Sunday, November 23, 2008

To (SAG) strike or not to (SAG) strike? Much more than a matter a dollars and cents.

Does it make sense for SAG actors to vote for a strike authorization? It all depends on who you ask.

The SAG actors I have been discussing this issue with as recently as today all say, “No.” Given the economy, given the times, given the current landscape and given that the producer’s have made it clear that SAG negotiators will not come away with anything more than the AFTRA deal now in place with that union’s members, it seems clear that we might very well be headed for a no-win situation very quickly.

Richard Verrier’s coverage in today’s Los Angeles Times presents an important overview on where things stand and what’s at stake. I urge you to read it.

It’s mostly about the Internet. SAG’s intent is to squeeze out whatever it can for its membership from “new” media, almost at any cost. But is this worth striking over now?

Seventy-five percent of SAG members will have to say “yes” to a strike authorization before the march to a work stoppage can officially begin. But, will 75 percent of the SAG membership be willing to endure the additional hardship the inability to work will cause them?

It’s tough enough just to get an audition for a job in this business when the industry is operating at “normal”; take away any opportunity to work for not only (SAG) actors, but the tens of thousands of people in related and connected industries who will feel the big pinch of a strike, as well, and you have to question the sanity of such a move at this time.

Does anyone ever win from a strike? Can any member of the Writers Guild actually claim to be better off financially right now because of their walk out? Admittedly, arguably, there may be a few folks who can answer “yes” to that today, but for the majority, the stress from bills that went unpaid and opportunities that are still being felt. Will they feel any differently a year from now?

What’s an actor to do?

Tough question. If you’re a SAG actor, what will you do? What can you afford to do? What are you willing to risk? How much risk can you tolerate?

Should a SAG strike occur, those actors who are also members of AFTRA will be expected to honor the strike and not accept AFTRA-contracted work: AFTRA members who are not (also) in SAG, will have a choice to make: will they be asked to or expected to honor the SAG walk-out? What official position will the leadership of AFTRA take?

Indeed these are tough times in the business of acting. I know I want my clients to work and I know they want to work. How exactly are we all expected to survive what could be a long strike – and how much discomfort (or worse) are we willing to tolerate? Finally, how much might all of us stand to gain? Could we ever really make up the losses we would all suffer from another long strike and, even if we could, would those gains really be worth the toll of the stress, strain, and the (lifestyle and financial) compromises that it would take from all of us on the road to that or any victory?

I expec that there will be lots of phone calling between lots of agents and managers and their clients tomorrow.

How about you? If you're a SAG actor, will you vote for a strike authorization? If you’re an AFTRA or non-union actor, what would you do?

Post your comments here or e-mail me directly at I look forward to hearing from you.



Anonymous said...

Please do not strike! I am one of those workers who will be affected by a strike. I've heard from so many others like me that are going thru hard times right now. This is not the time for this fight. Sign the deal and go for more later. Our economy is hurting... Vote no against the strike by signing this petition. It's open to all...

Greg said...

This stirs up so many feelings inside me... all mixed. Forgive the rant that follows below. I've read it twice and I *think* it's coherent, but it's 4:20 in the morning and I can barely see straight.

I walked on the picket line for the WGA when they struck. I saw how the industry was devastated economically. How all of Los Angeles was devastated economically, especially with the loss of the Golden Globes. I do not want to strike.

However, producers seem hell-bent on throwing whatever it takes at stars to get them to headline projects - Laurence Fishburn taking the lead on CSI, for instance, or the cast of Friends getting a million dollars an episode each by the end of their run. They throw huge sums of money at big-name stars in the hopes of increased TV ratings and Box Office guarantees, and they inadvertently leave nothing in the budget for the little guys - Guest Stars, Co-Stars, Day Players, etc.

Roles that used to pay well enough to live off of - sometimes well above scale - now get scale. Actors with recurring roles on shows that were paid above scale either saw their paychecks reduced... or they were written out and replaced by actors that would work for scale. Just look at the turnover that series like JAG saw in secondary characters after the last contract was signed.

Most Guest Star roles these days - formerly coveted - aren't any larger than what can be shot in a single day because if producers book a guest star even for just two days, the actor gets paid the weekly rate. Sure, the day rate is a few hundred dollars, but how often can someone be lucky enough book a Guest Star role? If I worked for two consecutive days on a guest star role, I could live for a month and a half on that weekly pay rate. Plenty of time for me to audition for and perhaps book something else. I could maybe live for two weeks on a Guest Star day rate. No margin for error there.

