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Are You Ready for the New Media?

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It's beginning to feel as though actors need advanced degrees in computer technology and economics just to keep up with their industry. Every day, the trades shout front-page news of another media conglomerate or mogul making a million-dollar partnership to develop entertainment for new media, such as the Internet and mobile devices. Just this year, for example: NBC Universal acquired the female-oriented Web portal iVillage for $600 million; Disney unveiled a new Web service called My ABC, which will offer free ad-supported content as well as downloads of "Lost," "Desperate Housewives," and "Grey's Anatomy"; Mark Burnett signed to produce an interactive online reality series titled Gold Rush for AOL; Ashton Kutcher's Katalyst Films announced it will create at least five comedies for AOL.com and its instant messaging service; and Steven Spielberg partnered with Yahoo! to develop online programming. And the list goes on.

"This is bigger than silent pictures going to sound," said Scott Rubin, editor in chief of NationalLampoon.com, whose parent company recently formed National Lampoon Incubation Studios to create shows for its websites and mobile media, among other properties. "This isn't a fad. This is how entertainment is going to be created and distributed and how stars are born... It's not the future, it's right now."

Why the mad rush to the Web? Because advertisers' plum 18-to-34-year-old demographic, a tech-savvy audience that wants control over what it watches when, led the way. As advertisers place their bets on the Internet--in a survey released at the Association of National Advertisers' TV Ad Forum on March 22, 80% of 113 national advertisers said they plan to spend more on Web advertising--so do the producers.

More series, shorts, animation, commercials, and films created for new media means more jobs for actors--and more opportunities for newer actors to break in. Jacqueline Bradley, who stars in the weekly Web series California Heaven, said actors are no longer stigmatized for working on Web shows. "It was almost taboo for me a year ago to say, 'I work on an Internet show.' I used to say, 'I work on a television show produced for mobile phones,' " she told Back Stage. "Now it's like nothing."

Bradley views the show as a vehicle to help her gain exposure. She'll often include links to Heaven's website when emailing casting directors. "If someone wants to see my work, it's almost like a perfect reel.... It's a good marketing tool."

And as media changes, so does the acting. "It does take a different type of actor," said Bradley, who writes a blog and contributes to the site's message boards as her character, Heaven Corrigan. "It's more involvement than someone on a TV prime-time series would put in. I think it's a cool, creative part that's involved."

To ensure that union actors are correctly compensated for working on new-media projects, the Screen Actors Guild is constantly playing catch-up. SAG National President Alan Rosenberg formed a new-technologies committee to stay on top of developing media. But it seems contracting residuals for new-media original content will be an uphill battle. In February the union joined the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America in rejecting ABC's offer to use the current videocassette formula to pay residuals on downloads it shows on Apple iPods. The unions do not have plans to negotiate with producers of Web- and mobile-media-only content. WGA West President Patric Verrone said they need to be involved soon. "The content is not free of the content makers," he told Back Stage. "They're devising business models that aren't attentive to the fact that writers, actors, and directors need to be compensated not only initially but later on down the distribution chain."

But Bradley, who is currently nonunion, isn't concerned that she doesn't have a contract for residuals from California Heaven, which was recently licensed to be broadcast on mobile devices in Japan. "It's hard to govern something that no one has an outline for yet," she said. "It's a little scary being an actor without set rules in place, but it's also exciting. Being the first to do something is always that way."

Barry Layne, executive vice president of National Lampoon, agrees with Bradley. He said negotiating with the unions isn't feasible until new-media content has proven to be profitable. "We want to be as friendly to the creative community as we possibly can," he said. "We're taking the financial risk, so until someone can prove to me that there's a really significant proven economic model that works in new media, I think the standing of the trade unions is a little less. I'm not suggesting that their argument is not valid; what I'm saying is, their argument is valid in a proven economic environment."

Layne tangled with the actors unions in 1998 when he was vice president of programming and production for FasTV.com, a Web-based video distribution service. SAG and AFTRA prevented the company from posting commercials from that year's Super Bowl on its site by insisting that all actors involved in the spots be paid for the rebroadcasts, including the 14 actors who voiced the now-famous Budweiser frogs. The deal proved too costly for Layne and Super Bowl advertisers, and the spots were not shown on the site. "SAG/AFTRA has only just begun to go after people who've put video on their websites," Layne said in a 1999 Forbes article. "That's going to slow down the growth of Internet video in a very big way."

Rubin, who is also a comedy writer and a former member of the WGA, said it's too soon to negotiate a residuals formula for new media. "Of course everyone wants to protect the artist as much as possible...but it's a radically different business right now," he opined. "We're still in the Wild West of this. It hasn't all played out, so it's hard to stop and say, 'Okay, let's try to come up with an arrangement.' " (He added that National Lampoon compensates its actors in various ways: It might pay a flat fee, offer to finance and co-develop a project, and/or share the revenue.)

Producers made the same argument when cable TV emerged as a new medium in the early 1980s. Because cable did not yet have a proven economic model, SAG appears to have given the producers a break when the union signed its first deal for actors to receive residuals from cable shows in 1986. Twenty years later, cable producers are still reluctant to revise that formula to make it a commensurate deal. SAG is currently seeking authorization from its members to strike over the live-action cable agreement.

Actor Brian Hamilton, who serves on SAG's New Technologies Committee, is thrilled that new media are opening opportunities for actors to not only act but also to write, direct, and distribute their own projects. And he understands the points of view of producers such as Layne and Rubin. "The waters are being tested in so many different ways," said Hamilton. "They are experimenting with many different methods of distribution of the product.... They don't know how much money is going to be generated by any of those particular avenues of distribution."

He added that SAG members shouldn't feel shut out of new-media projects. "If someone is hiring you as a SAG member, find out where the money is coming from, who's financing it.... If it's one of the major studios, then I would ask as many questions as possible."

Individual producers also shouldn't hesitate to contact the union and work out a signatory deal, he said. "If the creators of a project approach the Screen Actors Guild, I can tell you that [SAG] will talk to them and endeavor to figure out a way to make it beneficial for both.

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