The SAG/AFTRA strike, which began May 1, is shaping up to be a meaningful, if sometimes bizarre, ideological confrontation between creative talent and the producers of commercials. Big money is at stake over the scope and method of payments to actors for commercial work aired on traditional broadcast media, cable television and the internet.
Actors seek to preserve and enhance their residual payment system, while producers seek to establish one-time fees for the unlimited run of commercials.
The strike has produced some interesting results. In one recent development, director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator") has apologized publicly for the actions of his employees, specifically the running of an ad in Shoot, a video production trade paper produced by Billboard Publications International (BPI) along with the actors' trade paper, Back Stage. The Shoot ad was meant to be funny and to entice clients to produce commercials inexpensively at Scott's South African production facility. Released during the national strike, the ad depicted an elderly South African woman's breasts with the text: "In South Africa, this is what SAG means."
SAG responded with two special protests, one in front of Scott's Los Angeles office and the other in front of the Back Stage/Shoot offices which are located at 1515 Broadway, which also houses the Screen Actors Guild. In press reports, Scott was quoted as saying that he and his brother knew nothing of the ad itself and that they apologized for the "bad mistake."
Meanwhile, in Hoboken, New Jersey, on May 19, SAG reported the disruption of a commercial by its ad hoc, "special ops" (comprising particularly dedicated members) who were in position on the picket line when two actresses arrived to film a non-union spot for Wyse Advertising. The actresses spoke with Playbill On-Line on the condition of anonymity and described arriving for the job to discover that SAG representatives on the strike line were prepared to make them "union eligible" on the spot if they refused to cross the line and give up the job.
SAG spokesperson Jayne Wallace explained that, had the job been union sanctioned, the non-union actresses would have become automatically eligible for union membership anyway. "We're not paying for them," Wallace said, "SAG membership stills costs $1,192, but they did not cross the line and they got in the car with our people and came here to join the union instead."
SAG membership is akin to a meal ticket for struggling actors, many of whom would go to incredible lengths for the chance to be eligible just to pay their initiation fee.
"I had an 11 o'clock [work] call," one of the actresses told Playbill On Line, "and I had my SAG card by noon."
Both actresses commented on the stress they felt on the picket line, and of being "pulled in two directions at once" by the union and by the producers who suggested, "maybe you should talk about this with your agent" after hesitating to cross the line.
"I wasn't sure that I wasn't going to get into trouble," said the other actress, "the police were there and there was a heated discussion between the police and the SAG people."
Wallace granted that "sometimes some of our people are very fervent," but added that SAG works closely with police and typically has good relationships with them.
The actresses realized they were doing non-union work, but as non-union talent they did not realize they were actually crossing a picket line. "I just thought it was weird that suddenly I was getting seven auditions in one day," one of the actresses said.
The actresses said they had turned down principal parts but that they had no regrets. At non-union rates, they said they expected up to $1,000 each for their work and that the job would have been a buyout with no residuals. Transportation was not provided, and the actresses arrived at Hoboken somewhat disheveled by the rain.
SAG reports that Wyse, like all commercial producers with SAG contracts, was offered an interim agreement that would allow the company to continue work during the strike. Wallace said some 1,000 companies have signed such agreements since the strike began.
-- By Murdoch McBride