In a conversation last week at his modest Studio City home, a sober but unbowed William Daniels—the Screen Actors Guild's national president—reflected on the commercial contract strike that began May 1. It will likely stretch at least until mid-October, if the next round of talks with the advertising industry, scheduled to begin Sept. 13, makes any headway.
Among other things, the advertising industry's proposal calls for the end of pay-for-play residuals—the euphemism is "modernizing" the payment formula—for Class A network commercials, along with standard increases in other areas.
Not only did SAG's contract proposal call for an increase in the pay-for-play Class A payments; its own version of modernization was to propose a pay-for-play formula for cable commercials, which have dramatically increased in media value since SAG and AFTRA's last contract negotiation.
A lot is riding on this strike and its outcome. But if that pressure is getting to Daniels, it doesn't show. He seems resolute but reasonable about a labor action that has had its share of venom and recriminations from all sides. A lifelong performer, the avuncular Daniels has assumed the role of strike leader with grace and aplomb.
Back Stage: Usually when we hear about an industry on strike—like those Verizon workers recently—we also hear about the status of negotiations; it's typical to hear that labor and management are in intense negotiations to resolve their differences while the strike is going on. In this case, why have there been such long periods between meetings to negotiate?
Daniels: From the start, which really began in mid-April, we made our proposals, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) made their proposals, and we were there for three weeks. There was no accommodation, so it was ended, and on May 1 we went on strike. After that, there wasn't any interest in talking, quite frankly, on their side. The ANA made a proposal on Apr. 14, and they just stuck with that and didn't want to consider our proposals at all. So there was no reason to go back until the federal mediators asked us to come back. We did that twice and there was still no movement and the mediators sent us home.
However, now—and I don't want to raise anybody's hopes—but we have a variety of proposals, new proposals to present to them, and hopefully, they can see some way of accommodating our position, a little give and take.
Negotiation is a meeting in the middle somewhere, which we're very, very interested in doing. I'm hopeful that this meeting on Sept. 13 will be a significant one. I will go in, and Shelby Scott, the president of AFTRA, will go in with a small group—David Jolliffe, who is the head of our negotiating team, our chief negotiators, John Maguire and Mathis Dunn, for two or three days of discussion. This will be run by mediators, and if we see any movement, and hopefully we will, we're ready to call the whole negotiating team, which is 22 people, in on the 18th. Then we'll sit down with the whole crew and work something out.
BS: The length of the strike has taken its toll on actors, agents, and the commercial production business in L.A. But I'm wondering what effect you think this long strike has had on your bargaining power. Does holding out this long harm or improve your position going into the next talks?
Daniels: I don't think it's a matter of better or worse. I think it's a matter of process, of living through this. It's a kind of experience for all of us, including the ANA, who probably didn't realize how firm we could be in our convictions. We've never run a strike this long; in the past we've been very accommodating.
It comes down to the fact that we're literally—and I'm talking about the rank-and-file members of our union, not the stars, not the high-profile people—we're having a hard time making a living under this current contract, particularly the current cable contract. And as far as the Class A network rollback—that's the backbone of our commercial contract. That they are asking to get rid of it galvanized the union, because it's our livelihood. And not only that, it has implications for other unions that live on theatrical and television residual systems.
Because if we don't prevail here on this residual system, you can be sure that they're going after the residual systems for others, and in other media, and that affects the DGA and a number of others. I've called this a bellwether strike that assumes a bigger significance than just the commercial contract.
BS: You called Class A the "backbone," but isn't it more like the top of the line—the cream of the contract?
Daniels: It's network. If you want to call the network the top of the line…But I have to tell you that cable, as you know, has in the last 10 years blossomed, and we're still living with a contract we put in place because they claimed they were an infant industry. No accommodations have been made there.
BS: And you want the network pay-for-play model extended to cable.
Daniels: It seems like the best way to go—and the pay-for-play residual that we proposed for cable was a third of the network residual formula. We thought it was very modest. If it has proved too rich, we are ready to accommodate that. But I'm not sure that they are interested in that formula at all, since they want to get rid of network.
BS: Was the ad industry's proposal to eliminate the pay-for-play formula suprising when it was presented in April?
Daniels: It was galvanizing, I'll tell you that. Surprising, yes—but galvanizing. That is what galvanized our union and has made it so strong and solid through this time of strike. We've had so many high-profile people who are sacrificing a great deal of money because they realize the significance of this. They have not crossed our lines. Yes, you hear about Tiger Woods or this one or that one, but our people who are stars and celebrities who have contracts that are not affected by this—a celebrity commercial contract is a big contract, a buyout contract, and there are no residuals involved, it's just a big lump of dough—they're not crossing our lines, they're coming out and supporting us. We've had an influx of high-profile people that I must say is unprecedented.
BS: It does seem that celebrities on picket lines have been late in coming, though. Do you think that's why there's been so little mainstream media coverage, outside the industry trades?
