Author’s Note [Posted originally 5/2/2010, the subject of actors’ unions and fair wage compensation is once again being debated.]
“The only real way for us to lower costs is to pay artists less, but paying artists is part of the point of the Public,”
Artistic Director – The Public
New York Times Interview – 4/15/2010
There’s been an alarming shift towards lower actor wages within the unions. And the membership of AEA and SAG-AFTRA have been complacent in letting their union reps negotiate less compensation in return for a producer’s promise of expanded employment opportunities. The sweet success winners are the producers. Actors oft remain holding the fuzzy end of the lollipop stick. It’s complacent thespians who are to blame for receivership of the less-than-attractive reward.
SAG began the trend of creating contracts with salary stipends that wouldn’t bust a producer’s budget; SAG Experimental, SAG Modified Low Budget and SAG Ultra-Low Budget. (You begin to wonder when comes the SAG Happy Meal Low Budget?) These contracts were intended for use by the indie film producer. But major studios could not resist the temptation of exploiting these contracts for their own best profitable interests. Paranormal Activity anyone? A mega-hit produced for about $10,000 and grossing for Paramount’s DreamWorks division $22 million (that’s box office alone… DVD and television air-sales not included). The actors’ miniscule salary in the shaking-cam screamer was a small, small percentage of that $10,000.
You do the math of fair and balanced.
Then not long ago AEA leadership in negotiations with producers began devising their own similar sounding paltry payouts; AEA Experimental and the new S.E.T.A. acronym. The latter contract of which is now being implemented by the theatrical titans; the Weisslers. What’s this new contract? It’s the Short Engagement Touring Agreement. Terms of which went into effect January 5, 2009. How does this new contract affect actors? Let’s take a gander… at an actual situation.
An actor (we’ll tag her as ‘Janice’) was touring as an ensemble member with the long-enduring tour of Chicago produced by National Artists Management Company (i.e. Fran & Barry Weissler). Under past tour contracts with Chicago Janice received a salary of $1,500 per week. The tour went well. Janice made a nice bit of cha-ching for her savings account as did the producers. Then the tour closed as scheduled. Not long after it was remounted to go out across the mountains and prairies once more but under the new S.E.T.A. contract. Janice was offered to return. Same duties. Salary, $850 per week.
Now, some may say this is not entirely fair. While others may view this as a way for actors and producers to keep producing art in an economy that, as past recessions have shown, is not favorable to the arts.
And it’s not just ‘the economy’ influencing earnings.
As thespians know, especially the musically talented, AEA employment on the road has been usurped by non-union tours. For a time AEA appeared baffled for finding a way to stop the loss of employ for its members to the lower overhead, cost-attractive, non-union tours that producers like the Wiesslers licensed out to non-union touring companies. AEA was less-than-brilliant in defense by asking its members to include in their Playbill bios; “Proud member of Actors’ Equity Association”. If that was the best AEA leadership could do to battle, then those actors running the actor’s union don’t understand their audience. The people in the seats could care less about union affiliation. All they care about is what’s on stage before them and how much did it cost to sit and view. If the production and actors look like their interpretation of what a Broadway show on tour should be, and costs far, far, far less than a Broadway hundred-dollar plus ticket; they’re happy. And I’ve seen several of those non-union tours. If I weren’t the picky Virgo I am and was just your average Sagittarius from Scranton I wouldn’t know the difference — on stage — between union and non-union. The uneducated-in-the-arts would just know that they saw a great show that didn’t cost him this month’s car payment. And that he’d have money left over afterwards for wings and beer at Hooters.
So now AEA has found a way to combat the non-union tour at its heart; the bottom line. Who gets caught in the cross-fire? Actors. Both union and non-union. AEA members are now being paid less for the same work labored previously under higher wages. Non union actors may begin seeing less non-union tour opportunities. And this is a trend that began years ago with SAG. What can union actors unhappy do about the less-than-living wage wages? Get involved with your union. Voice your opinion. Get on the boards that negotiate contracts. Rally. Scream. Demand.
If you feel that these changes in contracts are necessary to ensure that there is some form of employ then do similar as those opposed to the wage and contract concessions. Be heard.
What does the non-union actor do? You demand from non-union producers the same earnings, treatment and contract perks (Per Diem, hours, etc) as given to your union card-carrying brethren. Will you get such? HA! (Good luck.) But the more non-union performers continue to ask for equality — the more the producer hears the same requests — then the more likely that the producer (if humane) may change their mind to remain contractually competitive in attracting quality, professional talent.
To all; your silence equals complicity. Be heard.
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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.
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