As a union leader in the NFL, Doug Allen was known for the same hit-before-you’re-hit mind-set that he displayed on the football field.
The former linebacker for the Buffalo Bills has favored a similar style since touching down in Hollywood more than a year ago as the executive director and chief negotiator for the Screen Actors Guild. Allen has butted heads with A-list actors, the guild’s own New York branch, its sister union and powerful agents.
The spats have made him a polarizing figure in the 120,000-member SAG, heightening long-standing tensions between hard-liners and moderates within the notoriously fractious union on the eve of key contract negotiations with studios.
Supporters say Allen, 56, brings a welcome toughness in contrast to former leaders who were perceived as overly accommodating to the Hollywood establishment. Detractors say he’s a bully who picks needless fights that have only distracted the union.
The question now is whether his bare-knuckle approach will yield gains at the bargaining table or set the stage for more labor strife. Allen debuts as a Hollywood labor negotiator in talks expected to begin early next month. Although an actors strike is unlikely after the recent writers walkout, studios nonetheless have been bracing for the possibility.
Allen and SAG President Alan Rosenberg already have stated that they intend to wring better concessions out of the studios than those won by the writers or directors. Actors, whose contract expires June 30, want to be paid more from the sales of DVDs and have a say when they are forced to shill for products in TV shows and movies.
“We can’t simply grab the pen and say, ‘Where do we sign the WGA and the DGA deal?’ ” Allen said. “That’s not fair to actors.”
But studios will be loath to give actors more than what they granted the other unions, and there is little appetite among working members for another strike.
Just last month, four prominent actors -- George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep -- took out a full-page ad calling on guild leaders to begin talks immediately. Such public discord between the union and top celebrities, who control what movies and TV shows get made, is problematic because it undermines a united front.
So Rosenberg invited some of the stars to his house to assuage their concerns.
Clooney, who was joined at the meeting by Hanks, Sally Field and Rob Lowe, fired off questions to Allen, demanding to know why SAG and the studios weren’t talking. Allen assured him that informal discussions were underway. Clooney then asked with whom they were talking. The grilling prompted Allen to complain that it felt as if Clooney was putting him on trial. Allen became impatient, and Clooney snapped, “Don’t roll your eyes,” said one person familiar with the meeting.
Allen, during an interview in his Mid-Wilshire office, called the gathering a “productive exchange of information.”
“Unions are democracies,” he said. “There are always going to be differences of opinion. It’s important to listen to all points of view, but I don’t think the views of the few, regardless of who they are, are represented by the many.”
When SAG hired Allen, it was the first time the guild tapped a Hollywood outsider.
Allen, who once played the tragic hero John Proctor in a high school production of “The Crucible,” studied industrial relations at Penn State, where he was a star linebacker on the undefeated 1973 team. Signed by the Buffalo Bills a year later, he earned the nickname “Sluggo.”
After only two seasons on the gridiron, however, Allen took a job organizing political campaigns for the AFL-CIO before returning to the league to eventually become an assistant executive director at the players association.
He was best known for helping launch and build a successful licensing and merchandising corporation called Players Inc., which generated millions of dollars for the union. “He had to show real creativity in developing a variety of revenue sources in the brave new world of player marketing and branding,” said Leigh Steinberg, a veteran sports lawyer and agent.
Allen’s experience with star players and facing off against billionaire NFL owners endeared him to a newly assertive leadership at SAG. “For many years we were a go-along-get-along kind of organization,” Rosenberg said. “Doug has tried to bring a fresh outlook.”
“Rhoda” star and SAG board member Valerie Harper agreed. “He’s brought back the mission of the union to focus on the working actor. . . . We have a real unionist at our helm.”
But critics say Allen has stifled dissent and aligned with Hollywood hard-liners who control the national board. Much of the criticism has come from the union’s New York division, which has clashed with the more powerful Hollywood wing over control and bargaining strategy.
“Almost half the membership that resides in New York and the regional branches has been disenfranchised,” said Sam Freed, New York division president.
New York board members have been especially angry over Allen’s handling of SAG’s relationship with its smaller sister union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents radio and TV announcers and recording artists as well as actors. The two unions, which share about 40,000 members, have jointly bargained their main film and prime-time TV contracts for 27 years.
SAG’s New York board members complain that Allen spurned an offer they made last summer to mediate a dispute with AFTRA over turf and how their votes on the joint committee are divvied up. Instead, Allen pushed a plan that New York contended would muzzle their voice and anger AFTRA. Hollywood members have long complained that they must split equal votes with the smaller union even though SAG actors bring in most of the money.
Tensions flared when Allen wrote an article in the Screen Actors Guild magazine accusing AFTRA of selling actors short on cable TV contracts.
Paul Christie, then president of SAG’s New York division and a current board member, saw it as inflammatory. “We feel this guy has completely overstepped any authority in his contract. Every time I’ve had a disagreement with him, his standard response is, ‘You guys are wrong, you just don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”
Allen said he acted within his purview. “New York is a very important part of the union, but I’m accountable to the national board.”
Former board member Tess Harper, who was nominated for an Oscar in “Crimes of the Heart,” said Allen berated her during a phone call last June when she offered advice on negotiating a new agreement with talent agents. “The message was, little girl you don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “He was demeaning, condescending and aggressive.”
Allen said, “We didn’t agree with each other on the subject,” but called Harper’s account “completely overblown.”
While clashing with his own guild members, Allen’s battle with AFTRA has dragged on for nearly a year, creating a schism that some fear could be exploited by the studios. AFTRA viewed his campaign to revamp the partnership as an act of war.
In an August letter to members, AFTRA National President Roberta Reardon said Allen spread “fabricated concoctions worthy of Karl Rove at his best.”
Instead of backing down, Allen urged that guild members vote to reject the bargaining agreement and replace it with a more equitable one. When AFTRA threatened to bargain with the studios separately, he advised the board to drop the issue for now. The unions have since agreed to bargain jointly, but mistrust remains.
He has also squared off with another powerful group: talent agents.
SAG and agents have been without a so-called franchise agreement, which sets rules of conduct between actors and their representatives, since the last one expired in 2002. Only a few months into his job, Allen vowed to secure a new agreement, saying actors lacked adequate protection of their financial interests.
He threatened that SAG would unilaterally impose regulations on agencies if a new pact couldn’t be reached.
Karen Stuart, executive director of the Assn. of Talent Agents, complained in a letter to Allen last spring about his efforts to set “an arbitrary deadline” for a new agreement and threats to void actors contracts if the timetable wasn’t met. “SAG seems intent on pursuing an adversarial course toward the ATA at such a critical and delicate time,” she wrote.
Allen said he has since had several productive meetings with the ATA but warned, “The issue is not going to go away.”