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Hack WatchNewsletter | October 20, 2023

Hollywood Bosses Fight SAG-AFTRA With PR Flacks’ Help

LaborMedia AccountabilityRevolving Door
Hollywood Bosses Fight SAG-AFTRA With PR Flacks’ Help

This article originally appeared in Hack Watch, our weekly newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

In case you’d forgotten, Hollywood is still on strike.

Though the Writers Guild of America (WGA) won its historic 148-day walkout for better compensation and working conditions, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) remains on strike. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the trade association representing the major Hollywood Studios, abruptly broke off negotiations with the 160,000-member actors guild on October 11th, just nine days after negotiations began (and 89 days after the strike began). As the SAG-AFTRA strike nears its 100th day, talks between the two parties have yet to resume (the AMPTP’s hand has notably been strengthened by California Governor Gavin Newsom’s cowardly decision to veto a SAG-AFTRA-endorsed bill making striking workers eligible for unemployment benefits).

As Alex Press has detailed in an excellent piece for Jacobin, SAG-AFTRA is on strike for many of the same reasons the WGA was, including fair compensation for streaming content and robust protections for studio use of artificial intelligence (AI). Striking actors have taken issue with how studio bosses (who are personally raking in millions) have refused to disclose streaming viewership data and use outdated formulas to cheat them out of streaming residuals (which pay pennies compared to what guild members earn from home video and network TV syndication). Similarly, higher upfront minimum pay is a core demand for SAG-AFTRA members, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat as inflation has gobbled up their wages and made working a second or third job outside the industry a necessity. 

SAG-AFTRA members are also alarmed by how studios plan to use AI technology to rob them of their careers. According to chief union negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the AMPTP has argued that studios should be permitted to digitally scan and own the likeness of background performers (and use their likenesses in perpetuity for any project), all for one day’s pay. This could kill what has long been a way for struggling actors to land dependable work as they try to stay afloat and land their big break (consider the career trajectories of former extras Leonardo DiCaprio, Renee Zellweger, and Channing Tatum, among others). And replacing extras with AI isn’t some far-off dystopian reality—Disney is already using uncanny valley digital extras to fill actors’ shoes.

These demands are hardly frivolous complaints from well-off Hollywood elites, despite what a lot of the spin around the story implies. In fact, the overwhelming majority of SAG-AFTRA members aren’t millionaire A-listers. According to SAG-AFTRA’s chief economist, only 7% of the guild’s actors and performers earn $80,000 or more per year, and only 14% of members make the $26,470 annually needed to qualify for health coverage. That puts 86% of SAG-AFTRA’s members only slightly above the federal poverty line ($14,580), far below the median household income level both nationally ($74,580) and in Los Angeles ($69,778), and far, far below what you’d need to earn to afford the average one-bedroom apartment in the city ($125,200). 

But you would barely know this by reading coverage of the strike in the Hollywood trade publications. As my colleague Henry Burke wrote earlier this year, outlets like Variety and Deadline have served as propaganda arms of studio bosses during Hollywood’s strikes, routinely parroting AMPTP talking points and providing anonymous cover to executives threatening to “let things drag on until union members start losing their apartments.” In late August, the AMPTP hired the Levinson Group, a DC-based crisis PR firm, to further advance its reputation laundering campaign.

Levinson’s staff roster is a menagerie of well-connected figures from the worlds of media and politics, including:

