Actors Labor Talks Take Cue From Directors', Writers' Deals

Actors Labor Talks Take Cue From Writers Deal - Photo Illustration-Getty- H 2017
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SAG-AFTRA likely will seek more flexibility for short-run series and 3 percent wage increases as a June 30 deadline looms.

The Sherman Oaks Galleria was all but deserted late on May 1, except for TV news trucks and the 80-plus negotiators inside the offices of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, improbably housed within that shopping mall. Then, around 10:30 p.m., there was a breakthrough. Two hours later, negotiators for the AMPTP and the Writers Guild of America announced a deal.

Now that one strike has been avoided, Hollywood is focusing on the 165,000-member SAG-AFTRA and its president Gabrielle Carteris. As talks get underway sometime after May 15 — a month and a half before the current contract expires June 30 — most believe the two sides will reach a deal amicably. The last Hollywood actors strike took place all the way back in 1980 — and union rules require a 75 percent "yes" vote to authorize a walkout.

So what are SAG-AFTRA's priorities? Like the writers, actors want more flexibility when they sign contracts for increasingly fashionable short-run TV series. Most shows once shot 22 episodes per season; today, it's common for many to run just a dozen episodes or even fewer. The problem is that the networks and production companies insist on the same exclusive contracts, during which actors are forbidden to do almost any other TV work.

The guild also is seeking limits on the duration of exclusivity. That issue can be particularly vexing for actors when a series is kept on the shelf and not aired or streamed for months — common with the Netflix binge-release model — while actors are kept on ice. This issue already has emerged as an irritant: SAG-AFTRA recently demanded arbitration against Sony Pictures TV, alleging that its Netflix drama The Get Down held actors under exclusive contracts for too long.

SAG-AFTRA's current contract uses language written when concepts like "season" were clearly defined, with most starting in September or January. But now a season can start any time and continue for any number of episodes. A case in point: Actress Gabrielle Union recently sued BET, alleging that its series Being Mary Jane shot seasons back-to-back in order to deny her and others the per-season salary increases to which they would otherwise have been entitled. The lawsuit was settled, with terms undisclosed, but a related union arbitration appears to remain pending.

Another matter likely to feature in the talks is the union's pension plan, whose funding level has dipped, placing it near the "yellow zone" that could trigger benefit cuts. Pension funding was an issue for the WGA, too, but its president Howard Rodman and negotiators ultimately chose to focus on members' health plan, which was in worse shape than the pension plan, they believed.

Also in play: how actors' per diem rules work. According to the current contract, a per diem check must be separate from a paycheck, with one issued before the work takes place and the other afterward. But the union maintains this rule is frequently violated, with per diem included along with the regular payroll check.

In terms of basic wage increases, the union is expected to accept the same increases that the DGA and WGA achieved in recent talks — nominal 3 percent annual bumps, though in reality that may vary from year to year, going down to 2 percent or 2.5 percent, depending on how much of the raise the guild chooses to allocate to its pension fund. And, SAG-AFTRA is likely to receive the same enhancements to VOD residuals that the DGA and WGA achieved.

Most believe the actor negotiations won't go down to the wire like the writers did. Says one informed observer, "They have competent leadership and can prioritize."



Wage increases: SAG-AFTRA might get the same 3 percent annual increases as the DGA and WGA, but in reality that could mean 2.5 percent or even 2 percent a year because part of the increase could be diverted to the guild's pension fund, which needs to be replenished.

Residuals enhancements: Like basic wage increases, residuals are considered "pattern items." The actors probably will get the same improvement in SVOD and AVOD (ad-supported VOD) payments as the DGA and WGA did before it.

Holds and exclusivity: Negotiators are expected to seek more flexibility in contracts that tie up actors for short-run series.

Pension plan: The union is expected to seek one or more 0.5 percent diversions from the basic wage increases in order to bolster the sagging pension fund.

Per diems: Expect negotiators to seek tighter language when it comes to how per diem is paid.

Background actors, stunt personnel and possibly singers and dancers likely will get something, though it's unclear what SAG-AFTRA will seek.

A version of this story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.