Writers spurn studios on talks
The guild’s refusal to begin negotiations early reflects rising labor tensions in Hollywood.
By Richard Verrier
Times Staff Writer
November 28, 2006
In a development that underscores the deteriorating state of labor relations in Hollywood, the chief negotiator for the major studios Monday accused the union that represents TV and film writers of jeopardizing production by rejecting his request to enter early contract talks.
J. Nicholas Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers, said his offer to begin negotiations in January had been spurned by David Young, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, West. Instead, Counter said, Young proposed beginning talks in September, just before the writers’ contract expires Oct. 31.
“We’ve been rebuked,” Counter said.
The failure to schedule early contract talks reflects rising labor tensions in Hollywood that eventually could lead to a strike or work slowdown if they aren’t defused soon.
Writers and actors believe that they were shortchanged for years by studios during the DVD boom, and have vowed not to let it happen again as Hollywood moves toward the digital delivery of entertainment. The studios’ contract with actors expires in 2008.
Studios and writers have been haggling since last summer on when their next round of negotiations would begin. In recent years, Hollywood unions and studios have typically bargained months in advance because motion pictures and TV episodes must be shot so far ahead of time, and because top stars, writers and directors have limited availability. Studios are loath to let labor contracts run down to the wire because pulling the plug on projects is so costly if a strike does occur.
Counter said the inability to schedule early talks substantially raised the odds of a “de facto strike” similar to one that occurred in 2001. Fearing a walkout by writers and actors, studios that year raised production to frenzied levels to stockpile scripts and projects.
After deals were reached that averted strikes, so many films were sitting on shelves that producers turned the spigot off. That threw thousands of production employees out of work, some for nearly a year, before work levels started to recover.
Studio and network executives fear that a similar scenario may unfold next year, especially given the increasingly long lead time required for movies.
Beginning next year, studios and producers are expected to accelerate productions and build up an inventory of scripts just in case. They also are expected to order more unscripted TV fare such as reality shows and game shows, which could limit the number of scripted comedies and dramas needed next season.
The guild’s president, Patric Verrone, and Executive Director Young were unavailable for comment. In a statement, Young said that the guild was meeting with members on contract issues and talking with sister Hollywood guilds. It would be prepared to begin negotiations this summer, he said, well before the current contract expires.
“We fully expect that a fair agreement will be reached in our upcoming negotiation,” he said.
Writers last struck in 1988 for 22 weeks, which cost the industry about $500 million.
Tensions have been rising between the 11,000-member guild and the studios since Verrone and his supporters swept control of the guild’s board last year. Verrone vowed to step up organizing efforts in such areas as reality TV and basic cable while taking a harder line in talks with studios.
John McLean, a former CBS executive, was ousted as the union’s executive director and chief negotiator last year amid criticism that he was too close to the studios. He was replaced by Young, the union’s head of organizing.
A veteran union activist and former Teamsters official, Young has rankled Hollywood executives and some high-profile writers by dispatching members to disrupt industry panel discussions and adopting other public protest tactics traditionally used by blue-collar unions.
The guild also recently backed a strike by writers who worked on the CW network’s hit reality TV show “America’s Next Top Model.”
The Murky Line Between Agents and Managers
November 24, 2006
By Lauren Horwitch
If Hamlet had hightailed it from Elsinore to the States in search of thespian glory, he’d be pondering a different question as he mailed yet another armload of headshots and rsums to casting directors: “To sign with an agent or to hire a manager or both? That is the question.”
Unfortunately for the Danish prince and players everywhere, it’s one of those questions that leads to more questions. Making sense of the differences between agents and managers, and learning to comprehend the union and state laws that govern how each can do business are tasks that could drive anyone mad.
In California and in New York, entertainment law provides that agents, who must be bonded and licensed as talent agents with those states, are responsible for sending clients on auditions and generally presenting opportunities that will, hopefully, lead to work. A manager, who needs only a standard business license to practice, is responsible for shaping an actor’s overall career, serving as an adviser on issues from finding work to personal finances.
