It’s Become A Game of Chicken For Fran. She’s Got The Chops To Win, Right?

We’re a week from Halloween, a month from Thanksgiving, and two months from Christmas, and Fran Drescher’s still fighting.

With her SAG-AFTRA negotiating team set to resume discussions later today with the so-called Gang of Four at AMPTP, and since SAG-AFTRA membership is still prohibited from promoting their actual work, the main reason we saw of more of Mick Jagger on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE this past weekend than, say, Robert DeNiro, Drescher has been on a bit of a publicity tour herself of late, with the Left Angeles TIMES doing a laudatory profile on her and DEADLINE giving her the chance to write a guest column, making her the second industry person who once rode the Q44 Main Street bus to downtown Flushing to have the chance to do so this month.

Back when her union joined writers on the picket line at the outset of summer, I wrote about how I’ve known about Fran’s tenacity long before the rest of the world did.  I arguably spent too much time focusing on how she was able to get the less fattening version of coveted kosher chicken was exemplary.  In hindsight, perhaps it was a bit too irrelevant.  That was a long time ago, and, frankly, even the broasted chicken was filled with grease (yummy when freshly cooked, though) and clearly Fran spent way more time in a gym that I did (still does, I suspect).

Now that we’ve seen her at work, it appears that she’s learned far more from her Hollywood and life experiences and, so far, she’s earned the respect and trust of her constituents by landslide acclimation.  More than 80 percent of the 160,000 members she leads voted for her to continue as union president.  But as the TIMES’ Meg James and Wendy Lee cautioned even as they bestowed they title of a modern-day “Norma Rae.on her they cautioned that as these negotiations enter a second and perhaps even more crucial 100 days than the first 100 were, her challenges are mounting:

(A)s SAG-AFTRA members mark 100 days on strike, the unlikely champion of the underdog finds herself in a tough position.

Actors and crew members, some who have burned through their savings, are desperate to return to work. A week ago, the very CEOs whom Drescher publicly upbraided as being “greedy,” suggesting one was an “ignoramus,” hit pause on the negotiations — dashing hopes for a feel-good October ending to Hollywood’s historic labor unrest that has idled TV and movie production since last spring.

A-list actors, including George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Scarlett Johansson, recently approached SAG-AFTRA leaders to discuss ways to resolve the strike. The stars proposed eliminating the current $1-million cap on SAG-AFTRA membership dues to raise funds for struggling actors. But the proposal, according to the guild, wouldn’t resolve the contract standoff with the studios.

Drescher continues to cite what she considers to be existential issues for her membership as her driving forces, as she explained in her DEADLINE piece:

The members of SAG-AFTRA are in a David-and-Goliath, righteous fight for the future of our profession and our industry. 

SAG-AFTRA members have been systematically squeezed out of their ability to make a living due to a streaming model that reduces the number of episodes in a season by two-thirds and the number of seasons by two-thirds, while completely cutting off the syndication tail.

This dramatic compression of work opportunities coupled with inadequate compensation has had a devastating effect on the working actors and journeyman actors who bring movies and television shows to life. It has compromised their ability to pay their rent, put food on the table and clothes on their children’s backs.

David Zaslav, Ted Sarandos, Donna Langley & Bob Iger

What they fail to realize is that my members are living in the dystopia that streaming services have created for those who make their living in the entertainment industry. These working actors are not flying on private jets or sailing on personal yachts. Quite the opposite, in fact, with 86% of our 160,000 members unable to meet the $26,474 threshold to even qualify for health benefits.

This is unsustainable.

The pride of being a working actor who can make a living as a professional has become tarnished, a faded memory from the good old days of linear television.

And yes, Drescher can speak in vivid detail to how well linear television once worked for her.  THE NANNY made an awful lot of money for her–and still does for the ever-tenacious folks at Sony who continue to sell the show 30 years later to multiple platforms.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t around for that show.  But I did work with Fran on her most recent linear television gig, the 2020 mid-season NBC sitcom INDEBTED.  Ostensibly a co-star but far and away the most recognizable name in its cast, she was indefatiguable in her desire and nearly ubiquitous in its promotion.  But a show that centered around the enabling of lovable but fiscally foolish parents by their upwardly mobile children was simply not something that connected with most people, even people in Drescher’s age bracket and who may have made some bad choices of their own along the way (funny, I can’t seem to think of anyone specific who might fit that bill).  

