Few things are more precious to actors than control over their images.
A stark reminder of that came last week when the studios suspended contract talks with the Screen Actors Guild after three weeks of negotiations.
A cause for the logjam: Actors balked at a studio proposal that would allow the studios to sell or license excerpts of TV shows and movies for use on the Internet, cellphones and other new-media devices -- without the actors' consent.
"As an actor you want to control how your image is used and how studios get to exploit it," SAG President Alan Rosenberg said. "We can't erase 50 years of protections that we've had for our members."
Studios counter that the decades-old consent requirement -- which gives actors a say over whether their images can be reused in a clip on another television show or film -- would tie their hands as they seek new ways to exploit their vast libraries on the Web and tap into a growing appetite among younger consumers for short-form entertainment.
"The existing rules, and the enormous administrative burden created by those rules, prevents the entire industry from developing a lawful clips market," said the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates for the studios. "Carrying over the existing bargaining terms . . . would not be practical or feasible."
The fight over Web clips is one of several issues that have kept actors and studios from reaching a new three-year contract, heightening anxiety that actors may stage a walkout once their contract expires June 30. It could also be a contentious matter in current negotiations with the smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
Actors have long been sensitive to how their images are used. The guild joined Fred Astaire's widow in 1999 to push successfully for a California state law to protect the images of deceased celebrities after a commercial featured Astaire dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner. Then last year, California passed a more comprehensive protection law after Marilyn Monroe's face began appearing in unauthorized products, including "Marilyn Monroe hipster panties" sold on the Internet.
Under SAG's existing contract, studios must bargain with actors and pay a minimum of $759 if they reuse a performer's image or voice in another television show or film (promotional clips are exempted). Clips of classic Hollywood movies like "On Golden Pond" and vintage shows such as "Cheers" routinely appear on cable outlets such as the Biography Channel, which frequently profiles celebrities. Then there are the more unpredictable excerpts like the one in "Meet the Fockers," when a toddler watching television becomes fixated on a scene of mayhem with Al Pacino from "Scarface."
The studios say they are willing to pay actors for use of clips on the Internet but no longer want to seek their individual permission. To do so is impractical because of the volume of clips they hope to exploit, the studios contend.
Interest in Web clips has been fueled by consumer demand. In February, U.S. Internet users viewed more than 10 billion online videos, a 66% gain from a year ago. The average duration of an online video was 2.7 minutes, according to ComScore Video Metrix. How much of that involves copyrighted material, however, is unknown.
Especially popular are so-called mash-up videos in which users compile and edit scenes from movies and TV shows. These videos include "Seven Minute Sopranos," a popular clip on YouTube that condensed the hit HBO crime series into seven minutes, and spoofs like "Brokeback to the Future," which parodies "Back to the Future" and "Brokeback Mountain."
Studios maintain that most of these Web clips are illegal because they use unauthorized content. The issue, however, is murky because the courts have granted exemptions for so-called fair uses, such as works of parody or social criticism.
Like the music industry, the studios believe that they can legitimize what's already happening in the market if they license or sell clips from their vast TV and movie libraries, thus avoiding potentially costly lawsuits like the pending $1-billion copyright infringement case Viacom Inc. has lodged against Google Inc.
One idea is to sell clips directly to consumers through a service similar to Apple Inc.'s iTunes store. More likely, they would license their content to companies like Google and Yahoo Inc., which would make them available free on websites supported by advertising sponsors.
"It's low-hanging fruit for the media companies," said Andrew Lipsman, senior analyst with ComScore.
Another possibility is to follow the example of Lucasfilm, which last year began offering free more than 300 clips from all six "Star Wars" movies on its Starwars.com website, which has advertising sponsors. With the help of editing software, fans can recut the videos, posting their "mash-ups" on blogs or social networking sites.
"We've allowed people to essentially put themselves into a movie," said Jim Kaskade, chief executive of San Diego-based Eyespot Corp., which created the editing software used on Starwars.com.
But not all publicity -- even for an actor -- is welcome. The leaders of SAG contend that the freewheeling world of the Internet makes it all the more important that actors retain the rights to control how their images are used.
"We have no guarantees about the actual exploitation of these clips," the guild said in a recent report to members. "They could be edited, mashed and morphed into anything, anywhere."