But, as in many aspects of the entertainment business, the law states one thing and reality dictates another. Even agents and managers can’t agree among themselves on who does what and whether both representatives are necessary to an actor. “Managers spend 90 percent of their time justifying their existence to their clients,” says Adam Lieblein, talent agent and president of Acme Talent & Literary, which has offices in New York and Los Angeles. “If you can spell ‘manager’ with the proper number of vowels and are able to fill out the one page of information at the city clerk’s office, you’re a manager. Go get a business card, and you’re a manager the next day.” In Lieblein’s opinion, only two kinds of actors need managers: children whose parents might not know how to best manage their careers, and star-level clients who need a larger staff to handle requests outside of auditions and work.
Harmony, Pretty Good Company
L.A.-based independent agent H. David Moss agrees that setting up shop as a talent manager is too easy, and thus “unregulated managers can be generally unscrupulous.” “Any and all of my clients, or anyone else, can be managers. All they need is a fax and, I’m assuming, a cell phone,” he says. “A lot of [managers] don’t have real credentials, as we know. They’ll take on a couple hundred neophytes from the Midwest, and if one of them gets a series out of their 300 or 400 naive clients, they’re kind of ahead of the game.”
But Lin Bickelmann, talent manager and CEO of Encore Artists Management in Burbank, Calif., says she has worked harmoniously and effectively with many agents over the years. “What’s paramount is the service to the client,” she says. “Collectively we can build a client’s career and maximize opportunities by having constant open dialogue.
“I have definitely heard that there are certain agents that do not like working with managers, but I’ve not encountered that so far,” she continues, noting that part of a manager’s role is to bring new clients to agents. “The agents that I work with, they rely on us heavily for new talent to do the scouting for them and they also trust our judgment that we’re going to bring someone that’s prepared.”
Steven Nash, head of Arts and Letters Management in L.A. and president of the Talent Managers Association, understands why some agents are wary of managers. “The way some managers operate, I wonder what degree of success they are experiencing,” he says.
According to Nash, managers perform services that agents who tend to have many more clients can’t perform for the individual actor: The manager protects the artistic, financial, and even spiritual interests of his or her clients. “A professional talent manager, I see as the business partner to the actor. It’s been described that the professional talent manager is like the CEO of the company that the actor owns,” says Nash, who unlike Lieblein thinks it’s necessary for actors to consult managers in the developmental stages of their careers. “I have found most successful agents today embrace the partnerships with professional talent managers. We all know in reality that until a young actor starts showing true momentum and visibility, the agent doesn’t necessarily have all the tools they need to sell them.” He adds, “Sometimes it takes a village to bring the talent to casting’s attention.”
Over the Legal Limits
A major distinction between agents and managers is that agents are more heavily regulated. The Talent Agency Act, set forth in Section 1700.23-1700.47 of the California Labor Code, and the New York State General Business Law, Article 11, govern what agents can and can’t do in those respective states. West Coast agencies must post a $50,000 surety bond to practice an amount Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger increased from $10,000 in July 2005. In New York, talent agencies fall under the umbrella of employment agencies broadly defined as “any person…who, for a fee, procures or attempts to procure… employment or engagements for persons seeking employment,” and specifically as “any theatrical employment agency.”
For more than 60 years, agencies franchised with the Screen Actors Guild were also regulated by a union contract known as the Agency Franchise Agreement. This agreement established the maximum an agent could charge in commission 10 percent and set other professional parameters between agents and SAG members.
For nearly five years, however, agencies have not been required to adhere to that contract. When the time came to renegotiate the Agency Franchise Agreement in 2002 with the Los Angeles-based Association of Talent Agents and the New York-based National Association of Talent Representatives, SAG’s board of directors proposed a new pact that made provisions for agents to invest in independent productions, ad agencies, and advertisers something managers are free to do. Though the contract was endorsed by then-SAG President Melissa Gilbert and her administration, the members voted it down by a slim margin, and the agreement expired. SAG lost all regulations it had held over its franchised agents since 1939; most important, agents were not and are still not obligated to follow Rule 16(g), also known as the SAG Agency Regulations, which provides that an agent cannot charge a SAG member more than 10 percent in commission.