Daniels: We've had a hard time with that, but you have to look at that in reality. First of all, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times have advertisers, big advertisers, so they're not particularly prone to give us the same, equal amount of time that they might for the ANA. That's just a fact and a reality. It's put us at a distinct disadvantage.
And there is a misconception out there that, "What the hell are actors striking for? They make all this money!" I have been trying, and all of our people have been trying, to get it out there that this is about the rank-and-file actor who makes $25,000 or less a year, and he's a working commercial actor, he's not a failure, he gets three, four, five commercials, or whatever a year. And he's making $12 a day on this contract with cable. If you take the $1,000 or $1,100 buyout to run the ad for 13 weeks unlimited use, you're working for about $12 a day.
And actors can't live on that. They really can't. Advertisers talk about a 14- to 17-percent increase—I mean, if they're talking about the cable contract, a 17-percent increase raises the $12 to $15 or something like that per day. And if you watch cable, you'll see these commercials over and over and over again, hundreds of times. It's because they don't have to pay to do it. They have to pay for the time, but they don't have to pay the actor.
BSW: It seems that these large media conglomerates are nervous about reuse and residual structures and back-end deals, like the one SAG has negotiated for certain commercials and theatrical work—especially as these companies get involved in new media, such as Internet and broadband. And there's even new consumer technology, like Tivo or Replay, that could spell the end of network primetime and allow viewers to skip ads altogether.
Daniels: The actors have the same problem, don't they? We're trying to establish some kind of jurisdiction with the Internet, or the crossover that's happening with cable. Bonnie, my wife, was on this show, "Once and Again," on Monday nights, and pretty soon it's on their channel that they own on cable and boom, the payment goes in the toilet. I don't know why.
They're making huge amounts of money and this industry is growing, and the actors just want to grow with it. They don't want to be excluded.
It's as simple as that. When we speak to the ANA and say, "How about the Internet?" they say, "We have no authority to discuss that with you!"
Finis! That's it! We're asking for jurisdiction in Internet, we're asking for a study to go into place in Internet, because we don't want to put a formula in place when nobody has an idea of how it's finally going to enunciate itself. They haven't discussed it with us. Hopefully that'll change.
BSW: It seems unfortunate that commercial actors had to be the vanguards in this "bellwether strike," because they're not the name actors; they can't shut down the TV shows everyone loves and automatically get on the evening news carrying picket signs. If there's a film/TV theatrical strike next summer, as some are concerned may happen, that's what we'll see. Do you think that if such a theatrical strike had come first rather than a commercial strike, things would be going differently?
Daniels: You're asking about something that didn't happen; I have no idea, and I really don't want to speculate on something like that. All I know is the differences are huge, because with the commercial contract, the industry goes on, and actors can pick up work in other areas. With theatrical television, God forbid that there was a strike, and I don't think there has to be a strike, and I don't think that all this talk in the industry about a strike is helpful or even founded on any real information. I think that a deal can be made that everybody would be happy about and we needn't talk strike, strike, strike, even before we've met. I get all these calls about studios and networks rushing into production to stockpile stuff, and we haven't even met yet!
It's so ridiculous, and I blame some of it on the press, who are not interested in good news, only bad news—an upcoming apocalypse.
The commercial strike doesn't close down any industry; I'm glad it doesn't. But the advertisers say it's business as usual for them. It hasn't been business as usual. It's been very costly for them and they're getting product that I don't know that they're very happy with.
When you get a company that's ready to put a million or two million into a really big commercial, they want professional talent—they really do.
The car commercials are going to have to come out pretty soon, the Olympics are going to come out pretty soon. That's why I have hopes for September that there's some give and take and we can come to some accommodation.
BSW: Have you been concerned about keeping together such a large union, with such a large disparity in income among its members?
Daniels: It's been amazing. I've only been in this office for eight or 10 months now. I had no idea of what faced me last November when I ran, except I knew that I ran with a slate that felt there needed to be some change in the union and they needed to have their concerns addressed and felt they weren't being addressed. But I had no idea that we would be involved in this long a strike, and that everybody would pull together as strongly as they have. I think the advertisers have underestimated the strength of actors. They don't understand actors.
In fact, this whole industry doesn't understand actors. Actors are very courageous people. They have to have a lot of guts, they have to live with insecurity, they have to live with huge amounts of competition, and they have to be able to put it on the line immediately. They can be considered by the industry, I suppose, as patsies—but they're wrong about that, because all of this that I just mentioned leads to a kind of a brotherhood and a bond. The actors have been galvanized in this, and they are far stronger than the ad industry ever believed they would be.
It's been very gratifying for me, thank God, because I didn't know what I was getting into. I'm sorry that this strike has gone on for so long, but I have to tell you that the membership is as strong today—oh, you get a few complaints here and there—but basically, the solidarity is still in place, and that's what allows us to hang on and make sure that we get some kind of a living wage out of this.
