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Panel Discusses SAG, Studios Standoff

Ninety minutes isn’t a lot of time to talk about any complicated issue let alone one that had been brewing for about a year and a half and carries a heavy price tag like that of the current labor mess in Hollywood. Yet that’s what took place at the Arclight Theatre at the Sherman Oaks Galleria on Feb. 23 as industry insiders tried to make sense of the standoff between the Screen Actors Guild and the major studios and how it fits within the larger picture of the switch to a world of digital distribution. Not represented among the six speakers was someone from the studios although both the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains with the creative unions, and the Motion Picture Association of America, the lobbying arm, are located in the Galleria. The panel discussion was sponsored by not- for-profit Zocalo, which a year ago presented a similar program following the settlement of the Writers Guild of America strike. Panelists dissected what led to the strike and the potential for the future of online content. None certainly envisioned a stalemate between the actors union and the studios would continue a year later. The uncertainties of the current labor situation aren’t likely to go away soon. Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney and frequent commentator on Hollywood labor strife, said that uncertainty will last over the next decade as it pops up every time contract negotiations take place and as what is called new media becomes the old new media. The studios, Handel said, are reaping the whirlwind of their greed. By never changing or improving the formula used to determine residuals from home entertainment sales, he went on, the studios have created an atmosphere of mistrust among union members. Ron Ostrow, an actor and SAG member for more than two decades, added to the pessimism, saying he had no idea when the two sides might reach a deal. On Feb. 21, the union’s national board rejected what the studios called its last best offer, primarily over the proposed 2012 end date of the contract. The union prefers to have its contract expire in 2011 at the same time as the other unions to give the creative talent more leverage against the Alliance. The final vote tally was 73 percent against the offer, a number that Ostrow called “a shame” as he would have preferred to see it at 100 percent. “Nobody at SAG was jumping up and down thinking it was a good deal,” Ostrow said. It was Ostrow and fellow performer Kathryn Joosten who gave the grimmest view of the situation. They are the working actors watching as wages compress, hours get cut and the number of roles diminish with networks turning to low-cost reality programming and game shows to fill their schedules. What bears watching is the “Jay Leno experiment” in which NBC has given the talk show host an hour a night five days a week after he steps away from “Tonight Show” duties. If this primetime talk show is a hit, other networks may follow NBC’s lead and reduce the number of roles for actors even further. “Scripted material is disappearing,” Joosten said. It’s not hopeless for talent, whether they act, write, direct or look into a camera. What this panel had in common with last year’s was an optimism for getting original content before an audience without the networks or big movie studios. This won’t be easy or quick but it can be done. With talent comes power, said Dmitry Shapiro, founder and chief innovation officer of Veoh, an online outlet for studio, independent and user generated content. “If you have the time and invest in building a team around you, you have your own studio,” Shapiro said. A group of Hollywood writers did just that and launched Strike TV, which went active in the fall with a half dozen original programs. (A second such project by writers and tech entrepreneurs, Virtual Artists Inc., hasn’t progressed as far.) Even with all its unknowns, new media isn’t something to be feared and should be explored by talent and studios to find the business models and standards that work. The immediate concern remains a new contract for the actors. Without pickets outside studio gates, there’s no urgency to the matter as happened during the Writers Guild strike. Awards season is over, so there is no threat of disruption to the Academy Awards. It doesn’t appear that any of the studio heads will step in to help knock out a deal. With a new contract in place then work can focus on making digital distribution work for both sides. Staff Reporter Mark Madler can be reached at (818) 316-3126 or by e-mail at mmadler@sfvbj.com .

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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