In lieu of a new agreement with the actors’ union, agencies that are members of the ATA constructed the General Service Agreement, which doesn’t stipulate a set percentage of agency commissions and restricts an actor’s ability to terminate his or her contract for lack of employment. In November 2002, SAG issued an alert to members, stating GSAs “may dramatically alter the essence of your relationship with your agent…. If you sign one of these agreements, you may be signing on to conditions of representation that are significantly different than those with which you are familiar in Rule 16(g)…. If any agent asks you to sign a General Service Agreement, we advise you to immediately notify the SAG National Agency Department.”
“We don’t like them,” said SAG’s 2nd national vp and the union’s New York branch president, Paul Christie, speaking of GSAs in an October 2005 Back Stage article. According to Christie, GSAs potentially enable smaller, less established agencies to exploit their clients. “They’re taking advantage of people that in some cases don’t know better,” he said.
In the same article, two entertainment attorneys who often review contracts for their actor clients discussed a standard GSA shown to them by Back Stage. One said, “Anybody who signs this is in bad, bad shape.” ATA President Karen Stuart responded that the lawyers misinterpreted the GSA. “I think each case is facts-specific,” she said. “I would have to hear the specific facts of the case to give my opinion.”
A Wait-and-Sign Attitude
With the election of Alan Rosenberg as SAG president in September 2005, it seemed the union was on the verge of asking the ATA/NATR to head back into negotiations. Upon his election, Rosenberg said in a statement that one of his top three priorities in the coming months would be to “continue to work toward a solution to the impasse with talent agents.” Then-SAG National Executive Director Greg Hessinger promptly appointed a deputy national executive director for organizing and agent relations: John Russum, who was expected to advise SAG in future negotiations with the ATA/NATR.
A month after Rosenberg’s election, Christie told Back Stage he was eager to reopen talks with agents. “At this point in time, the ATA wants to work toward an agreement as much as we do,” he said. “It’s a sign both parties are waiting for some kind of solution to the problem. We had a really good working relationship for years, and I’d like to see us get back to that.” Christie added that plans to negotiate a new franchise agreement would be a priority at the Guild’s biannual plenary meetings in Los Angeles. And at the time, the Guild was holding a series of informational meetings to educate members on the differences between GSAs and SAG-franchised contracts.
But, more than a year later, actors and agents are still waiting. Almost as soon as Russum was hired, he and Hessinger were ousted by SAG’s Membership First-led national board, and the October 2005 and October 2006 plenary meetings ended without news of a planned sit-down with agents.
Stuart says the standard GSA has not changed since Back Stage’s previous article, and reopening talks with SAG is not on her organization’s agenda. Christie was not available for comment.
Agents are divided about whether to use GSAs, stick with SAG’s original contract for its franchised agents, or draw up contracts of their own. SAG-franchised agent Budd Moss (brother of H. David Moss) used the union’s contract while he was at Shapiro-Lichtman talent agency in L.A. “Our actors were SAG members, so we had to sign them to SAG contracts, but there are a lot of agents dealing with actors without SAG contracts, and they’re just making these deals directly,” he says. H. David Moss is also a firm believer in SAG-approved contracts. “I stuck it out with SAG and signed their contracts,” he says. “[The ATA] went their way, and I went mine. The ATA does make a lot of valid contributions to their managers that are very good.”
