The holidays are over in Hollywood, and we are back to the grim reality we’ve been dancing around since June 2008: The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) contract has expired. SAG wants its actors to receive residuals in new media (Internet, digital download) and the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) doesn’t want give it to us. Sure, George Clooney and Miley and Brangelina will keep their day jobs, but the rest of us professional actors will become waiters. So SAG wants its members to give it the authorization to strike if necessary, and most of Hollywood thinks SAG is being petty. After all, the Directors Guild signed their new agreement, so did the Writers Guild, even AFTRA the other actor's union, took their deal. Why not SAG?
Well, those guilds got better deals, that's why. SAG (the actor’s union for filmed shows) and AFTRA (the actor’s union for radio and videotaped shows) have feuded for years. With the proliferation of high-definition video, AFTRA gained power. (Then came Reality Shows, which claim their participants aren't acting, nor is their dialog written -- just suggested. Cable shows are a mess for the unions, and for art). Anyway AFTRA took its own deal, and some fear will poach SAG contracts during a strike. It's pathetic that the AFL and CIO, rife with mafia ties, managed to merge; yet the two actor unions can't put away their differences and unite. Shame on us.
AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and TV producers) is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not an alliance of the producers who are doing the hard work on the ground -- those people are hired by studios. The AMPTP is an alliance of execs, studios and their parent corporations: Warner Bros., Fox (Po Boy Rupert Murdoch), Disney (often called Mauschwitz for its miserliness), or NBC (aka NBC/Universal/ General Electric/ Vivendi. Behemoth corporations whose studio chiefs’ salaries would make Bernard Madoff jealous.
These corporations don’t want to give actors money for reruns. Now, actor salaries account for only two percent of all production costs. Yes, the cast of “Friends” and “Seinfeld” made a million an episode at their zenith. But they’re not the norm; and the studios made multiple-billions against the cast’s millions. My brother in law used to be an assistant controller at one of these studios; he had to sign checks for studio chiefs’ $80 breakfasts, $500 lunches, house payments, car leases, dry cleaning, pied-a-terres in Aspen, and their mistresses’ pied-a-terres in Fiji.
Here is a list of SAG's Outstanding issues keeping us from signing. Most important: SAG wants residuals for material shown on the Internet (i.e. nbc.com or Hulu). The studios tell us, “But the Internet is so new! We don’t know if we’ll make any money.” They tell their shareholders the Internet and digital downloads will make their shareholders billions.
So SAG responds, "Fine: if we take 2% or even .002% of your $0, we have taken nothing. But if you make those billions you’re telling your shareholders you’re gonna make, then we want our stinking penny.” The studios don’t want to give it. They want to keep those mistresses and their pied-a-terres, which the shareholders paying for regardless if the Internet makes money or not.
Residuals: actors get a little slice of the pie, every time a film, TV show or commercial we acted in appears on TV. In network we’ve done OK. Cable, not so well. See, 25 years ago, network TV was the only thing there was. Then cable came along. The studios came to us, cap in hand, and asked us to take a cut in residuals for this crazy fledgling market called cable, because they “didn’t know if it would make them any money.” (Sound familiar?)
So we said, “OK.” You can air our commercials and TV shows on cable, and instead of paying us per showing like on Network, you can air them ten thousand times in a 24-hour period on cable and you only have to pay the actor $11. It seemed irrelevant back when cable amounted to Ted Turner’s CNN and Channel Z.
But today, cable accounts for 85% of the market. For example, I shot a commercial for Shaw Carpet in 1994 and I made $25,000 over a year or so. Because they used to pay me for every time it aired on network. But I shot a McDonalds spot in 2007 and I’ve made about $4,000. Because they ran it for two days on network, moved it to cable and ran it a thousand times a day, and I got $26 a day! (up from $11 15 years ago, AMPTP says “Such a deal!”) Then advertisers finagled the books, said it was a ‘wild spot’ or denied it aired at all, and I got squat. I’ve been in both unions since college, and for the first time I lost my health insurance. Should I mention that when the advertisers come to town, they stay at four-star hotels and rent BMW convertibles and eat salmon at lunch?
Well cable is folding into the Internet, and SAG doesn’t want to make the same mistake. So we are fighting to get Internet residuals. If my “My Name Is Earl” episode reruns on Hulu, I want same amount that NBC would pay if it aired after “Late Night With Craig Ferguson.”
“Cry me a river,” you say. “You made $25,00 on one commercial? For one day’s work?” Well, I also spent the entire year schlepping to auditions three times a week, paying for classes, gas, hiring photographers and keeping up my craft. It evens out in the end.
I posted a message on facebook not long ago in support of SAG. A facebook friend commented, “Don’t strike now, you’re going to affect people like me!” He owns a chichi store in Encino; his patrons are studio chiefs’ preteen daughters who think they need to wear Prada. Come on. I need those residuals. I’m not trying to float a jumbo sub-prime loan. I’ve got two teeth that need crowns. Is that so wrong?
Maybe it is. Most of the world lives on less than two bucks a day. Many of you reading this work hard jobs for low pay: like BWC’s Diane Nienhuis, who teaches disadvantaged kids and make what amounts to $10 an hour when she figures in her unpaid overtime. Some of you are out of work entirely.
The one good thing from this gradual downsizing is, I had to suck it up and work jobs on the side. I worked as a receptionist at a church office for a couple years. The past few months I temped at a movie studio (Where I observed millions of bucks get doled out to studio chiefs and cable networks and Hulu, to air my commercials and TV reruns without paying me).
Maybe it’s good my husband and I couldn’t afford property, because we don’t have a mortgage that costs more than our house is worth. We’ve learned to survive on less. Another good thing is, when I got my life torched, I learned that in the end, I own nothing. I can’t take it with me. And I learned that if I love something, like acting or writing, I have to love it ‘for fun and for free’: that is, do it because I can’t not do it, because it’s what God created me to do. I should do it because I love it and others get something out of it.
All things being equal, I’d like to make a living at it. It’s been a really crappy lesson to learn, but I’m glad I’m learning it. Because I don’t have a pied-a-terre in New Zealand or $60 breakfasts to give up; and I’m not clothing my child in Prada. (Come to think of it, I can’t afford to have a child. That’s the one downside).
For more info on the strike from SAG's perspective, go to the SAG Website. For more info from AMPTP's perspective, go to Hell.
PS: Sorry for all the acronyms. I tried to flesh most of them out.
FYI, BMW stands for Bavarian Motor Works