Friday, February 13, 2009

Hey, this guy proves my point!!!

Check out this video by a SAG actor...

This guy is the middle actor that I described in my prior post that details the three levels of actors in Hollywood. The point of his video is that the entire entertainment industry is moving towards the internet. Since the other guilds have allowed non-union work on "webisodes", he claims that webisode production has boomed as a way to avoid the guilds.

Maybe. But the internet is not a proven market. I was recently discussing a project that would be a web based series based on one of my films. The amount of money to do 20 3 minute webisodes did not translate to the amount of money we spend on Sci-fi channel originals and their ilk (about 20k per minute for network TV versus 3k per minute for the webisode). How can one define the cost of labor, or the value of the product when the marketplace has yet to shape up and define a profit? Making a webisode, of any budget is a huge, huge, risk. So to say that someone is getting ripped off here is pretty naive and myopic.

I don't blame the guy. This thought process, or lack thereof, is spreading around the country like wildfire. Look, he's an actor, not an accountant and certainly not an entrepreneur. He doesn't understand the business, nor the fundamental structure of capitalism and risk of investment. For many independent films and webisodes, the sad reality is that these union members who are bitching about their rates and residuals are the only people who DO get paid. The investors, producers, and other creative folks who pour much more time and effort into a project to make it happen often walk away with nothing. And sure, sometimes these films and shows hit the jackpot. Sometimes a bunch of kids from New Jersey make a movie in the 7-11 where they work for 20k and it makes 20 million. But those stories are needles in haystacks. More often than not, it's a couple hundred thousand dollars thrown down the money hole, with actors, grips, camera guys, prop guys etc. being the only ones to walk away with a few measly bucks. Trust me, I know. Before I got smart and sold out doing genre films I made two independent comedies that still haunt me to this day. I can't count the thousands of dollars and countless YEARS of my life spent with these projects. The net result for me was experience and a bit of exposure. But every actor, on both projects was paid at least SAG scale with their pension and welfare, OT, etc.

And here is the other dirty little secret the socialists and unionists don't want to tell you. What would happen if the unions did all go away? Would actors be paid like Walmart Employees? Well, if they we working for me, the answer would be yes. No, kidding. Here's what would happen, and I know this because I have real world experience to prove it.

Actors as a whole, on average, would be paid much less. But individual actors would be paid exponentially MORE. Why? Because right now there is no bottom line incentive for producers to hire no name actors and pay them any more than we have to. The buyers across the board don't really care who your cast is outside of the "names". We, as producers, feel like we are getting ripped off by having to pay someone to be the bartender $500 for eight hours of work to deliver two lines (and in many cases, producers ask us writers to cut out parts to save money, which creates EVEN FEWER ACTING ROLES). So, how good you are or how aggressive your agent or manager is becomes irrelevant. Unless you have a name, I'm paying you scale. BUT, if there was no scale, if I could pay people whatever I want (within federal and state minimum wage laws mind you), it would free up a ton of cash. We would have more parts and, if an actor that blew us away came in and we really like them, we would negotiate and pay them more to do the show. Remember, just because a breakdown says the pay is $25 a day doesn't mean you have to do it. I routinely turn down directing gigs because the money isn't what I want it to be. Should the Leigh Scott market enter a downturn, I would change my tune and work for less if I needed to.

What's more troubling about this video is the notion that somehow the unions "allowed" these productions to exist. Webisodes are booming because a lot of the other markets are drying up and people are looking to be the first to stake out some online real estate. They would exist regardless of what SAG, IATSE, WGA etc. say or want. The notion that one private entity can dictate terms to another private entity is un-American and wrong. I hire SAG actors because the name actors stand in solidarity with the union. There would be no other reason for me to deal with the incompetent and ineffectual organization known as the Screen Actors Guild without this caveat. Unless you are in a similar situation, or have a predisposition to support organized labor, the choice to go union or not should rest 100% in the hands of the people taking the financial risk.

Payment, residuals etc. must be based on the market and by determined by the people putting up the money. Period. After all, why stop at scale being $500/day? Why not make it $1000/day? Maybe $10,000/day? Hey, if the rates get good enough, a lot of us producers might just pack it in and become actors.

And when we all do, who's going to be left to produce the movies and cut the checks? This my friends, is the core principal of capitalism. THE FREE MARKET. It's what made our country great!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Actors...Now is Your Chance!

The Screen Actor's Guild is in a bit of turmoil these days. They recently pulled some legislative maneuver to fire their chief negotiator. Additionally, I keep getting emails from different "factions" in the union. One is led by the guy who looks like Anthony LePaglia and the other is the bad guy from Highlander. Or at least I think that's how it shakes down. They might be on the same side. I don't know.

Problem is that the whole argument comes down to money. That's it. And that, my friends, is counter-intuitive to the hopes and dreams of individual actors.

Unions for creative things are a bit strange. The UAW, as an example, guarantees certain benefits for employees based on their job classification and experience. They know that the UAW isn't going to pay wild amounts for a single employee based on their performance. The employees are widgets. That's why it makes sense for them all to stand and negotiate together.

Actors, directors, and writers are different. While the WGA minimum for a screenplay may be 40k, many, many writers are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their scripts. It doesn't make much sense for the guy who writes Schindler's List to stand side by side with the guy who writes Sci-Fi channel movies. Ok, ok, I know all about the touchy feely concepts behind this, but in a pure economic sense the logic falls apart.

