Unions and the Future:
On Actors, Acting, Business, Unions and the Future
If you are interested in earning even part of your living working in the entertainment industry, specifically as an actor or performing talent, you need to take the time to learn about the craft, study the craft and get a handle on what in the musical “Mame” is referred to as “this business called show.
Looking at acting as a profession means agreeing that as an actor, you are in business for your self. You are an independent contractor going from job to job and task to task.
Thinking of acting as a business is a stretch for many actors, but a necessity to put food on the table.
Actors need to learn early that if they intend to earn even part of their living with their talents, they need to organize their lives as a business. There are considerations such as marketing, financing, production and distribution, just as there would be in any business. Photographs, audio and video tapes, training, networking and selling your talents and services are vital for your future success. They are the tools of your trade. Investment of time, money and compassion are needed to succeed in show business. There may be magic, but it is necessary to eat and make a living while creating and enjoying the benefits of that magic.
Understanding the craft of acting, how to market yourself as an actor, and of the ever changing market place and distribution systems, may be essential to modern financial success in a very ancient profession.
The Myth that Actors Are Different
So why should actors be looked upon as any different from anyone who works for someone else to pay the bills and earn a living?
When corporations and large single ownerships began to monopolize the American Theater Circuit, it was only natural that a move toward solidarity and unionization would follow. So it is, that we have actors unions, unions undergoing a major change in definition, structure and potentially mission, entering the twenty-first century.
Labor Unions for Actors
Labor unions, born of the struggles of the nineteenth century, continue to face changes in management, economics, technology and public opinion. The pace may be increasing exponentially. One group, professional working actors are faced with the impact of technology, decentralization and the rapid growth of the number of qualified professional performers.
There are many performance unions, but three unions directly affect actors wishing to work in commercials, television and motion pictures.
The first is Equity, which has jurisdiction over live theater and works closely with the two electronic and film unions. While Actors Equity membership is not required to work in film or television, however those casting often perceive an actors membership in the stage or “legitimate theater” union as an asset when making casting decisions. It is necessary to move to a market with and active professional theater community and Equity casting to earn membership into the union. Becoming Equity is a major commitment and will end your flexibility to do community theater (allowed by the other two unions).
The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists share jurisdiction in television and with commercials and work jointly to negotiate film and other contracts. The differences betweens these unions are explained in the glossary that follows, however at this time there is strong movement toward consolidation to minimize the differences and draw clear and unified lines as to contract jurisdiction entering the digital “info-tainment” age.
Actors have seen increasing challenges in making a living while pursuing their craft, their art form, and their professions.
The modern performance labor union started in an age when hotels put out signs that read “no dogs or actors allowed”. Actors were looked upon as traveling deadbeats and the most successful actors would travel from city to city, using local talent to produce theater and entertainments, leaving with the lions share of any ticket gate brought in, or leaving on a rail.
Actor’s identities, and their ability to control the worlds in which they work, are under the largest and perhaps most rapid forced transitions in history. The theater trained actor may be the minority, perceived as overqualified for the work producers require in a new technology driven marketplace. Middle class working actors find themselves in danger of going the way of the dinosaur, passing into history replaced by new technologies and a corporate defined world.
The entertainment and information industries are merging, under the control or umbrella of as few as six major international corporations as of the end of 2002. The line between reality and theater is blurred, with an accountant’s pen often deciding which vision of reality or art is presented to the mass audience. In recent years the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA has been faced with the shift by employers (who were themselves creative producers of product, entertainment and art), to a world with a half dozen corporate entities controlling most of the worlds information and entertainment, utilizing the concepts of accounting and stock value to make decisions more often than story or social value.
The methods, compensation and ability of actors to earn a living using their craft are evolving, often to the disadvantage of the working actor. Actors face the reality of a decrease in potential earnings, known as salary compression. Producers are in a position to offer roles at union scale to experience and sometimes “name” actors and to cripple the union in their efforts to make significant inroads in the areas of salary and benefits. New Media, an umbrella term for all of the new technologies which have evolved over the past ten to fifteen years (including the cable industry as we know it), often falls outside of or at the fringe of contracts with minimal compensation for the use of talent.
So who are the rank and file of “working actors”?
They could be your neighbor or the couple down the street.
Actors often hold simultaneous memberships in these diverse groups. Their interests can and should be diverse and liberal arts in nature. Their incomes are by choice or necessity diverse, often extending into the business and service industries as well as across entertainment industry internal lines.
