Thursday, 1 May 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #89: Strike Two?

The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) has nixed the initial demands of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) after 13 days of negotiations and put Hollywood in a de-facto strike situation.

Now some are saying that the AMPTP are acting in bad faith, since they don't seem to be unwilling to compromise, but from a strategic point of view they have no reason to negotiate in good faith.

You see in a classical negotiation Side A makes an opening proposal that Side B finds completely unreasonable. Side B traditionally responds with a counter-proposal that's equally unreasonable. They then make more proposal and counter-proposals, whittling off the unreasonable bits until a sane, sensible, and mutually beneficial common ground is found.

Now that little formula only works in a perfect world, where both sides are in positions of equal strength and neither is looking to put the royal screws to the other.

In the real world, where we happen to live, these situations are often wildly lopsided, with one side operating from a position of strength, the other weakness, and one side, or both, looking to do the royal screw-job on the other. That's what we're seeing with the negotiations between SAG and the AMPTP.

The AMPTP is in a position of strength, SAG is in a position of weakness. Also the AMPTP really, really wants to screw SAG, which makes the situation even worse for SAG.
SAG's position was weakened, and the AMPTP strengthened by three key factors:

1. THE WRITER'S STRIKE: The work stoppage caused by the recent WGA strike forced SAG's rank and file membership to take a huge hit in the proverbial bank accounts. This has put them in a weakened financial state and less able to handle a prolonged strike. Plus the average workaday actor who plays "Corpse #3" in an episode of CSI, does not have the advantage of a large wealthy parent corporation to keep their head above water.

2. THE AFTRA FEUD: The sudden split with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists was a big blow to both unions. United they could have put up a much stronger fight against the AMPTP, but apart, they are weak and alone. Plus the very public split, and the apparent surprise at it on the part of SAG leadership is also seen as a sign of weakness.

3. QUALIFIED VOTING: As if splitting with a sister union wasn't enough an open bleeding wound in the very body of the union was much, much worse. A certain faction of SAG members felt that the majority of SAG members needed to economically "qualify" in order to vote on issues that affect them more directly than the bigger name actors who have agents, managers, accountants, and attorneys to look after their interests.

This was the tactical equivalent of pouring blood in a shark tank before going for a swim in it.
So, with the SAG in such a weakened condition, things have gone from bad to worse, and we're probably going to be looking at yet another strike paralysing the entertainment industry.

And the main reason for this is because SAG viewed this as just a negotiation, and not what it really is, a state of economic war.

My advice is that anyone in a position of power at SAG should either read, or listen to a nice audio-book of Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Not the Wesley Snipes movie, but the actual treatise on strategy and tactics to realize what needed to be done. Take a look at this important little maxim:
If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will fight without danger in battles.

If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.

If you
know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.
SAG went into this battle neither knowing themselves or their enemy.

The fact that they did not know themselves is obvious because the situations with AFTRA and qualified voting were literally years in the brewing. They should have
been handled privately, and the causes of the troubles effectively neutralized months, if not years before this contract reached its deadline.

They should have also made preparations in the years leading up to this negotiation, building a war chest to help members through any potential labour trouble, and made sure that they had a unified front against their enemy.

But they didn't.

And that was beca
use they didn't know their enemy.

Now the common analogy is to compare the AMPTP with sharks, but that's not entirely accurate. Sharks are remorseless, thoughtless, killing machines that consume all that get in their way, but they also have to be constantly moving forward. Forward motion requires forward thinking, and that's actually quite rare in Hollywood.

A more accurate analogy would be a cat.

Not a fat, contented tabby cat, but a lean, sociopathic Siamese. The kind of cat that, though it's ancestors have been pampered house-pets for several millennia, still thinks it's king of the jungle.

The cat owes allegiance to nothing but its own convenience and comfort. Compassion, sincerity and loyalty are not virtues in its ethical universe, but weaknesses. Plus it's not above sadistically playing with its mousy prey before leaping in for the final kill.

However, it can also be lazy. Epically lazy.

Where the shark always has to be doing something in order to justify its existence, the can is perfectly willing to do nothing, if it's in its interests to do nothing.

And that's all the AMPTP has to do.


It can just step back and watch a divided and unprepared SAG tear itself apart from the inside when the pay cheques stop coming in. Then all it has to do is pounce on SAG's battered remains and have a good nosh.

There will probably be a strike. It could last all summer, but when the bills start piling up, and barring some huge tactical blunder by the AMPTP, SAG will most likely be forced to take a deal it doesn't want, just to pay for groceries.

And that's because the AMPTP seems to know themselves as well as their enemies.

Which is just too bad.

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