SAG was started in 1933 to combat the Studio System and protect the rights of actors. Back then, actors would sign contracts with the studios. There were no rules governing their hours, pay, conditions etc. For contract actors, the bulk of working actors at the time, it made sense to band together and fight for better pay and better conditions.

As time progressed, the studio system gave way to the system we have today. Agents and managers and casting directors now serve as the gateway between actors and their jobs. It's now a freelance system, and not a monolithic operation controlled by the five or six major studios.

I have lots of friends who are actors. They fall into three basic categories...

1)The waiter/waitress, bartender, editor, sales agent, temp, substitute teacher who books a handful of movies, shorts, and commercials each year.

2)The actor who makes a living doing commercials, guest spots, and bit player movie roles.

3)Actors with "name value" who never work for SAG scale. They do a variety of television and film jobs and make six or seven figures per year.

Now, groups 1 and 2 benefit greatly from SAG minimums and from residual payments. But group 1 can't make a living at it, so they end up, invariably working on non-union and freebie projects.

Group 3 isn't really effected by the SAG rules. They negotiate everything for themselves through their agents. They could care less what the "standard" rules are because they are above them.

So only Group 2 really lives and dies by what SAG does.

But, the huge majority of the 120,000 or so members of SAG are in Group 1. They pay dues, have a vote, and often loose out to work because they are SAG members (actors are terrified by SAG. I've never seen a group of people so afraid of something that exists to "help" them)

With all of this in mind, actors should band together to force their union to negotiate for things that will help them achieve their ultimate goal i.e. not working at PF Chang's. To do that, more actors need to move from category one to category two and three. But this is tough because the industry (despite the union) prevents much of this mobility due to its complex and nepotistic structure.

Here's what SAG can do to help actors get more jobs. THIS is what SAG should be doing, not threatening a work stoppage over DVD residuals (especially when DVD sales are down 30%!!!!)

1) All SAG signatories must submit casting data that shows a set amount of SAG auditions per role. This quota should be based on the number of roles and the budget of the films. This would ensure that casting directors aren't lazy and that producers and directors get to see more talent. I once did a show where the part was described as "Female. All ethnicities. 18-25, hot, slutty type. Quick wit. No nudity." After seeing about 20 actresses and unhappy with all of them, I asked the casting director to see more. She said that that was it. No one else responded to the breakdown!!!! Really? In LA? I see more than 20 at the bar on Friday night.

2)Cap the number of roles per show that can be cast from the same agent or manager. This stops "packaging" which provides for bad actors to get bigger roles because they know somebody at an agency. Again, this opens it up for more actors to get parts and get auditions.

3)Require SAG signatories to accept submissions from SAG members WITHOUT an agent or manager. Each SAG member has a number. This goes on the front of the envelope along with a description of the actor and the role that they are interested in. I can hear it now "That's chaos!" We will get millions of submissions. Not really. Let's go back to my hot chick example above. If there are 120,000 actors, maybe 30,000 think that they fit the part. Of the 30,000, 10-15,000 have representation already. Of the remaining actors, less than 10% have the resources and motivation to submit themselves so we are talking about 1,000 submissions per role, tops...Big deal. And think of all the jobs created. Extra casting assistants, more postal delivery, head shot photographers and printers. Damn, I just created more jobs than the Nancy Pelosi "stimulus" bill.

4)Create SAG training programs that are free to members. Why should producers go SAG? Well, because that's the only way to get "name" actors in your show. That's shitty. If I'm going to pay someone a minimum of 30/hr (and that's on low budget movies) they better know how to read a call sheet, show up on time, hit a mark, act to an eye line etc. If SAG actors represented a more technically proficient bunch, producers would feel like they are getting their monies worth. I hate to break it to you, but I've worked with many a non-SAG actor who smokes SAG actors. This is especially the case in regions outside Los Angeles.

5)Create tougher regulations to get into the union. There are simply too many SAG actors. Period. Do away with the voucher thing for extra work. Require three or four Taft-Hartleys, not one. BUT, do create a program where non-union days count towards your SAG card. Just like the other unions do. I know that a union editor has more experience than a non-union one. They have to put in the hours to get their card (unless the union pulls the unethical "show flip" thing, *cough, cough*). Actors, not so much. If you have to do five Asylum movies to get into SAG, you know you are serious and dedicated to the craft!

6)Adopt a residual system like the one musicians have through ASCAP and BMI. Instead of attacking just the studios and producers, lower the amounts, but spread the payments out over many people. If a restaurant or bar has a TV, they should pay $50/month to SAG. If a website, like Youtube, features SAG actors on its clips, they should pay a nominal fee. Sure, it's harder to monitor and collect, but it will translate to more fairness and more money at the end of the day.

All of the above would greatly help the rank and file actor. By changing the royalty structure, you will see more independent production and all actors will make more money. By opening the gates to more talent, the more talented actors will rise to the top which will create more compelling films and television shows. That in turn will create more demand for SAG programming, so reality shows can go back to their little hole in the ground. The onus for picking talent will once again rest with producers, casting directors, and directors and NOT agents, managers and PR people.

But, SAG really isn't interested in helping YOU. Everything I mentioned would make more work for them and casting directors. It would cost agents and managers a lot in lost revenue and diminished power. The only people who would really benefit are actors, directors and to a lesser degree producers.

Hmmmm. Makes you think. At the end of the day, who's side is SAG really on?