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How to Weigh Film-Television Pact Extension?

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Voting members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) last week decidedly approved—87.4% pro and only 12.6% con—a one-year extension to the feature-film and TV agreements with studio and network producers.

"This is a significant victory for working actors across the country," Melissa Gilbert, SAG's national president, said following the vote.

But is it?

"SAG actors will earn more than $1 billion in earnings through this contract next year," Gilbert noted. But what she didn't say is that SAG members have been earning over $1 billion annually on the theatrical and TV contracts as far back as 2000, before the last contract was approved. So whether the term "over $1 billion" is significant with the extension is a tough call.

The unions list as a key gain the right to negotiate jointly on all terms and conditions for prime-time television programming, noting that "in the past producers have been able to pit the unions against one another by preserving different expiration dates for prime-time contracts." Producers' agreeing to that solidarity for SAG and AFTRA does appear to be a major plus.

Robert Pisano, SAG's chief staffer, and Greg Hessinger, his counterpart at AFTRA, said in a joint statement, "By opting for an extension over a new three-year contract, the unions will wield this new power almost immediately when we enter into new negotiations with the producers this fall."

But just how opting for the extension rather than a new three-year pact will "wield new power"—when the unions and the producers negotiate a full contract in the fall—remains to be seen. The two execs weren't specific about why the extension provides such power. If an extension is such an awesome force, one would think the unions would have utilized it more than two other times in the past, in 1947 and 1967.

SAG and AFTRA leaders—and obviously also the voting members—were pleased with the extension's 2.5% minimum salary increase and a 0.5% bump to both unions' health plans, even though the salary increase is lower than any in recent history, and the health-plan increase is 0.5% lower than the increase in last year's commercials contract. At a time when studios and networks are projecting vast profits, it's difficult to see how those small increases are justified.

But the unions' sight seems to be set not so much on the extension as on the fall talks. Gilbert has stated the unions will be ready in the fall to "fight" for a better contract. And John Connolly, AFTRA's national president, has said the extension has "positioned the unions to effectively build upon those gains in the next round of talks."

That next round will include, according to the unions' press release, "achieving more equitable and lucrative residual formulas for secondary distribution markets, including DVDs, pay TV, and made-for-basic cable, as well as increased funding for the unions' pension and health plans, further unification of television agreements and stronger terms for background actors."

That general projection indicates the unions will want to up the ante on the 2.5% minimum salary increase and the 0.5% rise in the health plans, and reap a lucrative share of the exploding DVD market as well as other areas. If they do, the favorable vote on such a pact just might prove the most positive in history.

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