EXCLUSIVE: As the leading background actors casting company in the United States, Burbank-based Central Casting is one of the largest employers of union actors. It was established back in 1925 initially as a wing of the major Hollywood movie studios, and by the 1970s came to dominate the field of extras casting. Last Thursday was ‘Union Day’ at Central Casting, so the pro and con SAG-AFTRA merger camps headed there to stage informational meetings with background actors about the merger. Naturally both sides of this dispute wanted to present their case directly to these background actors because, since 1992 when the Screen Actors Guild absorbed the Screen Extras Guild, they have made up SAG’s most taken-for-granted voting block. But here’s what happened, according to my eyewitness accounts: Central Casting invited the pro-merger camp inside its building for an extended lobbying session. But Central Casting ejected the anti-merger camp from the headquarters. I’m told that a complaint was made after the incident to the U.S. Department Of Labor. This matter raised disturbing questions about just who is for and who is against a SAG-AFTRA merger and why. “If both SAG and AFTRA are loudly claiming that employers are afraid of merger, why did one of the largest employers of union actors open up their business to SAG and AFTRA staff and leadership to tout the ‘benefits’ and ‘leverage’ of merger?” one perturbed actor at the meeting emailed me afterwards. “And, secondly, why is Central Casting getting involved in union business?”
Eyewitnesses tell me that the anti-merger pair who went to lobby at Central Casting was former SAG National Board member Michael Bell and the former SAG First Vice-President Anne-Marie Johnson who is both a current AFTRA National Board member and a current SAG National Board member. Neither is registered with Central Casting. They handed out to the actors lined up outside of Central Casting’s offices informational fliers opposing the merger and explaining how their side thought it would negatively impact the background acting community. Then the pair came inside the Central Casting building at the same time that representatives from both SAG and AFTRA entered to speak to the background actors in favor of the merger. This group included current SAG First Vice-President Ned Vaughn, current AFTRA Treasurer Matt Kimbrough, and several SAG and AFTRA staff people. None are registered with Central Casting.
As the pro- and con-merger groups and background actors assembled indoors, an AFTRA staff member saw Bell and Johnson and ducked inside Central Casting offices. Next, one of Central Castings executives came out and announced that representatives from both SAG and AFTRA were there to discuss merger. He then announced that anyone in the room who was not “registered” with Central Casting had to leave the building. He repeated it twice. Eyewitnesses tell me that he directed both announcement to the anti-merger pair, Bell and Johnson. “They were asked to leave,” an eyewitness told me. “Politely but the point was made.” The other group which also were not members of Central Casting were not asked to leave. Many said that was the first time any such announcement had ever been made on a ‘Union Day’. I’m told that Bell and Johnson calmly walked out of the building and stayed outside to lobby those background actors who’d arrived too late to attend the inside meeting. An hour later the meeting inside the building ended and the pro-merger groups left Central Casting without staying to lobby the background actors outside.