Actors: Life After the SAG/AFTRA Contract

I am not a political person but it has been impossible to ignore the circus of this year’s election. I am thinking about the way the process works and the amount of strategy used. I started to think about the SAG commercial contract, when it was expiring and the  renegotiation. I never thought of two smart sides using strategy to come to a fair settlement. I actually think I was very naïve in believing it was actors on one side and producers on the other. I was very sure that actors were feeling the lack of union work and were afraid if they went on strike, the union would never bounce back. I do not think for the everyday actor that they were concerned about rates, increases, or rule changes.

Actors getting involved in an increase of day rates, or first class airfare, or an 8 hour work day are not things the average voting actor was concerned with. I have found that most commercial actors do not know most of the rules in the SAG contract. Many do not ever know the rate for an 8 hour work day. They rely on agents or managers to inform and advise them. Agents and managers…that had no say in the negotiation. SAG actors were sitting back and watching while more than 60% of all auditions were non-union. Many actors did not care about the terms. They were so afraid that if they voted for a  strike that there would never be any SAG commercial work again. All they thought or heard about was the last strike and that if they went on strike again it was over for them.

I now believe that they should not have gone on strike because with the all the changes (digital, social media, etc.) that this contract was a good compromise.

We (casting directors, directors, producers and more) have all been hit hard financially while the world of advertising tries to figure itself out.

No matter what, when a client is dealing with a small budget to get their brand out there, they still can’t afford 8 hour work days, work outside the zone, P&W of 17%, etc. I have so many clients that actually investigate going union. It’s not the day rate, it’s all the other things I mentioned. I never thought that they were shooting non-union to prove a point. Maybe it was part of a negotiating strategy.  The buyouts for internet and social media are reasonable for now.  “Broadcast “ union commercials cost so much money in residuals that a lot of what I see is that they run one cycle (13 weeks) and then they move over to internet, where not only are they being viewed more, it becomes an additional buyout which is affordable under SAG.

The truth is, a lot of network commercials are being shot to air on a special events that will be watched live by millions of people. Commercials made for the super bowl are the best example. I felt that if they could have gotten rid of residuals and offer buyouts based on usage, then there would be more commercials running on broadcast TV. The union is never giving anything back. That would be like lowering an employee’s salary. I think continuing to fight for the part of the contract that will end up obsolete instead of trying to figure out the future would be more productive. Find a better balance. 

I hope network TV  will never go away. I watch a lot of it as well as the other available options. It seems to me that people need commercials more then they realize. You go shopping and know the toilet paper you want because you have seen an ad that stuck with you and you don’t even know that it is stuck in your head . If all our watching became ad-free like Netflix, then how would products advertise? It seems to me, as a person that can’t pay my rent without advertising, that it is necessary. Isn’t there a way or a compromise? Even Netflix advertises so people will know that they exist…commercial free. If there was no way for them to advertise then how would we know? How would we know about all the new original programing if they couldn’t promote these shows on Broadcast, cable, etc. Maybe I am completely wrong and uninformed, but it scares me. Social media is so fast and even less clear on how advertising works and how effective it is. Product clients can’t pay SAG rates when they have no idea if it is being watched or selling anything.  It was like going from print to TV. It feels like history is repeating itself when cable TV was added to the contract and the union decided there was no future in it. Having a reasonable union that understands all sides so they can work together seems so important. Talent agents, casting directors, and managers were never asked their opinions. We are on the ground living it everyday. I don’t think the people that were in a position to vote ever felt that everyone’s goal was the same.

I was convinced (since most of the casting I was doing leading up to the negotiation) that after it was over, there would continue be more non-union work then ever. I knew that all the big agencies and their signatories were doing more and more digital work and were stuck in how to move forward. Nobody knew what to do with Twitter, Snap Chat, etc. The actors won with broadcast and the producers/signatories won with Internet and New Media. Everyone knew that Broadcast was getting less and less and just had to hope that as low as the rates were, it would cut down on non union.

I think the point I’m trying to make (and maybe not doing a great job of ) is everyone made the best deal they could. Could they have gotten rid of first class? Yes. Would it have made a difference? Yes. Could they have come up with a tier system for P&W and would it have made a difference? Yes.

