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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.

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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.

If anyone should be able to understand both sides in this struggle it is Keast, who years ago was a producer for an ad agency. But as he recalls the advertising business, ”Talent was such a small part of the cost -- I don‘t see why you’d give short shrift to the people selling the product.“

Some, like ”Tom“ from Hollywood, have not been able to adapt as quickly as Keast. In most recent years, Tom‘s income has been about half from theater, half from commercials. With residuals now drying up, he had to turn to the union’s membership assistance fund to meet his modest $525 rent last month. He voted for the strike because ”It‘s getting harder and harder“ to make a living and because, after having been shortchanged on ads he did manage to snag, he feels strongly about the question of monitoring. While this issue has been less prominent than that of network and cable residual rates, it’s a sore point with some; Tom says he caught one agency running one of his commercials 12 times while presenting him with payment for only seven. After that, he e-mailed friends around the country, asking, ”Please let me know whenever you see me.“ If the negotiations don‘t yield an agreement to fund monitoring, Tom says, SAG itself should underwrite it. A SAG study last year monitoring 20 advertisers showed about $150,000 in residuals owed to 81 performers -- an underpayment of almost $2,000 per actor.

The strike has been as hard on technicians as on actors -- perhaps harder, since many technicians don’t have the fallback occupations actors have developed over years. In an industry where cooperation among unions has only been intermittent, the erosion of job opportunities due to runaway commercial production has weakened the technicians‘ sense of solidarity with fellow film workers. One veteran gaffer, now working as an electrician at about half his former wage, worries that producers now sampling Toronto and Vancouver as locations may never come back. A longtime lefty who did his student film about a strike, he’s hungry enough that he won‘t rule out crossing a picket line -- though he hasn’t had to make that choice yet.

Ambivalence is clear in the comments of cinematographers from International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 600 published in the August issue of their bulletin ”Camera Angles.“ ”We need to honor SAG‘s position because we’re labor, too. One day the shoe could certainly be on the other foot,“ says Robbie Greenberg. ”But for workers who are losing their jobs . . . it‘s tough to be principled when you’ve got a family to feed.“

For specialists in commercials, the problem is most acute: ”If the strike goes on for another three months, I will lose my house,“ predicts first assistant Allen Betrancourt, father of a six-month-old baby; his health insurance could lapse if he falls below a minimum number of hours worked. Technicians whose daily bread was not commercials are suffering from a ripple effect. ”Folks who primarily work in commercials are starting to compete in my market for jobs in episodic and features,“ says first assistant cameraman Lex Rawlins. Nonetheless, Rawlins adds, ”I support SAG. The actors are really getting abused.“

Leaders of the striking guilds praise the assistance they‘ve received from other union leaders. ”It’s remarkable, given the Guild‘s history of not really being involved,“ says a SAG board member. The national AFL-CIO, he says, provided experienced organizer John Cox; the United Auto Workers backed up actions against General Motors (targeted because it is an advertising-association power); Teamsters have spotted and called in locations of non-union shoots. Executives and activists from entertainment guilds have played a prominent role locally in rallies and on picket lines, adds AFTRA’s Pam Fair.

But some industry unionists are fainter with their praise of labor‘s performance. ”Hollywood unions are not as united as they should be, especially when we’re at risk of losing the industry to globalization,“ asserts Earl Brendlinger, business manager of the Studio Utility Employees (a local that includes set-construction workers and landscapers). Some unions are reluctant to get involved, he says. And on the strikers‘ side, outreach has been lacking. Aside from appearing at an L.A. City Council hearing to curtail non-union shoots on city property, says Brendlinger, he and his local haven’t been asked for any specific help. An official of an IATSE local says some labor leaders are asking themselves if this was the right fight at the right time. It might have made more sense, he suggests, to stay loose until the completion of a pending industry-wide study on residuals in the cable industry. He questions the new-guard SAG leadership‘s tactical judgment. ”There wasn’t a lot of planning, and only in the last month were they getting up to speed. If there‘s another breakdown,“ he worries, ”the shift to Canadian shoots could bring about a whole new paradigm.“

”There hasn’t been much public engagement in the national Screen Actors Guild strike against the ad industry,“ said the Los Angeles Times in a mid-month editorial calling for new thinking to resolve the impasse. The strikers, failing to acknowledge all the reasons people might be turned off, see more sinister motives at play in the lack of media coverage. The Times has been criticized for downplaying the strike by its own ombudsmen, as well as by actors and activists. Times associate editor and readers‘ representative Narda Zacchino agreed coverage was inadequate, noting that stories on the janitors’ strike ran almost every day -- half the time given prominence on the front page, or on the Metro-section cover -- while the actors‘ dispute got barely more than a story per week in its first four months, most of those relegated to the relative obscurity of the business section. Since Zacchino’s August 27 commentary, stories have become more frequent, and a few of them more visible.

Why has the strike been a virtual non-event on network news? Some actors suggest that network fear of offending the large advertisers that are pushing the rate rollbacks has swayed coverage choices. It is hard to understand why a strike costing the local economy more than $1 million per day hasn‘t merited more local TV-news interest.

If some strikers are unhappy with the indifference of the media and the public at large, they can at least be thankful for the support and generosity of their eminent colleagues. Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins helped put together a New York City rally; Tom Hanks headlined one locally. Harrison Ford, Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey and Nicolas Cage have all made six-figure donations to SAG’s membership assistance fund, which steps in to meet the needs of actors at the end of their financial ropes.

It might have been a morale booster had collection plates been passed at churches and rallies as they were for striking janitors, but that was a strike that hit prime time. On this one, the public‘s consciousness has been channel surfing.

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