I saw the research in detail.  I suffered through several interminable audience tapings that lasted deep into the night, which any showrunner will concede is a sign of trouble.  I knew darn well this was no NANNY; hell, it wasn’t even DR. KEN.  Fran didn’t want to hear any of it, and remained outwardly upbeat even as the tape nights wore on and her less mature co-stars became even more diva-like and mistake-prone.

And if you don’t quite remember the show, you’re forgiven.  Its run was smack dab in the middle of the pandemic’s outbreak, and it inherited the lowest-rated time slot of any regularly scheduled comedy on any broadcast network.  And even as viewing levels rose with more people at home, its audience continued to decline.  By the time the show departed in early May, less than 1.5 million people were watching.  Appropriately, the last episode’s storyline was about a shiva.

That’s how the world of TV works these days.  And I’m personally a little concerned that the same kind of tenacity and expectations for common sense and fair play to prevail in the same manner that has worked for her in staring down network executives and cancer may not quite be as successful with the Gang of Four and their advisors.

James and Lee cited this viewpoint by one esteemed observer:

Rich Greenfield, a partner and media and technology analyst at LightShed Partners, called the actors’ request “absurd.”

“They want to charge based on subscribers regardless of the revenue or profit … when they are already getting paid upfront … regardless of whether [the] streaming content is successful,” Greenfield said.

Yet Drescher remains undaunted and defiant:

My members need something significant in terms of compensation specifically in streaming video-on-demand,” she said. “I will not cave and I will not let them down, no matter what vitriol or intimidation tactics the companies choose to throw at me.”

Drescher is owning to the utliity of “Queens Logic”, intrinic beliefs in being loyal to those you love chronciled in a 1991 film of the same name that featured some pretty talented SAG-AFTRA members.     She also is calling on the kind of internal strength and fortitude that has aided her in life and hoping that it’s applicable:

Drescher brings an unconventional style to the labor fight…the sitcom star has approached negotiations with a goal of encouraging others to bring out the best in themselves.  She carries a heart-shaped plush toy with a smiley face — a gift from an 11-year-old fan — and props it on the negotiating table, where she sits opposite Iger.  Drescher offers Buddhist incantations, and during one tense session, she instructed various negotiators to “dial it down.” Drescher, 66, then shared a poignant story about a conversation she’d had with her 94-year-old father.

But QUEENS LOGIC, despite its formidable cast, was a bomb.  And the SAG-AFTRA strike has lasted longer than INDEBTED.

I want to believe that what worked back in the 90s still can.  I want to believe that Drescher’s patience and determination will pay off.  She’s spot on in her belief that actors deserve more.  But it’s also clear that Greenfield’s observation isn’t incorrect, either, and given the performance art of Crying Teddy last week, not to mention the previous histrionics of Yosemite and AIger, I am dubious that this particular game of chicken may not yield the kind of results Drescher is hoping for.

I’d offer that finding a similar, statistically-based formula for fair compensation, akin to the writers’ solution, might be a start.  Lord knows it’s imperfect, and Drescher’s lament about data transparency is especially resonant:

Most streaming services also do not release detailed viewership data — leaving artists in the dark as to whether they are being properly paid (the WGA’s deal with the studios allows the guild to access streaming viewership data on a confidential basis).

“The members are suffocating in this vacuum-sealed box,” Drescher said.

Indeed, we all need more information, and I would applaud SAG-AFTRA for using what they believe is their leverage to force AMPTP to provide more of it.  There’s more than enough of us out there to help you make sense of it, Fran.  A lot of us have had to fight for our chicken at one time or another, too.

Good luck, Norma Rae.  Close this deal once and for all.  Just like you did Mr. Sheffield.

Until next time…

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