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SAG feuds -- and the producers wait

Brian Lowry is a media columnist and critic for Variety.

Turner Classic Movies recently showed “Honky Tonk,” a so-so 1941 movie starring Clark Gable and Lana Turner. What struck me more than the movie, actually, was the vintage theatrical trailer that aired with it, highlighting not just the stars but “a star-bright supporting cast!” -- breathlessly touting five other actors featured in the film.

These days, supporting players seldom receive such marquee treatment. Much like in professional sports, stars draw mind-boggling salaries and journeymen fill out rosters. This widening gap among the haves, have-nots and have-nothing-to-lose has complicated the Screen Actors Guild’s protracted efforts to settle on a new contract with the major Hollywood studios.

The uncertainty of a SAG deal has engendered a mix of weariness and anxiety in Hollywood -- especially because the industry is just recovering from the four-month writers strike that hobbled production and rippled through the local economy. The slow-going negotiations (actors have continued working without a contract since June) have exposed not only labor’s distrust of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers but fissures among performers themselves.

Actors are united in one respect -- the belief that they were fleeced in past bargaining with studios, particularly regarding a fair share of DVD revenues. Whether out of foresight or mere luck, the AMPTP struck extremely favorable terms in the 1980s and has been rigid about altering them ever since.

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The bad taste of lost income has heightened a sense of urgency among the actors to secure their foothold in the relatively nascent world of new media, including production for the Internet. In separate negotiations, the guilds representing directors and writers achieved modest concessions toward that end.

The actors, though, have struggled to agree on tactics and priorities, thanks largely to their own internal bickering.

A feud erupted between SAG and its sister organization, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents actors in lower-cost cable productions as well as other on-screen talent such as game-show hosts and newscasters. Seeking to leverage their membership overlap, SAG unsuccessfully lobbied the rank-and-file to reject AFTRA’s new contract, but it passed July 8.

Another schism has involved steadily employed actors and those who only dream of earning a living at it. A group within SAG, Unite for Strength, which claims to represent the interests of working actors, fought earlier this year to establish “qualified voting.” That would have required performers to be hired a minimum number of days to maintain SAG voting eligibility -- the reasoning being that someone should be at least marginally invested in order to have a say on whether to strike. The proposal didn’t set the bar especially high -- an average five days of work annually over the last six years -- but was dismissed for its divisiveness by guild leadership.

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Such jockeying sparked a skirmish for guild control, pitting the slate called Membership First -- whose supporters now hold a majority of board seats -- against Unite for Strength. Each is putting forward candidates for SAG’s next election, which starts in August.

Despite opposing the current leadership, the dissident group on Tuesday announced support for SAG’s current stance of continuing to seek more favorable terms than the studios’ most recent offer. But the looming vote seems to have diminished the prospects for a deal with the studios any time soon, and the election results, due in mid-September, could dictate how talks with the AMPTP proceed.

SAG President Alan Rosenberg -- whose credits perhaps appropriately include the TV series “Civil Wars” -- frequently couches the AMPTP stalemate in civil rights vernacular. As the leader of the harder-line Members First contingent, Rosenberg -- in the midst of his second two-year term -- has downplayed the tradition of following the template set by writers and directors (known as “pattern bargaining”) and told the New York Times that his “two great loves” are “acting and the fight for social justice.”

There’s little question that many working actors are hurting. Trends in television have hit them with the equivalent of a double whammy: Networks air more so-called reality shows in place of scripted fare -- featuring at best actor wannabes -- and those programs also supplant prime-time reruns. Payments actors receive for reuse of their work, or residuals, have thus been substantially reduced.

Studios, meanwhile, face pressure to keep costs in check, fearing shifting business models and technologies that have eroded network ratings and softened sales in the mature DVD market. Although studios don’t cap movie or TV series salaries, as sports teams do, a two-tiered system has emerged, with the biggest names commanding big money and everyone else settling for less. It’s even been suggested within the guild that top stars should “kick back” a portion of their earnings to projects on which they work to ensure more equitable pay for fellow actors.

At this point, it’s unclear what will break the impasse between SAG and the studios. Indeed, given the abundance of ill feelings and the actors organization’s tumultuous history, even a new contract seems unlikely to quickly heal either the deep-seated antipathy toward management or the rifts within the guild.

And all of that makes the outlook for future projects that cheerfully boast about their “star-bright cast” appear decidedly dim.


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