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Dear Tombudsman:

I am an actor in L.A. and have been here for two years. I was a principal player in a major department store chain's national commercial that ran for about three months. It aired all over the United States on all the channels, including cable. Unfortunately it was non-union. In fact, it paid only $500.

How and why does a production company and/or client choose to make a national commercial non-union? I am very excited that I booked the commercial after being here only a year and a half but frustrated that my credit cards could have been paid off if it was union.

Suzanne

via the Internet

Dear Suzanne:

Well, the why is easy. They produce commercials non-union to save big bucks. Hey, I can understand it if they're shooting a spot for Joe's House of Beef Jerky, but when a huge corporation with mega-stores all over the country and a reported revenue of $40 billion pays $500 and nothing else, that's just greed and taking advantage of talent. This is not a union/non-union issue here, because actors get screwed when a $40 billion giant pays well below what it should and could. Union actors lose yet another campaign that by all common sense should be under their umbrella, and non-union actors are paid wages that all but the greenest realize are just totally absurd.

In general when a big spot is produced non-union, the session shoot rates are almost always below union scale, oftentimes quite well below. There are no health or pension plans the producers pay into, no holding fee payments, and they make perhaps their biggest savings of all by not having to come up with future usage/residual fees for the talent involved. There are those non-union campaigns that pay that same $500 for a session fee that you made but at least offer $1,000 or $1,500 for a buyout. This one didn't even go there--and, given the size of the entity, that's disgusting.

The how isn't rocket science, either, and is dictated by the why described above. The producers simply make up their mind to go non-union and do so. In high-profile, big-budget situations, they might occasionally meet with resistance from the unions and crews, but much more often they do not and are allowed to shoot however and wherever they'd like, and it's becoming more and more common.

Am I putting a price on this campaign? You'd better believe it, Suzanne. If you'd written to me and said this big company had offered you that $1,000 or $1,500 kind of buyout, I would have thought, Well, they're still getting off very cheap, but your letter probably wouldn't have run here. There has to be some limit. Sure the commercial should've been union for the sole reason that it easily could have afforded to be. It wasn't, but then the producers add insult to injury by ripping off the non-union talent they've already hired for bottom-line session fees. The face selling their product and being aired potentially thousands of times is yours, and you are helping to make an already rich company even richer. By the way, I'm one person who won't be buying washing machines and tires from that company in the future, but I digress.

What do you think happens next if patterns like this are allowed to continue? I can guess: More large corporations do non-union campaigns. "Hey, if a $40 billion company can do it, why can't we?" Buyout fees will start to disappear, and one day the idea of making a whopping $500 fee for a non-union spot will be unheard of. These $40 billion companies will start paying $100 and cab fare for non-union thespians. More pressure will be applied to union pay rates from confident corporations. It will become harder to be a union actor because there's less work. It will become harder to survive as a non-union actor because wages will continue to decrease. It's pretty awful stuff at whatever level you are in your acting career.

The situation has worsened, as Jeff Gerrard, well-known L.A. casting director and president of the Commercial Casting Directors Association, explains: "Ever since the commercial strike of 2000 the whole industry has changed quite a bit. Unfortunately you can't rely on what was; it's now what is. Sometimes major advertisers do non-union work. They're trying to save the nickel, and I cannot believe that these people are hurting. If you pick up Ad Week, you'll see that a huge number of sponsors have already purchased airtime for most of next year. They also shoot in right-to-work states like Texas and Florida, or they go out of the country. I had a director from New York who used to come out here at least two times a month. Now he's going to Ireland, Prague, and Vancouver to shoot spots so that agencies can save money on talent and production costs."

Obviously things have to change. More and continued pressure must be applied to the people who can afford to do the right thing, namely those majors who spend millions on ad campaigns but pennies on the union talent and hope to be spending even fewer pennies in the future on the non-union actors of the world.

I imagine they won't do it of their own goodwill. Short of divine intervention, it will take more respect and solidarity among all actors, not the mentality of the union/non-union camps, the power of unions that are focused on long-term and realistic solutions for all their dues-paying members, non-union actors and their representatives refusing to accept substandard payment for themselves or their clients, and maybe one or two of the biggest advertisers to challenge others in their own world who take the cheap way out because of greed. And don't blame the economy. The companies I'm referring to are rich, for crying out loud, and it's time they stop ripping off actors--union and non-union alike--as well as the agents, casting directors, crews, and all the everyday hardworking people in virtually all areas of show business.

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