What I am understanding now and did not see was the strategy behind the negotiations. You do not flood the market with SAG network auditions before a possible strike. You sit back and let all the SAG actors see how much non-union work there is and they get scared. Great strategy. I actually believed going into the vote that there would barely be any union work again and three years from now everyone would jump ship. After the vote and the contract was passed, I had more union work than I had had in a year.

I was thrilled, but surprised. It would be nice to be able to do every job on a SAG contract while still allowing agents and casting directors to meet and employ new people without the fear of penalties. Creative changes all the time and, often times, we need to search for new types. If we are shut down then creativity will not move forward. Also, the membership amount is higher than actors can afford, since most internet or social media ads pay much less. This negotiation made actors afraid to become union members. Less auditions with more bills. The union said, for the commercial contract, that it was their highest revenue year yet. My answer to that is “celebrity endorsements.” How much of that money came from that?

This strategy (after watching the nonsense of a presidential election) became very clear to me. It was a very smart way to go and I truly think we have a chance of merging the gap even more if people involved would be honest, acknowledge the future, and consider a way for actors to work on union contracts and the advertisers can afford to offer them.

If I am lucky enough to be busy casting, I see they need to try and work together to make things better for everyone, not get political and out strategize the other side. Let’s stop the CIRCUS mentality and in 3 years, maybe ask the opinions of the people who are knee deep in it.

As my mother said, there are 3 sides to every story…yours, mine, and the correct one.

You can’t get there if you don’t ask everyone.

Actors: Life After the SAG/AFTRA Contract

Casting: Always Something to Learn

As I promised, this week I am going to write about the commercial world overlapping with the legit/theatrical world. I have been lucky for the last two weeks. My top directors have done major work for incredible new break out campaigns. They love and are used to the top of the line, very talented actors that not only do commercials, but do work in episodic and theater as well.

The major challenge in dealing with the amount of episodic being shot in New York right now, is trying to help and understand how the actors are juggling a day on Orange Is the New Black (which doesn’t make as much money as a commercial, but it is a bit closer to why they become an actor) with not wanting to close the door on a great commercial with a great director that can make them great money and give them exposure and a relationship that can move their careers along faster than a day here or there on Jennifer Lopez’s new show.

I have told you before but the list of actors that have booked with these directors and have gone on to huge careers is incredible – Thomas Middleditch, Michael Kelly, Jessie Tyler Ferguson, Amanda Peet, Selma Blair, Chris Gethard, etc. I don’t think you will ever regret the stepping-stone as well as recognizing the fact that commercials help.

Commercial casting directors are able to meet new people and get you seen in quality work. The problem that I am facing with these incredible jobs is that I am at the mercy of those shows and, even though I clear a schedule before I show anything to my director, there is a chance that if there is a schedule change, it could put us in an embarrassing situation. I have to heavily weigh the risk. I work very hard to figure out this level of talents’ legit schedule before I see them. I get it, I really do. But the process to be selected as a first choice on a commercial is huge. Then to present to the client, have them approve the actor, and then have the actor bail and take a legit job is not something that anyone on my side understands.

Actors should value their talent more on situation and understand that they are not easily replaced. We are talking top-level directors with top products that win awards and, like being the lead in anything, there are rarely backups that are as strong as the first choice. The end result for me could be a loss of a client (agency) or even a director because I could not fix things. I will lose the next job.

All I am asking from these actors is that they understand our side. Maybe we’re not called legit, but for us, our work is equally as important. I can only make a decision based on what your agent tells me and they can only tell me what you have told them. Booking out for personal reasons is one thing. Keeping your commercial agent informed of what is going on in your legit/theatrical career allows them full disclosure. When I want to see you, it also allows me to pass on seeing you if I think there are going to be conflicts.

If your legit career is in a place that is moving forward and a lot of opportunities are coming your way, then take yourself out of commercials for a while. You can’t have everything. If you are lucky enough to book both, someone is going to lose and someone else’s career is going to be affected. Full disclosure, please! The worst thing an actor can say or think is, “I’ll wait to see what happens.” It’s just not fair. I am not trying to stop anyone’s career. I would rather tell a director that you are “pinned” then take a chance.

Let’s go back to the word “pinned.” I had to call several agents to ask what this meant. Thirty years and a new word, at least in New York. The answer was that it is stronger than a right of first refusal. It is a booking, but with no exact dates. If they own you, you cannot take another right of first refusal during those dates. Sometimes they change your shoot date. What if you accepted another job? Are you going to tell the commercial, “oops?” These are the things that I am very diligent about. Your agent should know your schedule.

