Actors Speak Out as SAG Kicks Off Commercial Strike, May 1

News   Actors Speak Out as SAG Kicks Off Commercial Strike, May 1 At the fountain in Bryant Park, located on Sixth Avenue just south of 42nd Street in midtown, a crowd of as many as 350-450 actors and passersby gathered as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) kicked off its first commercial strike in 12 years. As reported earlier, members of SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) are refusing to do the bulk of the commercial work that has become an employment staple for performers on both coasts.

At the fountain in Bryant Park, located on Sixth Avenue just south of 42nd Street in midtown, a crowd of as many as 350-450 actors and passersby gathered as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) kicked off its first commercial strike in 12 years. As reported earlier, members of SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) are refusing to do the bulk of the commercial work that has become an employment staple for performers on both coasts.

At the midday event, one experienced voice-over artist told Playbill On Line that commercial actors still had limited work available during the strike, doing "promos and movie trailers."

A fellow voice-over actor explained that "A promo is a limited run, buy out [commercial] with no residuals. It's a flat-fee job where you are pitching an event or a game or a network." Promo and trailer work is allowed during the strike, these actors said, because it is not offered by the same employer (advertising agencies) and falls under a separate and valid SAG contract.

Still, the bulk of the talent that typically competes aggressively for lucrative commercial spots was out of the voice-over booth and far from the studio today as stage film and screen actors instead took the stage to show their support for the SAG/AFTRA labor action.

The strike has special meaning to both sides because the future structure of actors' residual payments in radio, television and the Internet is at stake. One actor told Playbill On-Line that he'd heard that the actors were in for a "tough one," and that the reason negotiations had broken down and a strike initiated was possibly because advertisers had seen what they felt was an opportunity to stand united against a disorganized opponent. "What I heard was that the other side got the idea that the union factions were arguing amongst themselves, so the advertisers saw that and decided they could take advantage of it," the actor said.

Playbill On-Line asked a variety of union members and representatives for their views on the strike action. A synopsis of these interviews, conducted in Bryant Park during the strike kick off follows.

Jim Bracchitta, SAG National Board Member and member of the SAG negotiating committee:

Playbill On-Line: Can you summarize this strike from the union's side?
JB: There was a story on this the other day, calling this the opening salvo in a series of labor management negotiations that are going to determine jurisdiction over new media and foreign rights and foreign use. Basically there are three major issues for us. A paramount one is jurisdiction over the Internet. We feel a commercial is a commercial is a commercial. You make a commercial for the Internet, or you make it on broadcast and radio and you move it to the Internet, that's our jurisdiction. They're advertising and that's their jurisdiction...and we have to bargain about that. The second thing is monitoring. For 20 years we've tried to get an effective monitoring system in place where we can track what runs where. And for 20 years we've been stonewalled. The technology is here, they have the information and, for 20 years, they won't give it up. So we're saying, "You know, if you're not screwing us over, what's the problem?" The third major issue is what we're calling "pay for play." In network television right now we get paid for the use of our commercials. When cable was a fledgling industry, we gave them a deal to let them buy us out at a flat rate for unlimited use. And cable has exploded and become pretty much the industry and the distinction between network and cable is very small now. We went in with a proposal this year that was incredibly fair, rating what cable was worth and asking for a pay per use structure on cable as well. They said, "Not only are we not going to do that, we're going to take away your pay-per-use structure in network television." Which essentially means they're looking for a 50 or 60 percent cut in wages for these folks who are out here who are just regular old journeymen actors. Somebody asked me about celebrities, you know 20 percent of the contract is celebrity deals but what we're doing here [has to do with] working actors who make a living at this. We're just trying to save our wage.

Matthew Arkin, starring Off-Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Dinner With Friends:

PBOL: What does this strike mean for you as a working actor in theatre?
MA: People come to see a play like the one I'm doing now and they seem to think you're making a living doing that play and you're supporting a family, and you're not. And if they want actors pursuing careers in the arts, if they want to go see theatre at night, this [commercial work] is what supports that. This is one of the things that makes it possible for an actor in this town to support his family and pursue an artistic career. In all fits together like the pieces of a big puzzle. I leave the house at 9 AM every morning and get home at midnight, and I'm making an OK living, but without commercial work I wouldn't be doing this play now. I couldn't afford to do this play. People don't understand; they think we work for a couple of hours doing a voice over and we make this big chunk of money. But I don't work for a couple of hours doing a voice over. I work all day, every day trying to get that one job, trying to do a play, trying to do all these things and out of all these pieces over the course of a year, yeah, I put together a living. But, you take away any piece of that pie and nobody's going to pursue this anymore and you're not going to watch television and you're not going to see theatre anymore.

Jerry Orbach, stage, screen and television actor currently starring on the television series, "Law and Order":

PBOL: This is a commercial strike, but how does it affect theatre actors?
JO: Well, almost all actors, especially in New York, make a part of their living out of commercials, if they're lucky. The residuals from those commercials are vital to people eating and being able to pay their rent.

Richard Dreyfuss, Academy Award-winning actor:

PBOL: What's the biggest strength that the actors have in this strike?
RD: Their solidarity, as long as they stay strong together.

Philip Bosco, currently starring on Broadway in Copenhagen:

PBOL: Do the issues affecting actors in commercials really have a meaning for theatre actors?
PB: You take [producer] David Merrick, and I wouldn't wish him bad now that he's dead, but he was certainly a bastard for actors when he was alive. I mean, you know, minimum contracts. I was offered about seven shows for David Merrick and this was not in commercials, of course, but it was [always a] "no billing, run of the play" contract and minimum wage every time I was offered a part. So I said, "Shove it," every time I ever [dealt] with them.

Billy Baldwin, film actor:

PBOL: You're an actor but you're also active in the Creative Coalition. Can you tell us what connection there is between the agendas of the union and the coalition?
BB: There's no real connection other than the fact that the Creative Coalition comprises arts and entertainment professionals; writers, directors, producers and actors. Some of those actors are television, some are film, some are commercial, some are stage. I'm not representing the Creative Coalition, the Coalition does not get into the business of hammering out contract negotiations for the union.
PBOL: But you support this strike?
BB: Oh, absolutely. And so do all the individual members in their private lives. Any member of the Creative Coalition who is covered by this contract is in support of the strike as well.

-- By Murdoch McBride