As members of Hollywood’s largest union vote to elect a new president in the coming weeks,
actors and other performers are already signaling their worries about getting left behind by the streaming revolution.
At the forefront of concerns among many of the 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA is that the existing contract between actors and Hollywood studios is outdated and could cause actor pay to be eroded as more people watch shows on streaming services — where viewership numbers are not usually made public.
“The stakes are high in terms of the disruption in this industry and how the economic benefits are being redistributed,” said David Smith, professor of economics at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School.
The fiercely contested election has pitted incumbent president Gabrielle Carteris, known for her work as an actress on the 1990s teen drama “Beverly Hills, 90210,” against veteran actor Matthew Modine (“Stranger Things”), who is backed by a faction that has long advocated for a tougher stance in negotiations with the studios. Election results will be released on Aug. 28.
In an interview, Carteris, who has been in her role since 2016, said she will push to improve the current film and TV contract that expires June 30.
Carteris, 58, touted the union’s new contract with Netflix, which gave performers more money on higher-budget movies made by the Los Gatos, Calif.-based streaming service.
Analysts say the deal could provide the union with more leverage in its negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a trade association that represents the industry’s major TV and movie producers. In the event of a strike, union members could still work with Netflix because it’s not part of the alliance.
Carteris said the Netflix deal would help pave the way for some improvements the union hopes to make in its upcoming negotiation with the AMPTP, but declined to give specifics.
“This negotiation with Netflix is really important for the membership,” Carteris said. “It’s something that speaks definitely to the future. It’s in many ways a coup for us.”
If re-elected, Carteris said she would also focus on continuing to grow the union (a highlight was an agreement in 2018 for SAG-AFTRA to represent Telemundo’s Spanish-language performers), push for new laws to protect members from advanced technologies such as “deep fakes” that abuse actors’ images without their permission, and expand efforts to end sexual harassment on sets.
She noted the union has established a code of conduct, educating members and putting language in contracts to protect members from sexual harassment. The union also is working on guidelines for set intimacy coordinators, professionals who can help facilitate sex scenes on shows or movies. There’s still more work to be done, Carteris said, such as developing and growing the number of qualified intimacy coordinators on sets that have gone through background checks.
“I want to make sure people are safe on sets and sexual harassment doesn’t exist anymore,” Carteris said.
Carteris is backed by the “Unite For Strength” slate that currently dominates the union’s leadership and national board.
But she faces stiff competition from Modine, who is known for portraying Private Joker in the 1987 film “Full Metal Jacket.” He is running under the “Membership First” ticket that opposed the merger with the smaller sister union AFTRA and previously dominated the union’s leadership in 2005-2009.
Modine, 60, said he would work to establish more transparency in union business and reduce infighting inside the famously fractious guild.
He said he would advocate for all union members, including background actors.
“The current leadership has failed to negotiate on their behalf,” Modine said.
Modine also criticized Carteris for not moving quickly enough to address sexual harassment on sets and he called for language to be added to the union’s constitution that would make it easier to remove offenders.
“When somebody has been found guilty of sexual harassment, there can be no stronger thing than to say your behavior is unbecoming of being a member of the largest entertainment union in the world and we revoke that membership,” Modine said.
Following a disciplinary hearing over a sexual harassment complaint filed by Sarah Scott, SAG-AFTRA found actor Kip Pardue guilty of inappropriate conduct and fined him $6,000, a fee that could be reduced with online training. A representative for the actor said he “never engaged in any non-consensual behavior” toward Scott.
Carteris said she respects members’ privacy and that the union follows due process.
Other presidential candidates are stunt performer and national secretary-treasurer Jane Austin (who was previously affiliated with Membership First but is running as an independent); stuntman Abraham Justice; and self-described entertainment industry professional Queen Alljahye Searles.
Austin, 56, said that she would like to improve union services available to members such as iActor, where members can upload their head shots and résumés. The union should also do a better job of educating members on the contract and enforcing it, she added.
Austin, who is president of the union’s L.A. local, also wants to conduct a study on tax incentives offered in different states and do more outreach to other chapters.
“We need to change how we do things,” Austin said. “We’ve strayed from what we really are and that is a labor union that protects its members.”
Justice, 43, said in the union’s voter guide that one of his goals would be to fight piracy. Searles, 61, said she would use her background in education and accounting to help negotiate improved residual payments.