Managers’ first choice will always be legit over commercial and will generally not tell your commercial agent anything until they are called. Sometimes they know and don’t tell. They have their priorities. Please don’t depend on your manager to tell your commercial agents. Commercials are seen as secondary to them and if there is a schedule conflict, they will either pick legit or have your agents fight it out. I think commercial is equally as important, but I cannot speak for managers.

I always honor my word. I always want it to work out for the actor but not at the expense of my career. And yes, being a casting director is a career for me and one I take very seriously. Mistakes happen, things are missed, but I find most times it comes down to priorities. I cast films, as well…some smaller, some bigger. I understand but I would never pull an actor from a commercial to work on one of my films. When I cast a film, I dig deep into my pool of commercial actors and will always work hard to work out a conflict. One thing is never more important. Casting directors and agents will go the extra yard to try and make things work. You can never depend on production. Production cares about their production. That is it.

We need the actors’ help. Every relationship is important. You never know if one day I will cast a commercial for Tony Kaye and the next week it might be a film. Burning bridges is a mistake. Many commercial directors have gone on to do huge films. You do not want conflicts when an opportunity comes up to do a commercial for Bennett Miller and then a film.

People remember effort. They also remember no effort. I have huge respect for Bernie Telsey. He understands all of it. I am going to reach out to him for advice on how to balance this.

Things have again changed. Theater has always been huge in New York, but TV and film has become huge, as well. We must all make an effort to work together again. Commercials can make careers in other ways. They can lead to much bigger things. Do not underestimate them or the casting directors.

It seems, once again, I am asking for honesty and communication. Once I speak to Bernie (he is not only the top in New York, but very well respected), I will let you know what I learn because yes, in the legit area, with all the work in New York, I have things to learn.

What I am asking of everyone is hard but maybe we can come to a solution that will make things easier for all of us. Thank you for listening. I want to give great actors to directors that I know will do films and TV and present it all properly. The communication has to start with the actor.

A request: Do not use the excuse “family emergency” anymore. If you made a mistake with your schedule, own up to it. If you got lazy, do not abuse the one reason I am not comfortable pushing on. Let’s all try.

And one last request: If you confirm an appointment at my office, then make that appointment. Also, please keep the time change requests to a “very” important reason. I prep very exactly. I pair people up that I think will work well together and I divide my days by roles or spots so just needing a time change out of what is easiest for you is exhausting to us and simply not an option.

Again, please…our jobs are hard enough. There is a method to my madness and I work hard to not keep you waiting. I am prepping to do a great job and show respect to actors. I hope you understand that. We produce great quality casting because of this and you need to understand that. Actors are not a “dime a dozen” in my office and you should think of yourself that way.

Casting: Always Something to Learn

A Bad Theatrical Experience

I’d like to switch to an area that I never talk about – theatrical. The reason I am bringing it up is because, of everything stressful that went on last week, this was the worst. I was witness to the most unprofessional thing I have ever seen.

I know a young (and new) actor, who took a part in a play for virtually no money, but for the experience. He was promised a lot, none of which came to fruition. The young actor made one mistake; he expressed his frustration to someone he should not have. The director/writer (who has been doing this for a long time) should have been the professional. She should have had a meeting with the actor and they should have discussed their issues. Instead, the show ended, the actor was frustrated, and the director was angry.

I will not tell you how it ended. But I will tell you, this is a small business and what goes around comes around. I don’t care if you are the young new actor or the seasoned professional – act professional. In this case, the “professional” did not act that way. Do not assume that because the actor is young that he is not connected. You never know and it is a small business when it comes to reputations. The actor made a “new actor” mistake, but still put on great shows. The professional acted very unprofessionally in every way possible. Instead of stepping up and being a mentor, she tried to ruin him emotionally, as well as threaten his career.

As an actor starting out and taking projects without agent representation, you trust everyone involved to do what they have promised. All I can say is do your homework. Check out all the people involved. Make sure they are who they say they are. If you are not happy, finish and walk away or talk to the person directly.

I do not wish on anyone what this actor had to endure when the show ended. He learned a simple lesson the hard way. I cannot imagine what this director/writer could have learned.

Next week, back to my world.

A Bad Theatrical Experience