ATA member Lieblein, who uses GSAs, hopes the situation with SAG changes but doubts it will happen soon. “[Rosenberg] does not like agents, and I say this with all due respect. He is the only president of SAG, in the last 50 years, not to have a negotiated agreement with ATA or NATR, or even try to negotiate one,” he says. “We want a deal with SAG. It helps the small and medium-sized agencies when we have a deal. Rule 16(g), when it’s in effect, helps us because then when an actor says, ‘No, I don’t want to pay you,’ we go to SAG, there’s an arbitration, and they pay.” SAG declined to comment.
Lieblein adds that agents want a fair deal from SAG but that the Guild doesn’t make it easy. As an example, he points to a client of his who appeared in the 2000 film Cast Away. The actor worked on-set for two days, earning $1,000 per day. “We get $200 commission [10 percent of $2,000], and that’s all SAG said that we got,” Lieblein says. SAG stipulated the agent couldn’t receive commissions on the actor’s back-end money or residuals from his 48 hours on the set. “In the first year and a half, [my client] made $80,000 from that two days of work. He sent me $8,000, saying, ‘You deserve this, this is 10 percent.’ But SAG says I shouldn’t have gotten it.”
Lieblein adds that GSAs can protect agents in such a case. “Technically, they’re not worth the paper they’re printed on to protect an actor unless there’s a major dispute,” he explained. “We want to protect the commission that we earn while they’re with us. GSAs will help us do that. The union actors are taught by SAG, ‘Don’t sign them. Oh, it’s evil.'”
Managers Play Defense
Managers, on the other hand, have never been regulated by SAG. They are free to use their own contracts and set their own commissions: Nash says most managers usually earn 10 percent to 15 percent commission on all of a client’s gross income, which typically includes residuals. But while agents eye SAG as a potential opponent in drafting a new franchise agreement, West Coast managers today face a far more formidable foe: the California court system. Many are finding that although the Talent Agency Act doesn’t mention managers, they are nonetheless regulated by its rules.
According to the act, what differentiates an agent from a manager is the legal right to procure work for clients. The act, as revised in 1959, set the legal and still-standard definition of a talent agency as “a person or corporation who engages in the occupation of procuring, offering, promising, or attempting to procure employment…for an artist or artists.”
Therefore only talent agents licensed and bonded by the state can legally submit clients for auditions and draw up the contracts; it is illegal for California managers to procure work for their clients in any way. Managers are not required to be licensed in New York either, but they can procure work on an incidental basis for their signed, exclusive clients, according to the New York State General Business Law’s definition of “theatrical personal managers” as “individuals, partnerships, or corporations that place talented persons in employment, and all clients are under personal contract with the agency.”
Managers, however, say there is a huge difference between what the Talent Agency Act dictates and how managers, actors, and agents operate in the real world.
Nash says, in his role as “CEO” of his clients’ companies, he is “acutely aware, concerned, and focused on audition opportunities because that’s part of the big picture of managing an actor’s career.” That arrangement doesn’t seem to have worked for actors who invoke the TAA in lawsuits with managers who allegedly procured them work usually smaller parts that led to regular roles on TV series. If a manager is found guilty of violating the TAA by procuring work for an actor, the contract between manager and actor is considered void,releasing the actor from continuing to pay the manager commission on the booking. Throughout the past decade, big-name and no-name actors have routinely won those civil suits: Thomas Haden Church won his 1994 case against former manager Ross Brown, who was found to have procured the actor a role in a film called Stolen Moments; Arsenio Hall won a similar case in 1992 against his former managers at X Entertainment; and Sean Hayes triumphed in a 2001 case brought by his former manager Steven Vail.
Actor Rosa Blasi and her former manager Rick Siegel of Marathon Entertainment in L.A. are in the center of the most widely publicized and still unresolved case of a manager allegedly violating the TAA by getting work for his client. Siegel, who managed Blasi from 1998 to 2001, sued the actor in 2003 for unpaid commissions, breach of contract, false promise, and unfair business practices when Blasi ceased paying 15 percent to him for procuring her role as Dr. Luisa Delgado on Lifetime’s syndicated series Strong Medicine.
