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WORKING ACTOR: More Balls Mean More Strikes

OK, you and everyone else probably know more about this strike thing than I do right now. As I write this column on the afternoon of Mar. 31, it has not yet been determined if there will even be a commercials strike. Apparently tonight is the deadline to see if the two sides have a deal, although it wouldn't at all be a surprise if that deadline extends. (I hope it didn't, but if it did I wouldn't be surprised.) When big money is at stake-in this case, cable bucks-usually a work stoppage is the only way to convince producers to take us seriously. Sure, some advertisers think they'll just run their national campaigns with non-union thesps or by hiring union actors who will work illegally, but we know in the long run they'll come to the table and seal a deal. There'll surely be some heated discussion as it comes down to the wire. I find it kind of ironic that negotiations began on Valentine's Day.

In all fairness, both sides have been trying to hammer this thing out, but the differences seem to be so huge that I can't imagine matters are going to be resolved without some major event. The advertisers want a lot of things that just aren't going to happen if the union has any say. A flat payment of $2,000 for unlimited network airings won't happen. The producers are upset that we want a 20 percent across-the-board day rate for sessions, plus cable residuals that are based on mid-30-percent pay per play. There are a lot of other issues at stake as well and both teams are to be commended if they can pull together and make this work. I'm glad we have good lawyers looking out for us.

Actors' Apathy

Hey, speaking of good people, my union brothers and sisters, how come SAG and AFTRA mailed out nearly 136,000 ballots and only got back around 41,000? By my calculations, about 70 percent of actors ignored the whole thing and didn't send their ballots back in. Let's not help the other side out too much by appearing completely apathetic. I know many of you are disenchanted with the industry, but things have to start turning around somewhere and your votes-either way-would have been a good start. I'm sure you'll have a chance to vote on something similar in a few years.

(By the way, I'll probably skip voting come November since the current choices are Gore or Bush, but that has very little to do with me getting a role on a sitcom. Now, before you write me back calling me a hypocrite or claiming that pulling a lever for either one of those two candidates will mean more acting work in the United States, I'm definitely not buying it.)

A lot of actors believe when push comes to shove, striking doesn't really matter to their career picture. Making more money isn't really an issue to a guy with a union card who can't even land an audition, let alone a job. Even William Daniels, the President of SAG, who has yet to return my good friend Tombudsman's call from four month's ago, suggested this soberly in his recent speech downtown. Something along the lines of 95 percent of union actors are out of work at any given time and 80 percent make less than $5,000 a year. Ugh.

Will a strike change any of that? Not likely. Can you imagine the placards on that strike line? "We the workers, at least in theory, demand more jobs for all actors, so go ahead and make a lot more shows and use really large and changeable ensemble casts, and while you're at it will you stop hiring Tommy Lee Jones and Meg Ryan for everything and consider throwing a bone to the rest of us! And, oh yeah, I'm a really good actor and Canada stinks!" Probably too large for your average hand-held sign.

Working actors have to accept rampant unemployment. It's a fact of our lives that our supply will always outweigh the demand. We know that, but when we do get hired it's only fair that we be compensated properly. That's the real essence of this current dilemma. That's extremely important, because if our union has one practical responsibility in our daily lives it is to make sure we are getting paid what is right. (Right, of course, is a relative word here, for we all know the preponderance of scale roles being offered these days for theatrical parts.)

Now, I've ventured off commercials for a moment here, but that's OK, because we'll probably be talking about a strike in that area sometime in the future. Anyway, I keep hearing actors talking about the '70s and '80s as if they were the halcyon days. Apparently way back then you could do a handful of guest spots a year and make a hell of a living. Not any longer for most. Imagine being able to do what you love for a living and pay the bills, too.

Most working thespians will continue to struggle for respect, to make mortgage payments-although more than likely rent payments would be more applicable-and to just stay above the poverty line. Add a couple of kids into the equation and you can see why some long-time professionals are pulling their hair out over how to stay afloat. It's very hard to get an audition. It's dramatic to actually book a role. It's a crying shame when you get pennies in residuals while the people that make the spots are getting rich. If there is a strike, I hope there is change-not just a little extra change. Pennies in cable residuals and that ridiculous buyout offer for 13 weeks is not an option anymore.

Tanned, but Hungry

When will working actors ever get the respect they deserve? Probably never, because the public has no concept of what being an actor is. Daniels was right on when he said that most actors have more in common with average working people than they do with stars. Aside from the fact that average working people earn a lot more than the rank and file, the comparison was well chosen. Most performers are just trying to eke out a living in this tough world. There isn't any glamour or personal assistants or homes in Malibu. Those same firefighters and teachers that were smiling at Daniels as he made his speech were probably thinking... yeah right, you guys have it real tough.

Rumor has it that a few years ago you could have booked a true national spot and maybe bought a nice house in, well, not B.H., but somewhere around town. Those days are over. For actors lucky enough to survive the lottery and get a commercial, spots are not the moneymakers they used to be. They are however more profitable than ever for the people that make them. It's been reported that the cost for hiring commercial actors is less than two percent of a commercial's airing budget. Anyone who complains that actors are overpaid is simply in Fantasyland.

A strike now or later might be a very necessary thing, for producers never give up much unless they are pressed hard to the wall. Strikes didn't just happen in 1952, 1960, 1978, 1980, and 1988 because actors thought the idea of being out of work and walking a picket line was going to be fun. They happened because working actors have historically been underpaid for their services. We got here, I believe, because of a nuclear issue-those infamously insulting cable residuals. You'd better believe a strike is necessary because cable usage fees are embarrassing. And if you think cable residuals are bad for commercials just think of the ones you've gotten for television and films roles. They're even worse. What, no one watches cable? That's nonsense. Where have all of those network viewers gone then, back to radio? They are there, believe me. The producers know it, too, and that's why many shows are skipping the costlier avenue of syndication and heading straight to cable.

Well, I appreciated those words that Daniels offered downtown about the struggles and truths of being a working actor, but I doubt they'll engender much sympathy from the advertisers in this particular battle. I don't think many civilians will care much about our plight either, because when push comes to shove we're still looked at as those people who play for a living. Years ago, I used think it myself. During my college days, the strike of '78-'80 was occurring, and watching the tanned picketers in Hollywood walking the line, all I could think to myself was, How dare you complain about anything? You're all actors, for goodness sake. My na™vet caused me, a person who was studying theatre, to believe that all actors in Hollywood were pampered and working. Then I grew up and learned the truth.

So it's the commercial side this time, perhaps next it'll be for films and television shows or maybe the too-quickly-growing field of the Internet. I'll tell you what I'd like to strike: I've never spent so much time as I now do sitting in waiting rooms at commercial auditions as hundreds of actors pour in and out. I think we should strike that if you wait more than an hour, you should be paid. Oh, we already got that one? Funny, I've never received a single payment for staying over an hour.

Thomas Mills' Working Actor column appears the first week of every month. In remaining weeks, his Tombudsman column appears.

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