At these various levels, actors may be engaged in their work on a part-time, full-time or in the case of some university programs, full immersion basis. As has been true since Shakespeare’s time (and even before) actors may also become writers, directors, producers, stage and film hands, publicists, sale people, lawyers, doctors, teachers and so on.
Some actors may engage in pretensions of superiority with attitudes illustrated by feelings that stage actors are the “real” actors, full time actors are the “real actors”, principal and featured roles are superior to background talent, university trained actors are superior to street talent, actors who work in the “real world” are the only true actors with academic trained actors being too “pie in the sky”, and so forth. Most actors move freely between these various groups and within the mediums for creative or economic reasons. Many coach or teach or work in other areas of talent development while pursing their “income under contract” within the profession. Many professional actors belong to stage, television and film unions. The list of successful, awardwinning actors who made the transition from the stage to film acting is lengthy.
Obviously, the stage acting profession formed the basis of the film industry. As can be seen in early film, the language of stage acting was adapted to film. This became even more evident with the addition of sound to moving images. Actors, writers, directors and producers were amazingly adept in changing techniques to the aesthetics of the new medium. In turn, film also influenced the stage. In pace, stage techniques, lighting, sound, costuming and talent image and casting practices, the stage art often reflects the aesthetics and expectations of a film and television raised generation. Audience expectations have also evolved with the parallel media of stage and film. Beyond aesthetics, the early stage and film union movements were bound together in their struggles against forces of oppression.
The current corporate, political, and social environment has implications for all those who work in the arts or in the media, entertainment and information related industries. The growth of multi-media and new technology provides both challenges and opportunities. In any event, academic and professional groups in both theater and film programs should be paying attention to current union activities. What happens in SAG, AFTRA, Equity and other unions and the film industry in general (agents, casting professionals) is bound to have an affect on the theater and arts communities, both aesthetically and in how many levels of professionals earn their livings.
An Actor’s Life
When an actor does his or her job, the audience suspends disbelief and believes the actor is the character they are portraying. Actors are paid to make their job look easy and to minimize the percentage of the audience who perceive them as acting. Meanwhile actors face a constant chain of employers, ever changing in name, employment entity, job requirements and demands of their skill. It takes time, talent, dedication and study to aspire to earn a living as an actor.
The Screen Actors Guild of the new century is unique among unions in many ways. Perhaps the most unique feature of the Guild is that its membership consists entirely of film and television performers who work on a per contract basis and move routinely between employers over the course of most years, much less careers. This structure is different from conventional industries with relatively stable work forces and an organized, structured business environment, because most film and television industry projects are put together from scratch, with new payrolls, different crews, different talent needs and even different locations on a national or international basis. Gone is the studio system where films were shot within the stone walls or motion picture communities in Hollywood or New York. Gone is the nurturing yet at the same time abusive system which hired starlets by the hundreds, put them through school, provided rigorous training and graduated the lucky few into full time employment on the studio lot.
Understanding the nature of actors, the way they make their living, their motivations and aspirations is important in understanding why some of the members of the Screen Actors Guild would prefer to remain autonomous from other unions.
Most actors see their work as a craft, an art, and a way of life. Others are attracted to the industry by the glamour and promise of fame and fortune and the outside perception of an easy way to make a living.
Despite the stereotype of liberal or “tree huggers”, actors represent the full range of political beliefs. However there are a few generalities that may apply. According to a survey published in by University of Wisconsin Press conducted by author and researcher David Prindle, film actors tend to be more mercenary and politically conservative while stage actors are more idealistic and artistic minded. Prindle and other sources confirm that within the SAG boardroom there are elected officials with views covering the full range of American politics and economics. Yet all have several things in common, including an interest in working for the betterment of their industry and their peers.
As artists and workers, actors are among the most misunderstood of professionals. According to actor Anthony Zerbe, “Acting is easy, or perceived to be, because we work so hard to make it look natural, to not let the work show, to suspend an audiences' disbelief and to play the play”.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics provide this description of the profession of acting:
Acting demands patience and total commitment, because there are often long periods of unemployment between jobs. While under contract, actors are frequently required to work long hours and travel. For stage actors, flawless performances require tedious memorizing of lines and repetitive rehearsals, and in television, actors must deliver a good performance with very little preparation. Actors need stamina to withstand hours under hot lights, heavy costumes and make-up, physically demanding tasks, long, irregular schedules, and the adverse weather and living conditions that may exist on location shoots. And actors face the constant anxiety of intermittent employment and regular rejections when auditioning for work. Yet in spite of these discouragements, the “passion to play,” as Shakespeare called it, still motivates many to make acting a professional career.