  • Molly Levinson, CEO and Founder: An eight-year veteran former producer and political director for CNN and CBS who lives in a $3.3 million luxury D.C. home
  • Matt McKenna, Senior Advisor: A former comms director for Sen. Jon Tester (2006-07), ex-spokesperson for the Office of Former President Bill Clinton (2007-15), former North America Head of Comms for Uber, and Co-Founder of Greenbrier Public Relations Firm (now part of ex-Obama advisor Jim Messina’s consulting firm). 
  • Dustin “Dusty” Brandenburg, Chief of Staff: A former operations director to Rep. Keith Ellison (2008-15), former executive assistant to Rep. Maxine Waters (2016-17), and former director of operations for the Senate Rules Committee under Senator Amy Klobuchar (2019-22).
  • Abbie McDonough, Senior Managing Director: A former press secretary and comms director for Rep. Paul Kanjorski (2007-10), Sen. Jay Rockefeller (2011-13), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (2013-19), and DC Attorney General Karl Racine (2021-22). 
  • Michael Crittenden, Senior Managing Director: A former staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal (2007-15) and former executive for corporate lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs (2015-22). 
  • Angela Hoague, Managing Director: A former executive assistant to the FDA Commissioner (2016-18) and FDA press officer (2008-15) who revolved out to an unnamed biotechnology company in between her two government jobs. 
  • Katherine Bosley, Managing Director: A former paralegal for the DOJ’s Criminal Division (2014-17) and former consultant for consulting firm Management Strategies (2017-18), which advised the DOJ during Bosley’s stint at the firm. 
  • Kylie Munnelly, Managing Director: A former producer for CNBC’s Mad Money with Jim Cramer (2015-18).
  • Zak Sawyer, Director: A former legislative correspondent for Sen. Joe Donnelly (2016-18) and former assistant director for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (2014-16).
  • Harrison Wollman, Director: A former comms advisor and press secretary for former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (2017-22) and current Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass (2022-23) whose “deep, valuable L.A. roots” were touted by Levinson in a May 2023 hiring announcement

With their legion of revolving-door hires, the Levinson Group has done “crisis management” PR for some of the most powerful and scandal-plagued clients imaginable, including: 

  • Theranos Fraudster Elizabeth Holmes: Levinson worked on behalf of the legal team for now-imprisoned Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who was convicted of federal fraud charges after falsely claiming to have invented a finger prick blood-testing machine. 
  • Live Nation/Ticketmaster: According to communications industry publication PRovoke media, Levinson has taken on monopoly Live Nation/Ticketmaster as a client following the widespread criticism of the company’s handling of Taylor Swift ticket sales.
  • Podesta Group: The now-shuttered lobbying firm hired Levinson in 2017, when the Podesta Group was named in the Mueller Investigation for unregistered lobbying on behalf of pro-Russian former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. 
  • Better Future Forward: Student lender Better Future Forward hired Levinson in 2018 to promote its predatory income-share agreement products. In 2021, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a consent order against Better Future Forward for misleading borrowers about its product and failing to comply with federal consumer protection laws. 
  • Imerys Talc: Levinson represented talc mining company Imerys Talc in its 2019 Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings, which were triggered by the firm facing over 14,000 personal injury claims for supplying talc to Johnson & Johnson’s cancerous baby powder products.

Levinson’s hiring has been slammed by SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher, who has correctly noted that studio bosses are “spending all kinds of money to make themselves look better” instead of negotiating in good faith. Actor Kal Penn, who worked alongside several Levinson underlings during his stint in the Obama White House, has called out Molly Levinson as “being on the wrong side of history” and noted her hiring as clear evidence that SAG-AFTRA is winning the PR war. 

For proof that Penn is right, you can look to recent history: during the 2008 writers strike, the AMPTP hired Clinton comms veterans Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane to spin for them against massive public support for the WGA. Or you can look at even more recent polling: an August Gallup poll found that 67% of Americans supported SAG-AFTRA members on strike, compared to just 24% support for the AMPTP. 

But perhaps the strongest confirmation that the studios (and Levinson) know they are losing is their desperate attempts to smear SAG-AFTRA’s proposal as unreasonable. Take streaming residuals, for example. To fairly compensate actors for high-viewership streaming content, the union has floated a performance-based revenue sharing plan that would cost studios just 57 cents per subscriber per year. The AMPTP has gone ballistic at this proposal (because it would require them to finally share streaming viewership data), blasting it in an October 12th press statement as an “untenable economic burden” that would cost the studios more than $800 million per year. Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, one of the AMPTP’s “Gang of Four” contract negotiators, took to Bloomberg’s Screentime conference stage that same day to smear the proposal as a “levy on subscribers.” 