Now, my beef is not with the stars themselves. They got where they are because of talent, luck, fate, or some arcane combination of all three. Good for them. If I could figure out how they did it, I wouldn't have these problems. But I don't want to figure it out. I don't want to be one of them. I just want to work, and to be able to make my living simply as an actor. I'd rather people not know my name - just possibly see my face and occasionally ask "hey, you look familiar... were you ever on that show?". I want to be a middle-class actor.

The middle-class actor is now a dying breed. These days, it seems that more and more, you're either a celebrity, or a hobbyist. More and more actors I know that used to pay all of their bills and live comfortably (not lavishly, by any stretch of the imagination), are now forced to find regularly paying work again. You know how hard it is to find a job in this down economy. I was unemployed for four months this year before I found a job that paid just over half what I used to make... and I'm happy to have this job! Now, imagine trying to find an actor-friendly job that gives them the flexibility to audition? Good luck. Guess what that middle class actor can't do anymore? Audition. Are they making their living acting? No. What does that make them, all of a sudden? A hobbyist. An experienced hobbyist, but a hobbyist nonetheless.

I have lived in LA now for five years pursuing acting professionally. I have worked hard and diligently at the Business of Acting, but despite always had to rely on a day job to pay the bills. Because I am not making my living from my efforts as an actor, I am a hobbyist. I need SAG to fight and fight hard for good deals that will bring back the middle-class actor. If nothing else, than to ensure that there is a middle level of talent and quality existing between the lucky ones to become stars and the lucky ones to find their fifteen minutes in a national commercial. If not, soon all that's left will be celebrities and hobbyists...

With the advent of the Internet (having personally maintained an online presence since the early 90's, I find the term "new media" a laughable misnomer) as a medium for entertainment, SAG has potential to stop the bleeding and find a foothold to save the middle class actor and securing them another fair income stream - something that pays middle class talent what they deserve for their work. If they don't... if they lose residuals and pay bumps for full episodes of TV streaming on the internet (which producers have proven in writing they're making money hand-over-fist from)... with today's rising cost of living and the Producers unwittingly bankrupting the industry of talent... the middle class actor will cease to exist.

I know my leadership has tried everything in their power to avoid a strike. A strike is the last resort. I don't want to strike, but I will to help save what I aspire to be - a middle class, working actor, and not just some hobbyist. If a work stoppage is what it will take to get the AMPTP's attention; get them to come back to the table and negotiate a fair deal that will help preserve acting as a profession in this time of economic turmoil and save it from becoming a hobby for anyone except the select, blessed few, so be it.

See you on the picket line.

Brad Lemack said...

Thank you, Greg. Your point is well made and well taken -- and clearly, no actor enters this business just to be, as you so brilliantly call it, a "hobbyist."

Beyond the rhetoric that inevitably clouds the real issues and how they really impact the "regular" person, it is the "bottom line," ultimately, that will either get your "yes" to strike vote or not. The bigger issue, as I wrote initially in the Blog, is that exactly where that bottom line is for each person is usually subjective, depending on how much financial pain you can -- or are prepared (or willing) to tolerate on the road to any potential win.

Unfortunately, a "yes" to strike decision will also have significant (if not life-changing) impact on the tens of thousands of people (other than actors) who would be effected by a strike -- and never share in any of the "wins" gained by SAG actors (if there is a win to be had).

It's like voting in any election; politics aside, when it comes that time to check "yes" or "no", you will made your choice on how you project the result of that vote will or can impact you personally.

I agree with you. There is, indeed, a lot to think about.

Thanks for sharing your comments.


Anonymous said...

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't SAG refusing the exact same contract that all of the other unions agreed to? If this is the case, what makes SAG members so important that they deserve more?

I'm a below the line crew member. There are tens of thousands if not millions of folks like me. I make most of my money laboring in effects shops, which work largely on television projects and to a lesser degree on upcoming films. Many of these shops have shut down and are staying closed until they know what will be happening with SAG.

I would also like to point out that I receive no residuals on any project I work on to keep me going through lean times, nor do most other crew members. When we finish a project, we hand in our timecards and get a "Don't let the set hit you in the ass on the way out."

I supported the writer's strike fully. Even though I was really hurting, even though it meant I had to take on temp jobs just to survive, I supported it because it was right. The AMPTP needed to be told, loudly and clearly, that what they were doing was unacceptable. While I did not stand on the picket lines because I couldn't afford to take time off of my minimum wage temp job, I was there in spirit and I told as much to anyone who would listen.