“[The TAA] says that no one without a license can either directly or indirectly procure for an artist. Well, what do you think a manager does?” Siegel said in a Back Stage article in August.
“It looks like one thing, but it’s not the reality,” Blasi said in the same article, explaining that Siegel was never entitled to commission from her Strong Medicine job because the show’s casting directors, Judith Holstra and Lori Sugar, got her the role. However, she said, she provided evidence of Siegel procuring or attempting to procure at least 100 other jobs for her. Blasi continued, “I had every intention to continue with Rick. [Firing him] was a very difficult decision.”
The California Labor Commission and the California Superior Court ruled in Blasi’s favor in separate 2005 hearings, but the 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed the Superior Court’s judgment in June because “Blasi produced no evidence in trial court…linking the procurement of her Strong Medicine employment contract with any illegal activity or violation of the act by Marathon.” The decision prompted the ATA, SAG, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists to send official letters to the Supreme Court, expressing support for Blasi. For managers, it was a sign that a legal precedent might be set, which could help them win similar cases.
An Occupational Hazard
The Siegel-Blasi case has generated hope among managers, as well as passionate debate about whether they should and already do procure work for their clients.
For veteran manager and “We Are the World” producer Ken Kragen who counts Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, Olivia Newton-John, and The Smothers Brothers among his former clients the answer is a resounding yes. “It’s a very touchy subject, but I will tell you that any manager worth their salt gets work for their clients,” he says. “I can’t imagine not getting work for my clients. I’ve been doing this 44 years; I’ve never had a client knock on wood go to court.”
According to Kragen, a manager’s role is to be the “eyes and ears” for client and agent, always looking for an actor’s next opportunity. At the same time, he or she is constantly thinking of the actor’s long-term career. “The manager serves a purpose that the agent can’t do,” says Kragen, who received the Talent Managers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in September. “The manager can design aspects of a career that the agent would never have time for or isn’t really trained to do.”
As an example, Kragen mentions current client Suzanne Whang, an actor who has appeared on shows such as Boston Legal and Two and a Half Men and has a recurring role on Las Vegas. Kragen helped her develop a secondary career in nonfiction TV as the host of HGTV’s popular real estate show House Hunters and its spinoff House Hunters International. Kragen parlayed Whang’s success as a personality by suggesting she write a book, Suzanne Whang’s Guide to Happy Home Buying. The manager says the book will lead to a promotional tour on the talk-show circuit, during which Whang can mention her upcoming acting roles.
But does steering Whang’s career in this way amount to procuring her work? Would Kragen, for example, violate the TAA if he booked his client an appearance on The View? Siegel pointed out that nearly everything a manager does for a client is done in the pursuit of work. “If we can’t procure, what can we do?” Siegel asked in the August Back Stage article. “Can I do rsums; can I help my client with their bios or with their black-and-whites? Can I do anything?”
“The word is ‘murky,'” says current independent manager and former agent Joey Edmonds. “It’s a hard thing. I know so many managers that do so much work, and because they have done one little thing where they got somebody a job, all of a sudden now somebody is suing them.”
Bickelmann agrees that procurement is a vital part of managers’ livelihoods. “In reality of course it happens every day,” she says. “To avoid being in violation of legislation, it’s important for managers to continue to operate within the parameters of collaboration with licensed talent agents.”
The managers interviewed by Back Stage say they haven’t been sued by clients and don’t worry about potential legal actions. However, the mere presence of such suits appears to be eroding the trust managers must have in their clients. “I think the litigiousness of people in the 21st century affects all of us. I mean, [in] how many different areas of our lives do we find that things are affected because of fear of lawsuits?” Nash opines. “I need to believe that the actor I’m going to invest my time, my wisdom, and my heart with is going to be respectful of their ethical and legal commitments within our business relationships.”
Kragen thinks it’s a matter of working with trustworthy actors. “I try to be sure that I manage good people,” he says. “And I always feel that if they’re good people, they’re never going to pull those kinds of stunts.”