Now that the Writers Guild of America has ratified its Hollywood contract, it's time for another huge industry union to hammer out a deal.
SAG-AFTRA, which represents actors and performers, has started formal negotiations on a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents studios and TV networks.
The existing contract expires on June 30th.
What are the key issues to be ironed out, and how different are they from what the WGA was after?
There are some similarities, actually. It starts with the issue of series that have short seasons — the sort of stuff that you watch on Netflix or basic cable these days, with six, eight, 10, sometimes 13 episodes, rather than the traditional TV network [season of] 22 episodes. That caused problems for writers. It also causes difficulties for actors. And the problem is that when there are fewer episodes you get paid less because you're doing less work, but then you get held under exclusivity contracts from year-to-year. The contracts and the exceptions and caveats differ a little bit between the actors and the writers, so it's not literally the same issue and solution, but it basically is very much that issue.
I think a lot of people think of actors flying around in private jets and making millions of dollars, but the real truth is that the average working actor makes a little bit more than $50,000 a year. And the vast majority of people in SAG-AFTRA make much less than that. So what are the issues that are important to the average actor?
Basic wage increases are important, residuals are important, but interestingly, both of those are issues that essentially were settled by the Directors Guild. There's a phenomenon called pattern bargaining— the first union to negotiate, which is usually the Directors Guild, sets the pattern for the other two. So the Directors Guild got essentially three percent annual wage increases for each year of the three-year contract. The actors are going to get the same thing, just as the writers did.
The Writers Guild negotiations came down to the last second. Is there an expectation that things will go more smoothly with these talks?
These negotiations probably won't be a nail-biter in the same way. The contract expires on June 30. I have been told by a source that there has been some bumpiness in the talks. They've had subcommittees talking with each other for the last several weeks and are just starting formal negotiations, but whether that bumpiness is just sort of the normal give-and-take and up-and-down, or whether it really does portend serious difficulties, was something I was not able to determine. Most people do feel that these are going to be much smoother talks. There are a couple other issues that are in play that those subcommittees have been kind of pre-digesting. One of them is funding for the union's pension plan, and you'll remember in the case of the Writers Guild, the issue was funding for the health plan. And there are also some issues related to travel and per diems and so forth.
Historically, actors have been less likely to go on strike, but if there was a work stoppage, what sort of impact would that have?
Well, if you have actors on strike, you can have the best script in the world and the best director in the world, but when you yell, Action!, there's no action, so it would shut the business down ... It'd be quite devastating if there were a strike. So far we're not getting indications that there will be though.
Editor's note: Some staff at The Frame and KPCC are members of SAG-AFTRA, but their contract isn’t affected by these negotiations.