So once again I return to my original question: wasn't SAG offered the same deal as the writers, the directors, and all of the other groups? And if so, why do you deserve more? Because if you strike, it doesn't just affect you. It cripples the rest of us.

Brad Lemack said...

Hi, Chris.

Thanks for your comments.

I was at a meeting that the SAG leadership called with talent managers (actually, officially, recognizing us as an entity in the business) that was held just before the vote on the new AFTRA contract was taken.
The concern was that SAG members, who were also AFTRA members, needed to understand the implications of saying "yes" to the new AFTRA contract. Of course, SAG's official position was that actors should vote "no" on the contract and that us managers should encourage our clients to do so.
I have written several previous Blogs about this, but we now know that AFTRA members, indeed, voted in the new AFTRA contract, which has left SAG in the messy position it now finds itself in.
In short, yes, SAG was offered the same terms for a new contract with producers as AFTRA; SAG's position was that it was a bad deal; AFTRA's position was that the terms were fair given the economy and the changing landscape (for now).
The majority of AFTRA members agreed with that position and the rest is Business of Acting history.
These are tough times for everyone -- and things stand to get a lot worse very quickly if a strike does indeed happen.
I understand the issue from both perspectives. I also understand that the loses from a strike are rarely long term gains for the working or wanting-to-be working actor.
The Internet is the new frontier in media; I understand that (mostly younger) audiences are watching their favorite shows online, on-demand, rather than as appointment television. I also understand that if there weren't this audience, along with the traditional broadcast viewers, to produce programming for, there would be no content produced at all for any medium.
Very shortly thereafter, you and I both -- and most of our "working" colleagues would quickly be out of business.
But then again, this isn't a decision for us to make, only to have a healthy dialog about in the process of helping those who will vote understand the implications of their choice, whatever it is.

Bryan Christopher Chapman said...

I had to think about this for quite a while. I resisted the knee-jerk reaction to immediately take a side.

I agree with the general argument presented by SAG. Actors should receive fair pay and residuals from new media.

And while I believe this, I am looking at the general state of things. The economy is reeling from the implosions of Bear Stearns, AIG, Lehman Bros., etc. Over speculation in derivatives, especially credit default swaps, combined with a corrupt and generally unregulated sub-prime mortgage has eroded a generally liberal lending policy.

The saying goes that the only people who can get a loan in bad financial times are the ones who don't need it. Most major productions rely on a good-sized loan for financing the picture. When the good times roll, few think that it will end, that the well could run dry. And you know what? It has.

So, many producers are scrambling to find financiers, doing it the way the indies do -- hitting the pavement, looking for private investors.

In fairness, look at this from the perspective of a producer. Looming economic prospects, coupled with added risk and toil, lacking increased reward potential for said risk. I would be a bit nonplussed after hearing talks of strike. I'd think it was loony. I'd wonder why I even bother making films in the US.
Why pay oodles for a union shoot when you can shoot in Eastern Europe for a huge savings? Many are asking themselves this question, and many are going. Movies are not immune to outsourcing. The film industry is hemorrhaging billions because of this, billions that vitalized local economies.

What people do not think about is that we are in a global market. It's not just competing with some new filming hotspot in the US or Canada. It's the world. The more expensive it becomes to make films, the more strikes we have, then the more jobs will dry up.

It is a critical time. The iconic American industries face genuine threats that must be handled promptly and carefully. With Wall Street clamoring and Detroit begging for help, could Hollywood be placed in a similar position? Possibly, and the strike would move the needle closer to this potential.

As much as I support the vim behind the talks of the strike, I hope it is nothing more than talk. If this strike goes through, it will be a Phyrric victory, similar to the WGA strike, but much more damaging due to the critical nature of timing and circumstances.

If SAG shuts down, then everyone shuts down. A lot of people being put out of work in tough times is not something that should be decided lightly. Although I am an actor, I also have a background in crew, and I know what my buddies are thinking about this.

Although I would love to see the changes enacted soon, I am a realist. In 4 or 5 years, the economy will most likely be back on track. In good times, you have leverage. In tough times, you take what you can get. And folks, this economic crisis will deteriorate before it improves. It's not just the film industry. It affects millions of folks, and all we can do is ride it out.

I know the prospect of thinking long term is difficult, especially when faced with piling bills in the mean time. However, I truly feel that this is the most rational decision. Let's not shoot ourselves in the proverbial foot. Patience, please.