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The SAG-AFTRA Strike from an Agent's Perspective

We've had many points of view expressed in these pages regarding the SAG-AFTRA strike against the advertising industry, but one segment of the industry we have not called upon is agents. So I got in touch with Shep Pamplin, vice president and senior agent with Oppenheim-Christie Associates. I asked Shep how the strike is affecting his agency, and the agency industry at large.

"Fortunately," states Shep, "I do work across the board. I have film, television, and theatre projects to work on. But," he continues, "it's still a drastic cut in the income of an agency to lose the commercial activity that had been going on continuously, and a tremendous impact on those agencies that do only commercials.

"Companies are downsizing," he warns. "They're letting their assistants go. Some agents are now working a two- or three-day week, as opposed to a five-day week. Some agents that do only commercials are out doing temp jobs in order to survive during this strike period. Their income, their daily jobs, have all been drastically affected by this strike." Shep added that a Strike Relief Fund has been set up for the actors—which is good—but nothing has been done for the agents, some of whom may be on the verge of having to make radical changes in their lifestyles.

Agents may be losing jobs and income, but managers seem to be benefiting from the strike, according to Shep. "The strike is doing what I've always feared, and that is driving work back to the managers—managers that are not franchised and don't have the threat of losing their franchise from the union. Many—not all, but many—are working right on through the strike, sending out people, making a lot of money, while we are waiting it out. The casting directors are turning to those managers, and I have no doubt they're going to rely on them after the strike. They will continue to call on them because they are there during this time, and helping. I think we're going to see a shift to more casting director-management submissions and appointments than agent appointments. That's always been a fear of mine, and now, that's what the strike may be doing to the business in this town."

Because there are nonunion actors who are doing struck commercial work, lured by the opportunities to make money and gain favor with both producers and casting directors, I asked Shep his thoughts on those who are crossing the picket lines.

"There are many actors and actresses who are nonunion who are working during this time," the agent acknowledges. "They are promised the short-term income that comes from doing these commercials on struck sets. But the bottom line is that this is a business, and every actor needs to remember that their SAG membership applies not only to working on commercials, but to working on film and television as well.

"If actors are looking for a career in this business," he cautions, "they have to weigh that in as part of the overall picture. If they find themselves, after this strike is over, not able to get into the union, or their membership is being delayed or withheld for whatever reason, they'll realize that their initial actions affected the rest of their career. So, at this point, they can opt to do the non-struck work, make that short-term money, and jeopardize their careers, or they can ride the strike out with the rest of us, be there when it's over, able to move forward with their careers."

Last week in this column, I mentioned how actors need to find out for themselves whether the job they're about to audition for, or work on, is a struck set or not. SAG's New York Executive Director, John Sucke, noted one needs to find out the contract status of the product or service, and if it was contracted union or nonunion before May 1.

Shep pointed out that the performer needs only to look at the rate the job is paying: If the commercial is running network, cable, or Internet, and is paying the 1997 Screen Actors Guild rate, or if the commercial is for a product or service that you might have already seen as a national spot, then it's highly likely that the work is struck work.

If you're still not sure, then ask! Ask the casting director or someone from the production company. If the information is not forthcoming, consider the work to be struck work.

Agents should know the status of a commercial they're sending their clients to audition for, and the actors should find out first from his or her agent. But in some cases, the agents really don't know, and very innocently have been sending out clients for struck work.

Breakdown Services has now changed all this. Two weeks ago, Breakdown Services began requiring producers and casting directors to state on their submitted breakdowns the name of the product or the company manufacturing the product, and whether the commercial is nonunion and is struck work, or nonunion and not struck work.

"Agents and managers can now look at the breakdowns and know whether a commercial is struck work or not," Thom Goff, director of East Coast Services for Breakdown Services told me. "We have an obligation to the agents and managers [subscribers to Breakdown Services] to ask the casting directors for that information."

And, following suit, beginning this week, Back Stage will note under each casting notice for commercial work whether the notice is for struck work or not. We feel that we have an obligation to you, our readers, to be informed as much as possible, before submitting pix and resumes or going out to audition.

I asked Shep what he felt about nonunion members being offered SAG cards for putting in the required 80 hours of work on the picket lines.

"It's not one of my favorite solutions to getting into the union," Shep admits. "I work with SAG actors that have, over the years, honed their audition skills, made an effort to get seen by casting directors, and competed and competed until they reached the point where they knew what to do, and then, finally, earned their SAG card. To hand a card to a person for putting in 80 hours on a strike line is a nice gesture, and it gets a lot of support for the strike and for the union. I admit that I've used the 80-hour requirement to get SAG cards for a couple of my young clients whom I felt were ready and would have probably been able to get their cards if we weren't in the middle of a strike.

"Still, it's just a little unfair to those actors that had to get it the hard way, that really had to earn their card by competing and auditioning over and over again."

Shep knows this all too well, since he came to New York from his native Oklahoma to be in the business. "I remember the days when I was a performer and I was looking for that Catch-22 to get any of the union cards. I learned that you just have to get out there and keep trying, and then one day you will earn it. We always look for the easy way to get it. I admit that I got mine the easy way. I found the right project at the right time, and, after 15 years of trying, it happened."

Shep sums up his advice to the nonunion actor: "I'd say the same to any SAG actor who suddenly decides that he or she wants to do commercials when they've earned their card doing film and television work. You've got to get out there and audition—and learn how to audition. Auditioning is a technique unto itself, and once you learn how to audition, you'll start getting callbacks. And when the callbacks start coming in, you'll eventually get booked. You're going to earn that job, whether you're SAG or nonunion.

"The easy way out is not always the answer. To be handed something on a plate is not the ultimate deal for anybody in this business because, by the time you earn that card, you already know what it's all about, and what it means to you. It has a special value."

And restating what the agent said earlier:

"But you need to consider your overall career. If the short, easy way out is the way to go, and it doesn't affect your career down the road, then more power to you. If it does affect your career, then you'll come to realize that the short, easy way may not have been the best way."

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