In reality, the AMPTP’s claims are nothing more than PR spin, courtesy of the Levinson Group. As SAG-AFTRA noted in a subsequent rebuttal press statement, the AMPTP’s $800 million price tag estimate was classic Hollywood accounting – overstating the plan’s actual cost by a jaw-dropping 60%. In an interview with Deadline, SAG-AFTRA’s Duncan Crabtree-Ireland responded to Sarandos’ “levy” claim directly, calling it “preposterous” to say that workers being fairly compensated for their work amounted to a tax. Nonetheless, Deadline and other management-friendly outlets have led with the studios’ framing of events in their coverage of the negotiations breakdown, relegating the guild’s fact-check of the AMPTP’s lies to mid-article paragraphs and continuing to grant studio bosses anonymous cover to trash SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher

The cost of SAG-AFTRA’s proposal is also worth examining in context (something the industry trades do shockingly little of!). The $500 million annual price-tag is an industry-wide number that breaks down into a much lower per-studio estimated cost. If you average out this number across the eight largest studios (as the WGA similarly did), you arrive at a per-studio cost of $62.5 million (the average Hollywood CEO earned over half that number in combined salary, stocks, and other compensation in 2022). $62.5 million is also pocket change for studios: it’s 0.08% of Disney’s $82.7 billion 2022 revenue, .05% of NBC Universal’s $121.4 billion, and 0.2% of Netflix’s $31.6 billion. Even if you take the industry-wide $500 million number, the entire cost of SAG-AFTRA’s proposal is equal to the highest expected strike-related earnings losses for Warner Bros. Discovery alone. Studios, in other words, are willing to bear the considerably larger economic loss of a prolonged strike rather than end it tomorrow by accepting a considerably less costly proposal, because the latter option would compromise their total control over streaming data. 

Instead of publishing this sort of insightful number-crunching for their readers, the Hollywood trades are continuing to carry water for studio bosses and the Levinson Group. Just yesterday, Deadline published an “EXCLUSIVE” scoop hyping a $150 million proposal by George Clooney and other top-earning actors to “end the strike stalemate.” Their solution? Eliminate the union’s $1 million cap on dues and let acting’s A-listers—not the studios—meet the guild’s rank-and-file’s needs. 

In a statement issued last night, SAG-AFTRA leadership said that Clooney’s proposal, while well-intentioned, “had no bearing on this present contract or even as a subject of collective bargaining” and was “prohibited by federal labor law, [as SAG-AFTRA’s] pension and health plans are funded exclusively from employer contributions.” Alluding to the minuscule scale of Clooney’s plan compared to SAG-AFTRA’s overall contract proposal, the guild’s negotiating committee warned studio bosses against “using the good will of member emissaries to distract” from a fair contract. A viral Twitter parody account of AMPTP president Carol Lombardini summed it up perfectly: “this is like when all the celebs sang “imagine” but somehow it’s even more beautiful when they’re trying to bail out billionaires.” 

It’s unlikely that the Hollywood press will suddenly change its ways and stop peddling Levinson-curated AMPTP talking points, but as I’ve written for this newsletter before, that may not even matter. When it came to the writers’ strike, all the money and revolving-door talent in the world was no match for social media-savvy writers and a parody Twitter account. And if the strong continued public support for SAG-AFTRA is any indication, Molly Levinson’s crack team of highly-paid PR professionals aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. When this strike also ends with a fair contract, the Levinson Group will be remembered not only as sellouts like Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, but as incompetent sellouts. 

If the actors can apply the writers’ winning playbook to their own strike, and the other Hollywood unions remain united in reciprocal solidarity with SAG-AFTRA, they will not only secure a fair deal—they will send a powerful message to the billionaire class that they cannot have it all. SAG-AFTRA’s fight is not some trivial dispute between Hollywood elites, as the studios and their flacks would have you believe. It is an expression of the same economic pain caused by corporate greed and shared by millions of workers across the country, from Youngstown to Tinseltown.

Their fight is our fight, and we have their backs. 

IMAGE: “SAG-AFTRA Picket X” is available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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