In the late summer of 1999, veteran actor William Daniels huddled in a corner booth of Art's Delicatessen in Studio City with a handful of disgruntled Screen Actors Guild members who were looking for a change in leadership. After listening to their stories, he made an "impulsive" decision to run for the guild presidency himself. He won, and recently concluded a grueling six-month strike against commercial producers.
Last week, sitting in a booth 10 feet from where his campaign first began, the 73-year-old Brooklyn native talked with the Business Journal about SAG's upcoming talks with the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers and the Association of Talent Agents. A strike by SAG against those entities when its contract expires July 1 remains a possibility. This time, the union is watching the talks between producers and the Writers Guild of America, which is currently negotiating for a new contract to replace the one that expires May 1.
Question: It's been said that SAG is likely to follow any precedents set by the Writers Guild. Are you monitoring the negotiations now going on between the Writers Guild and the AMPTP?
Answer: We have two observers and a staff member at those negotiations, at the invitation of the WGA. So even though it's confidential, yes, we are watching it closely. We do have common issues, like residual payments for foreign (markets), cable and other avenues like videocassettes and DVDs. Those areas have grown tremendously for the industry and we're sharing in so little of it that it's almost insignificant. It's been happening for over 10 years. Along with the WGA, we would like our fair share. The WGA said, "We will sit down with you the AMPTP if we see that there is something to talk about and some progress to be made." Their contract expires in May. They gave (producers) a two-week window. They've extended that. So one can only draw the conclusion that they see some progress. I take heart in that.
Q: Any good signs regarding the upcoming SAG negotiations with the AMPTP?
A: In 1998, we got nothing in the residual foreign market or cable. We did a study of residuals because the industry (AMPTP) was saying we were not familiar with their numbers with their revenues, distribution costs. The residual study was financed by the industry, along with the Screen Actors Guild, AFTRA and the Directors Guild, so that we could come to some agreement as to what those numbers are. After a year's delay we were supposed to get the study results over a year ago we are now in the process of digesting that data and folding it into our proposals. I think we might say the AMPTP didn't rush through this matter. We could meet probably next month on non-residual matters, such as working conditions, children's conditions, diversity non-money issues. I heard various opinions about when (our proposal) can be on the table somewhere in May, or the very latest, the beginning of June.
Q: Is there any concern that there might be an attempt to hide profits within the study?
A: There's an old term about creative bookkeeping. That's been in place for many, many years. Everybody knows that that goes on. We're asking for data on licensing fees and back-end profits that even amongst the industry they keep to themselves. Shows hide their licensing fees and costs from each other. We have ways of checking out their results. But it will be hard for the AMPTP to fudge a lot of numbers when you've got John Wells sitting at the presidency of the Writers Guild who has three huge hit shows on the air and who knows all about what licensing fees are going down and what back-end profits are coming in. And that's why we're looking at (WGA talks) closely too to take advantage of some of their expertise and knowledge. That's what's taking so long. We don't just take the numbers and say, "Oh, thank you very much."
Q: Your predecessor Richard Masur has been very critical of your administration, charging that you destroyed a 60-year relationship with the Association of Talent Agents. Your response?
A: He also said that our commercial strike was not necessary, which I find unconscionable since our actors that work primarily in commercials filmed for cable were absolutely unable to make a living on the wages they were being given. So, yes, he has disagreed with me quite a lot. (SAG and ATA) have had a relationship, yes. And the relationship was going along fine until they asked that they be allowed to either sell 49 percent of their company or invest in 49 percent of their company to another business, from advertising agencies to production outfits. There was a conflict of interest for actors. There still is. For (agents) to become producers would be putting an actor in a position of never knowing who was looking out for his interests. There are those people in our union, and this is elected members as well as staff, who brag about the years of peace. And then there are other members who tell you, "Yes, but at what price?" Because our contracts really suck.
Q: Have you had any backlash from the studios since you've been president?
A: Well, I haven't worked. Nobody's asked me to work, not since the series ("Boy Meets World") was over, which is a year now. It doesn't bother me, but there it is. Actors don't retire, the phone just stops ringing. I'm not worried about paying my rent. To me, (SAG) was something I could do for my fellow actors since I'm one of the lucky ones. When I took (the presidency) I was doing a series "Boy Meets World" and I suspected that since it was in its seventh year, it probably wouldn't go on. But I'm glad it didn't, because I would never have been able to do this job and a series like that, day in and day out.
Q: There seems to be a feeling among many people that a strike is inevitable. Do you agree?
A: No, not at all. That has come from the industry. The Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA have never spoken about a strike or the inevitability of a strike. All we've talked about is sitting down to some fair collective bargaining and making a deal. There are (industry) people who reach out to you names that I can't really tell you about who indicate that the industry is aware of adjustments that have to be made in the foreign market. I'm quite certain there is a deal to be made. So I'm very optimistic about it.
Q: Do you think the ability to broadcast reality shows such as "Survivor" gives the studios and networks a bargaining advantage?
A: If they want to program their whole evening on reality shows, I wish them luck because they're going to need it.
Q: Any other strategies for the negotiations?
A: We have a contract campaign committee whose job it is to present to the public and to our membership what the issues are and how fair the issues are. We have to get that out. One of the problems with the commercial contract was that everybody in America thinks that actors are riding around in limousines and have three homes and are stars. But those people that they read about in the papers amount to less than 1 percent of our union. The whole perception is, "What are actors bellyaching about?" Well, these guys were losing their homes, they were losing their cars, they were not being able to put food on the table. Another thing we learned in the last strike (against commercial producers) was to reach out to our fellow unions, who were very helpful to us in suggesting strategies.
Q: Like what?
A: One of the first things the AFL-CIO said to us is, "You've got to find out who's calling the shots of the Joint Policy Committee that was behind the guys that we saw at the table. These (negotiators) here are just paid to say no." We never knew who the JPC was. It was kept a big secret. But we figured that they were probably the most powerful companies that advertised. And we picked out probably one of the biggest ones Proctor & Gamble and we went ahead and threatened to boycott. Well, that ended it right there.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.