The Screen Actors Guild has named A. Robert Pisano, a former senior executive at Paramount Pictures Corporation and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., as the union's new national executive director/chief executive officer.
The new title rattled sabers a couple of months ago when nine board members, including SAG national presidential candidate Melissa Gilbert and SAG/NY presidential candidate Eileen Henry, wrote a letter to veteran entertainment-exec Cooke—who the board had just unanimously appointed to the top guild job—challenging his new title as unconstitutional. Cooke responded by resigning.
At press time, Henry told Back Stage that the nine board members would not pursue the same process with Pisano, whose experience includes work as both a senior business executive and business litigation attorney with 30 years of entertainment industry experience. "No need to this time," Henry said via e-mail, "as there was a full discussion surrounding the constitutional change and full disclosure regarding the entire contract that was negotiated with Mr. Pisano." She added that, in the case of Cooke, the board voted for him without actually seeing his contract. Henry said she hadn't been present at that meeting. Cooke had agreed to $390,000 a year. SAG didn't release a salary figure for Pisano.
Pisano specialized for more than 17 years in entertainment and litigation matters with the law firm of O'Melveny & Meyers. He served as executive v.p. and general counsel of Paramount from 1985-91. He joined MGM in '93 as executive v.p., was named vice chairman in '97, and was elected to MGM's eight-person board of directors in January 1998. By April 1999, Pisano stepped down as part of a corporate shakeup by MGM's incoming chairman Alex Yemenidjian. At that time, Yemenidjian praised Pisano for helping set the stage for MGM's bright future. He was a key member of the management team brought into MGM to revitalize the company and, through the acquisition of Orion Pictures, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, and significant financing strategies, helped re-position MGM as one of the world's premier content companies, according to SAG.
Pisano had left MGM with a reported payout of $4 million. One website following insider trading, Morningstar.com, listed Pisano purchasing 3,000 shares of MGM stock in February '99 when he was an officer-director of the firm. SAG was asked if Pisano still possessed that MGM stock or investments with any other entertainment group that might be a signatory to SAG contracts, but the union's national communications office indicated it wouldn't release that information.
SAG's announcement of Pisano's selection said generally that he most recently was a consultant for organizations involved in entertainment and sports financing, DVD distribution, Internet video delivery and digital cable programming services. The guild aligned him with no specific firm. But a Cinema Entertainment Group (CEG) press release for April of this year lists Pisano as being named to its board of advisors. CEG, in the release, called itself "an entertainment company involved in launching a new interactive television channel especially suited for delivery via upgraded Pay TV platforms." The firm listed two of its strategic partners as New Line Cinema and Microsoft Corporation. SAG's communications office said Pisano continues to serve on that advisory board.
The SAG announcement also didn't include Pisano's tenure as a member of the board of overseers for the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, where he served with the likes of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; Karen House, president of Dow Jones & Company's international group; and Hughes Aircraft Chairman Emeritus Allen Puckett. That was in '96 when Pisano was MGM's exec v.p. The center is a regional research associate of RAND's national security research division, which conducts studies for the federal government's defense agencies. SAG said Pisano no longer serves on that board.
In July, nine SAG board members— Amy Aquino, Nat Benchley, Paul Christie, Melissa Gilbert, Eileen Henry, Anni Long, Paul Reggio, Keri Tombazian, and Cynthia Vance—signed a letter to Cooke, newly named as CEO, which stated that the board's giving Cooke the title and duties as CEO was unconstitutional. The members said the SAG national constitution provided that title to the national president, and that Cooke should "aid us in correcting this breach in long-established procedure and help protect the integrity of the constitution" by insisting on "a fully informed decision" from the board.
In responding to the nine members' challenge to his contract, Cooke said, "It would be inappropriate for me to accept the Screen Actors Guild position without clear authority to act on all the issues that are before the SAG management and organization. It seems to me that SAG should attempt to implement the recommendations made in the Towers Perrin report, particularly a board restructuring and a governance overhaul, before it seeks a leader. To search for a leader without the ability to give him or her clear CEO authority as well as a clear mandate is a recipe for failure. My wish is that there could have been more definitive discussions between the search committee negotiators and members of the full board, thus not leaving a constitutional question."
Now the SAG leadership has provided Pisano with the CEO authority, but has yet to agree on a board restructuring or governance overhaul. (See story, Page 3 of this issue.)