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Why those striking actors just can’t get respect — or a contract

Wednesday, Oct 4 2000
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When more than 8,000 janitors walked off their jobs this spring, priests and rabbis flocked to the picket lines. Sympathetic citizens pressed donations into the janitors’ hands, and L.A.‘s political leaders condemned the greed of wealthy corporations that wouldn’t pony up a livable wage.

So far, no such support has been forthcoming in the five-month-long commercial actors‘ strike. On one side are the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of TV and Radio Actors (AFTRA). They’ve taken on the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers, and some of the country‘s wealthiest corporations: AT&T, Procter & Gamble, General Motors.

No one’s screaming ”Justice for actors“ the way they did ”Justice for janitors.“ And our collective indifference may not mean we are a bunch of uncaring cheapskates.

At the core of the conflict are residual rates -- fees traditionally paid each time a commercial is shown. When contracts were last negotiated in 1997, cable channels faced an uncertain financial future, so actors caved in on residual rates and agreed to flat fees for cable. Now that cable has survived its infancy and grown fat and healthy, SAG and AFTRA want a charge-per-showing system, as in their contract with the major networks. ”They promised when they got viable we‘d get our money, and they’ve grown 2,600 percent since then,“ says Steve Barr of SAG‘s strike committee. The agencies and advertisers, on the other hand, want to expand the flat-fee system to include the networks. Their current offer, unsweetened since it was put on the table in April, is $2,075 per quarter for unlimited network repetitions. For the average commercial (which runs more than 40 times), this amounts to a pay reduction of almost 50 percent, say members of the strike committee.

Another crucible of conflict is the burgeoning world of Internet advertising, where the unions want their jurisdiction established (with rates to be negotiated later), while advertisers and agencies insist the unions have no authority in the area.

The plight of the commercial actor, for a variety of reasons, is not one that has tugged as strongly at Angeleno heartstrings as, say, the janitors’ story. As one observer noted waggishly, janitors take garbage away, they don‘t bring us more. Putting it less harshly, commercials, after all, are not an art form most of us avidly seek out, but rather one imposed on us as the price of seeing or hearing something more interesting or attractive. Even if we didn’t hit our mute buttons, change channels or run to the refrigerator, is it any wonder we haven‘t bonded closely with the individuals who bring us 30-second messages we could have lived without?

Even that minority of viewers who stay attentively glued to their sets hardly get a chance to bond, actors say, because of a peculiar, paradoxical rule of the advertising world: Success breeds unemployment. If an actor’s ad is effective and therefore run repeatedly, the actor (now firmly identified in collective consciousness with Brand X) becomes less usable for an advertiser who wants to promote Product Y.

Seen Mr. Whipple from the Charmin ads lately? He‘s quite underemployed, although he did appear at a strike rally, pleading, ”Please don’t squeeze the actors.“

Not surprisingly then, when we think ”commercial actor,“ what comes to mind may be Lauren Bacall sipping coffee. It‘s ”weird and infuriating,“ says AIDS activist and actor Richard Dreyfuss, that average actors for whom ads are the staple of a lower-middle-class income, ”are invisible to the public and, therefore, must be represented by the visible. Because they can’t get into the media to tell the tale themselves, and only the famous can, it looks to the public like we‘re asking for a raise from a $20 million salary.“

The typical SAGAFTRA members doing commercials live in a very different economic world. Most of them make less than $5,000 a year in commercials, which is why many, unless they can find occasional roles on stage or in TV dramas, supplement their acting work with second careers, be they waitresses, bartenders or personal trainers.

But there are thousands for whom commercials, though not their sole income, are bread and butter. Brent Keast of La Crescenta, for example, earned more than half his 1999 income from commercials, and 20 percent from stage work. Though he did three national commercials just before the strike began, he now patches together an income by teaching drama classes in directing and acting at Pasadena City College, substitute teaching in high schools, and singing at weddings and funerals. He has been fortunate enough to expand his stage work, traveling with James Joyce’s The Dead to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. this month. Nevertheless, he is thankful his wife has a steady professional income, without which it would be difficult to get by.

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