General News

Actors, producers talk

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May 16, 2001 | 5:59am EDT

The negotiations between the two actors unions and the producers alliance, which began Tuesday and will continue Friday, are purportedly more concerned with rank-and-file members than with the top Hollywood stars.

Higher pay for middle-income actors - defined by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists as those actors making $30,000 to $70,000 per year, and comprise 50 percent of their membership - is their main issue. Two percent of the combined unions' membership of 135,000 earns more than $100,000 per annum.

Many regularly employed "middle-class" members have seen their individual earnings fall despite overall earnings growth by actors, according to SAG/AFTRA. Also, salaries for supporting or featured actors have fallen despite increased production budgets. Many Hollywood productions have taken to giving non-starring actors scale-plus-10 percent (for agent fees) and not a penny more. Such "salary compression" has made life tougher for veteran actors who need those roles to survive, the unions say.

But there are three other key issues in the streamlined list of demands that bear noting.

Residuals formula

The formulas currently used to pay residuals for actors have not been updated in 20 years. The current formula was made when the movie rental industry was in its infancy, and was very beneficial to the then-fledgling concern. That market has solidified and doesn't take into account the trend away from rental and sell-through video toward cable, pay-per-view and Internet distribution. The residual formula needs to be adjusted to reflect the new economics.

Internet distribution

Current AFTRA and SAG contracts cover the work of their members in all television programs and feature films, no matter how or where it is distributed, including the Internet. But since Internet distribution hasn't been fully explored, nor the Internet revenue model clearly revealed, SAG/AFTRA has to be concerned with the language in the contracts that control the unique distribution available via the Internet. Obviously traditional residual methods, such as TV's payment per-run basis, do not apply, and a new formula will need to be devised.

Diversity

SAG/AFTRA look to enforce existing equal employment provisions and to improve employment statistics for women, actors of color, actors with disabilities, and seniors. Plus, SAG/AFTRA want extra provisions to be written ensuring that accurate portrayals of the American Scene are adhered to. The "American Scene" refers to a realistic portrayal of ethnicity, religion, and general lifestyle, and an avoidance of propagating stereotypes in television and movies.

A jointly agreed-upon media blackout shrouds the negotiations. Neither SAG/AFTRA nor the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers would comment on just how far apart the two sides are.

These negotiations are surrounded by a greater sense of optimism than the writers' negotiations with the AMPTP, as a compromise was successfully reached without a strike. The WGA deal is described by the SAG as "a building block, not a cookie cutter." SAG/AFTRA also say that "neither our colleagues in our industry nor our fellow citizens who might be affected by a work stoppage have anything to fear from actors this summer."

Nick Counter, AMPTP president and chief negotiator, agrees.

"With the WGA agreement to be used as a template, the producers are prepared to mold that agreement to address the unique needs of actors," Counter said. "We embrace [SAG President] Bill Daniels' statement: 'There's a deal to be made.'"

The two sides have approximately seven weeks to iron out a basic agreement contract. The actors' current deal expires June 30.

Negotiations lasted for 3 ½ hours on Tuesday. Few details were released because of a news blackout imposed on the talks by the two sides.

"We are not going to negotiate in the media," SAG chief negotiator Brian Walton said.

Talks will continue Friday, possibly break in early June for two weeks, and resume for final negotiations close to June 30, according to Variety.

"Let’s find solutions, not problems and get to the end as quickly as we can so this town can keep working," Counter said Tuesday.

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