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Union Roundup – January 2009

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And so, the first UR column of the Obama Administration is written.
Are we out of the Depression yet? Is the biosphere not headed toward a pernicious feedback loop where warming climate begets the release of more greenhouse gases, and more warming? Is the necessary psychology that ultimately backs currencies—and economies—hunky dory now? Has peace broken out? Yes? No? Next month?
Okay, we make light of a still admittedly… sobering world situation. But, as noted previously in this space, it does feel good to have someone who isn’t thoroughly deluded sitting in the White House—for those of you still taken with the “top down” school of leadership, in terms of Getting Things Done (and taken, or otherwise, what emanates from that particular oval-shaped office does wind up affecting us all).
One of the best lines about the recently concluded inaugural euphoria—and more complex feelings—came from writer David Sirota, who said “it’s only natural to experience a twinge of anxiety while celebrating at the edge of an abyss.”
Other people wrestling with the notion of leadership—who should have it, what it means—and the abyss, are the members of the Screen Actors Guild, who are embroiled in some partisan wrasslin’ of their own right now, focused on the narrow-ish split between their “moderate” (and less strike-prone) camps, and the more, well, “militant” wing, for want of a better word, still repped by SAG president Alan Rosenberg.
The imbroglio comes as Hollywood—we mean this in the broad metaphoric sense, as opposed to the literal geographic locale—awaits the “is you or is you ain’t” moment with the actors union, on the question of whether they are going to strike, or break some kind of bread with the producers.
By mid-January, the moderates in SAG seemed to have gained the upper hand, and the general reports were that the steam went out of any kind of impetus for a strike. And while they were at it, the rumors went, the thespians were going to boot their negotiator Doug Allen, for making such a seeming hash of things.
But then came the counter-spin, presumably from the “hold fast” group, saying oh no no, Allen is staying (though others have accused the other “Alan” of having a hand in keeping him on). In any case, the result, as other commentators have noted, is that SAG is currently in a bitter battle with itself, rather than with the producers.
Historians may eventually take this as just another sign of Economic Collapse: allies and friends often turn on each other in times of panic and distress. But for those of us in Tinseltown, where “history” tends to mean a film like Gladiator, there’s some question of whether everyone is going to get back to some semblance of full-time work.
You can feel that growing fission in the comments section of the particularly intriguing SAG Watch website—backed by some anonymous presumably-actors who dare not say their names—and its perhaps even more intriguing “Doug Allen Death Watch” section. Reading the blogposts there one is once again reminded that SAG’s effort to try and stand against the corporate tide has devolved into an internecine skullduggery, of the “he said, she said” variety, with all kinds of tea leaves being desperately read (did an actual majority of SAG board members sign that “board majority” statement!?, and so on).
That said, the comments section provides a pretty good up-to-the-moment snapshot of what members are thinking. One, calling him/herself simply “SAGSupporter,” says this:
“California has the highest foreclosure rate in the country, the economy is in shambles… and right now one of the biggest industries is at a standstill. And yet no one seems to care. That’s what makes no sense. SAG leaders, government… those with the most power in all of this just don’t care as we all suffer and lose everything… Sign the petition and start demanding the individuals responsible for breaking the rules be punished, then maybe we can finally see some movement for the first time in nearly eight months.”
And later in the same thread, this cogent overview from a certain “Dr. Giggles”: “When SAG was founded there was no TV, there was no videotape, there was no digital, and voice over was only on radio… and definitely no internet/new media. Over the years SAG has chosen to organize those fields—and take contracts from AFTRA (formerly AFRA). And now that our union encompasses all that, you’re saying all those actors—and all their dues paid to SAG—don’t count… because that was not the original vision? By that statement, you have just taken yourself out of the picture because you’re in New York. Do want your career ignored because you don’t live in L.A.? I would hope not.”
This came as part of a debate on whether N.Y. SAG board members, pushing—it is presumed—for a kind of ideological purity, really have the best interests of L.A. membership at heart. There were voices on both sides of that fence, but producers, one might think, are laughing all the way to the bank.
Or would be, if they were able to greenlight a film in the present climate.
On the production side, my colleague John Horn has a very astute analysis in the Los Angeles Times’ award-season “The Envelope” section, about the “meaning” of this year’s Oscar nominees, especially in light of the fact they tack away, more or less, from this year’s big box office winners (i.e., no Best Picture nod for The Dark Knight). He writes that “like almost every American business, Hollywood is retrenching, cutting not only staff but also its commitment to movies that aren’t based on comic books, familiar franchises and recognizable pop culture characters with built-in sales hooks.”
Everyone, it seems, is trying to turn over that last available buck. Except that even if the producers here succeed, and vanquish pesky new union demands to boot, who will be left to notice?
Horn also writes that “the movie studios are all part of global conglomerates. And although they may contribute only a few percentage points of income to the parent company’s bottom line, the studios are held to rigid overhead and profit projections, which in turn have made highbrow dramas—particularly those dwelling on difficult subjects—more of a gamble than ever before.”
The piece asks whether nominations for films like Slumdog Millionaire can somehow reverse this trend, or whether—by implication—during this Depression we’ll only get the Busby Berkeley distraction stuff, and rarely the Grapes of Wrath observations.
When studios exist as mere divisions of larger, generally faltering, corporate endeavors, they may have—when push comes to shove (as it has)—less resiliency than when they only answered to themselves. And directly to their workers.
Now, no one—on either side of the fence, it seems—is really answerable to anyone. And people sit around, idled, wondering where the next job is coming from.

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