it has such strange echoes of the George Bush administration. They refused to apologize for mistakes, and they seem to have backed themselves into a corner, and they want to pull their membership into a corner with them, as if that will somehow get them out. It will not get them out. The corner they're in is the corner they're in... . I feel that with Unite for Strength, there is no turning back [and that the so-called moderate view will prevail]. As small as that majority is, it's the power of the voters that matters.
Martinez: I think it's a shame the way this industry has demonized Alan Rosenberg and Doug Allen [SAG's recently fired national executive director]. These two men are the victims of bad timing and a divided membership. Everything they're holding out for is crucial to the survival of the middle-class actor. Years from now, when we're stuck in the mother of all strikes, everyone's going to look back at Rosenberg and Allen in a very different light.
Back Stage: Where do you think the inherent problem with the union lies?
Martinez: The union is run by actors, and most actors are not qualified to run a union. It's hard to take a union seriously that has no unity.... By definition, a union is supposed to be a group of people united in a common purpose, usually self-preservation. So based on that language, can anyone really call SAG an effective union? They've become a joke in Hollywood, and the [producers are] laughing the hardest.
Smith: There's an absurdity to SAG that I've never quite understood. Our business is to a certain extent baloney-driven. We're all about creating fantasies. Whenever you see the SAG leadership, it's always someone who played a lawyer or George Gipp or the girl from Little House on the Prairie. It's never the character actor who played the murderer. So in that sense, we fall for our own baloney. We elect people who played roles that we find more inspiring. And there's something shaky about all of that. They didn't go to school and actually study law. They're not actually football heroes. These are not rocket scientists. These are actors who happened to run for office.
Back Stage: How much do agents and managers need SAG at this point?
Smith: They don't. That's what happened five or six years ago [when the franchise agreement between talent representatives and SAG expired]. The collapse of the agreement was essentially us saying, "We'll put this together with you, but if you don't want to cooperate, then how much do we need it?" I think everybody found out what SAG should have never let them find out: We can live without them. If we've lived without them for six years, I don't see what the impetus is to put it together now.
Martinez: Agents don't need SAG, but our clients do. The union can be very helpful when you're tracking unpaid residuals or when you're dealing with low-budget filmmakers who haven't paid their talent.
Back Stage: Has SAG lost a valuable ally in talent representatives in terms of ginning up support for a strike? Smith: Yes. You'd certainly be hard-pressed to find an agent, talking in a forthright way, who really believes they need SAG and believes that what SAG did with Allen and Rosenberg at the helm was for the better of the system. Who would want to lose their business for that?
Martinez: Most agents have never supported a SAG strike and they never will. This is unfortunate, because the middle-class agent is going to get screwed right along with their clients when television residuals start to disappear.
Back Stage: How do actors and agents and managers work together to maximize their leverage? We are seeing established actors being paid minimum salaries instead of their traditional quotes. Martinez: The concept of actors and managers acting like a group to protect quotes is a fantasy. We're all competing with each other. There's always someone waiting in the shadows to take an offer you reject. It's a very difficult situation.
Smith: If you're dealing with a famous actor, you probably won't find yourself in completely dire straits. But for the actor who hasn't broken through, you can't pretend that things are the way they once were. I'm sure in the next 10 years we'll see a major network go down or reinvent itself as something else, like a cable network. You can't get sentimental about it, because Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone [of NewsCorp and Viacom, respectively] aren't sentimental about it. They'll simply go where the technology is. They will just follow the dollar. You simply have to be the best actor you can be and play the game in a more resilient way.
Back Stage: How do agents and managers prepare for the future, when the broadcast TV model may not exist?
Smith: When I'm not hiding under my desk crying, you mean? First of all, I've personally had to let go of the logic that pilot season will save you or pilot season will save your clients. You really have to adjust your thinking at that point. You might be looking at the next Shield or the next Mad Men, and that pilot may show up in June or it may show up in July or August.... It's very important to put your concentration on the quality of the material and what really has a chance. That's the most obvious way to win a difficult war.
Martinez: Agents are proactive by nature, but history has trained us to react quickly to changes. The business model might change, but the key will always be to sign the best talent possible and then find effective ways to sell that talent to the industry.