BSW: I know you can't tell me what the new proposals will be that you'll bring to the table on Sept. 13th, but are there things you won't give ground on?
Daniels: We simply cannot live with giving up a formula of Class A network residuals that we've had in place for 50 years, certainly not in this time of economic boom. You have to wonder where this idea came from: They call it outmoded, that we have to modernize and all of that, but the fact of the matter is, it's a huge pay cut for our commercial actors.
And cable has exploded. You can read it in the financial sections of any paper. Ad agencies are pulling in all kinds of dough. And you just wonder what their thinking is. Are they trying to break this union?
Well, if they are, which is unfortunate, I think they'll find that they're not going to. I think they'll find that we have a lot of sister unions in back of us and supporting of us. If they feel that this residuals formula that has been in place since the '50s is outdated, well, let's talk about that. But get rid of it? That's ridiculous.
There's no reason for that. They're not suffering under it.
BSW: Indeed, it would seem that there's even better technology these days to monitor how many times and where a commercial plays.
Daniels: Yes, they can use these identification things that make it so far simpler to run all this monitoring.
BSW: Of course, it's been suggested that the new technology is too accurate—they don't really want actors to know how much they'd be due per play.
Daniels: True. It's like asking the film industry or the television industry to give you some numbers of what they're doing. It's called creative accounting. They lie amongst themselves, never mind us!
BSW: A big part of the strike strategy has been to stop non-union actors, and even union actors, from crossing the line, and going after those who do, or to use the full extent of film permitting laws to make local production tougher to pull off. Can you talk about this aspect of the strike?
Daniels: Basically, except for a few notable examples, we've been able to shut down production of commercials in L.A. pretty well. They've had to go out of town, and we've followed them out into the deserts. We've had, actually, an amazingly small amount of union actors crossing the lines. You hear about the Tiger Woods or the Shaq O'Neals—oddly enough, not actors but athletes, who live with huge entourages who don't inform them or who misinform them on what's involved. I can't think of a high-profile actor that's done this.
However, for actors who have done it, and there have been amazingly few, there is a set-up at the union—a group that will call them forward for disciplinary action, depending upon the circumstances. I can't tell you what the punishment would be; it could be money, or if it's really flagrant, I suppose they could be let go out of the union, but other than that, we've had very little. And it's amazing. We've really shut down this town. They've had to go to Canada, or they've had Canadian people coming down here and doing commercials up in Oregon or whatever; it's costing them a great deal of money.
It's costing everybody money. And that's unfortunate, but the advertisers are adamant. I honestly don't know why, except there is the corporate mentality, which is, "I'm the boss, I'm hiring you, and you do what you're told." They don't want to be told what to do. As a matter of fact, I think, if they could get rid of actors altogether, they'd be very happy—put up some kind of robotic something or other on the screen.
BSW: Yes, I think corporations always prefer a work-for-hire model: You do this work and I pay you this much, but don't interfere with the "back end" unless you're a partner or a stockholder.
Daniels: I do know that commercials are paying non-union actors a great deal more than they ever would right now. You know that's going on. But the fact is, I don't know what kind of product they're getting. In the past, they got product they had to throw out. Union actors have a talent and an expertise to be able to sell the product and bring it in under a minute and a half or whatever's given to them, and make it memorable. I think if you look at the commercials going on right now, you see a lot of athletes running or cars going with nobody in them, or behind darkened windows. You're not seeing actors act out things that can be memorable. You're not seeing "Don't squeeze the Charmin" or "Where's the beef?" That's what the industry needs. They know they need it. They're putting off their big commercials because they don't want to spend a whole lot of money and not have the product be top-notch. So what are we doing here? Why don't we settle this and make everybody happy?
BSW: The strike has also had a huge impact on talent agencies and small commercial producers and production personnel in L.A. In planning for the strike, was there a plan to address their concerns with a huge work stoppage?
Daniels: The agents are suffering, it's true. We do have an interim agreement for these small producers, and they've been signing them by the droves. The last time I heard, 1,800 of them has been signed, and it's probably more than that now. They've been signing them and they can live with this. It isn't them—It's the big guys in the Joint Policy Committee (representing the ANA). These big guys can go a long time because they've got a great deal of money behind them.
But all that's kind of passé right now as far as I'm concerned. Right now, I get the feeling that there is a mood on both sides that we have to do some real negotiating, sit down and talk about this, and surely we can pound out a deal.
I was talking today to a legend in this field, Mr. Lew Wasserman; I had a wonderful meeting with him over at Universal. He said, "You know, Bill, nobody wins in a strike. Everybody suffers in a strike. So, the main idea is, each side give a little and we come to a deal." And that's where my mindset is right now.
Pull Quote: "They're making huge amounts of money and this industry is
growing, and the actors just want to grow with it. They don't want to be
excluded. It's as simple as that."
Pull Quote 2: "If we don't prevail here on this residual system, you can
be sure that they're going after the residual systems for others, and in