Tuesday, December 10, 2013

"Ethics," talent managers and SAG-AFTRA ... A tale of two very different perspectives ...

I was part of the 70 or so managers who were invited to lunch and chat with the legal leadership of SAG-AFTRA yesterday, in Los Angeles, about a document, perhaps more a “program,” that aims for the first time in the history of SAG, AFTRA and now SAG-AFTRA, to officially acknowledge the role played and the contributions made to a union actor’s career by their talent manger.

Titled “SAG-AFTRA Personal Manager Code of Ethics and Conduct,” the proposal, six years in the making under the leadership of Zino Macaluso, SAG-AFTRA National Director/Senior Counsel, Agency Relations, is targeted to both benefit and protect both union actors and the managers who represent them.

It was a lively exchange, to say the least. Many managers couldn’t seem to get out of their own way long enough to see this from all sides. I say “all sides” because as in any mission to understand this proposal and explore how this might play itself out in the real world, there is “their” side, “our” side and the real, objective perspective behind the proposal.

These are “layered” issues, to put it mildly. Let’s look at the one key issue that was at the heart of those many managers who spoke up at the meeting: Procuring work for clients.

As you probably already know, state law prohibits California and New York-based talent managers from seeking work and negotiating deals for their clients; this domain is left, legally speaking, to state-licensed talent agents and agencies. Long time talent manager Rick Siegel has been at the forefront of the more than decade-long legal battle to undo this law, which, depending on which side of the issue you fall, has everything or nothing to do with the union’s proposed code. In the meantime, how many of us managers break the law every day? I think you know the answer.

The point that I made at the meeting was that in this landscape, any actor who has retained the services of a talent manager to work for them in the development and growth of their career not only wants, but expects their manager to get the Breakdowns, read and evaluate the Breakdowns, and then submit them for everything they are right for, in addition to the traditional work we do and services we provide. There isn’t an actor I have met who has ever claimed otherwise.

Further, in this new landscape where there are many more actors seeking representation than there are agents to sign them, personal managers have stepped up to the plate to fill that void, representing both union and not-yet-in-the-union actors.

No one is born with a union card attached to their birth certificate, at least not yet. New talent has to learn their craft and earn the early credits doing actual, professional work – and to the dismay of many pro-union advocates, that early career work will be in the non-union arena.

As I see it, there are two key points that make the current work-in-progress SAG-AFTRA manager’s code document impossible for any legitimate manager to sign. First is the commitment that we will not procure work for clients and, second, that we will not represent non-union clients.

Without the ability for us to procure work for our clients, the truth is that our clients will have no need for us, thus rendering our businesses out-of-business.

I have two thoughts on this matter. We could sign the document and proceed with business-as-usual anyway, thus mocking the intent of any “code of ethics and conduct” – or we can work to address this rub between the law and the reality of our business models.

The law may be “the law,” but none of us managers, as far as I know, ever signed a document with the states of California or New York proclaiming that we would obey it. That would be an outright lie, which is why managers cannot sign a SAG-AFTRA agreement barring them from the same activity.

The issue regarding the representation of non-union actors is a secondary matter. Our goal is to turn our not-yet-union clients into union actors, which is the talent “development” process in action.

This document presented by SAG-AFTRA is/will be voluntary. Managers can either sign it or not sign it. But it seems that while the intent is honorable, the devil remains in the details. There were no members of the talent management community involved in the creation and drafting of this code, which is too bad. But it’s not too late – and as this process moves forward, I have volunteered to participate in a smaller “break out” group to address the issues raised by managers in an attempt to carve out a code that managers would be happy to support – and benefit from signing.

I have a call to action to every union actor who reads this.

1) If you have not yet read the draft of this code, get a copy from SAG-AFTRA and do so. 2) If you have a manager, do you want your manager to (continue to) submit you for work and then negotiate on your behalf for work you book (whether or not you have an agent – on in association with your agent)? 3) Would you have the need for a manager if that person could not procure work or negotiate for you?

I urge you to please make your voices and your opinions heard. We have a grand opportunity to embrace the movement and get this right, for professional talent managers and the actors we represent.

I welcome your comments here, but, more importantly, let your union officials know how you feel about this.

I am eager to see if together we can make this work …