On Actors, Acting and Union
Actors have long been looked upon as the lower level of society, and in fact there was a time in history when actors were more promiscuous than the established society, including among their numbers gypsies, prostitutes, gamblers, carnies and con-men. There has long been an academic and general society view of actors as emotionally immature, irrational and in effect children who need to be protected or punished.
Being an actor is perhaps one of the most difficult ways to actually make a living. While there are actors who have forged full time careers in theater, commercials and convention work in cities coast to coast, the vast majority of work lies in Hollywood and New York City.
It may take one or several hundred non-paid auditions to land one day's work. An actor may work dozens of days a year or none at all. Then too, there are the expensive classes necessary to keep up their skills, the cost of professional photographs, video and audiotape, of postage and time spent marketing themselves to potential employers.
Actor Paul Napier, whose credits include portraying the original Mr. Goodwrench, and who remains active on both the SAG and AFTRA boards of directors, tells of his children being asked by their teacher what their father did for a living. Their response was “audition”.
Casting Director and producer Donn Finn says of actors, “They are not acting for a living, they are acting for their craft. What they are doing for a living, besides waiting tables and taking 'day jobs', is auditioning. You might as well call them auditioners”. Finn went on to point out that each actor "should think of themselves as their own little corporation," and part of the requirements to be a successful corporation is to join and participate in one or more professional actors unions. Finn is a casting partner in the office of Mali Finn Casting and is a professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at California State University in Fullerton. Recent casting credits include: Eight Mile, Phonebooth, Titanic, LA Confidential, Wonder Boys and The Matrix I,II, and III.
Longtime SAG Board member Joe Ruskin, whose career includes appearances on the original "Star Trek" and many other television and film projects, states that, “Actors live in fear of rejection each and every day. If they are successful they fear it will end, if they are struggling they fear they will have to do something else for a living and give up a very important part of themselves”.
For these and other reasons, many actors think of themselves as different from the rest of society. They sit on the outside looking in, observing, studying, emulating and imitating what they see. Many members of other unions view actors as not working for a living, because actors do not work nine to five for five work days in a row and do not always have to get their hands dirty or work up a daily sweat. Actors know that they are working every waking hour, even as they do other jobs, developing their craft and being ready when the time comes to be able to do what they consider to be the most important thing in their life, to do a role and to act.
Being an actor is perhaps one of the most difficult ways to actually make a living.
To begin with the numbers are against you.
For every part there are hundreds of would-be actors identifying themselves as being fully capable of playing the role. While trained, experienced or well educated actors do have some advantage, producers and directors often pride themselves in casting “new faces” with little or no training, in turn making it increasingly difficult for “working actors” to earn a living in their craft and trade.
Even among what the US Government categorizes as “qualified professional performers” the numbers are tremendous compared to the actual work available, once you consider that “work in the trade” could mean one days work on a set, a few days, a few weeks or if an actor is lucky, a contract on a successful series or long running theater production. For most actors, “work” means one day at a time, often weeks, months or even years between individual jobs. Thus acting is one of only a handful of professions where those dedicated and involved are seen a working “for the industry” instead of for a single employer. Contracts are negotiated by most entertainment unions (Equity being the prime exception) with the profession rather than one company or single location employer.
Actors need to consider not only membership in one union, or even all performance unions, but also the overall market place in which they compete. There are estimates of four to as many as ten times that number of qualified non-union actors available in the same talent pool. Many times that number consider themselves “actors” and are free to compete for roles in the overall talent marketing. The standing joke in Los Angeles is that every waiter, store clerk, cop or even doctor is really an actor waiting for their break, writers who have yet to have scripts purchased or producers looking for financing.
Actors make judgments and can be called on the carpet when they voice their opinions or present their art in ways that many in the public may disagree with. This is the nature of art, to mirror, to reflect, to comment on and to challenge the world around us.
When on the set the hours are usually long, schedule less than ideal and locations uncomfortable and sometime dangerous. Depending on the production team, actors can be made to feel like cattle or like kings and queens. The environment changes from one job to the next.
And then there is the lack of work. Mel Gibson, already a star, did not sleep the evening prior to the start of the filming of Lethal Weapon because of apprehension at not having been on a set for well over a year.
Actors may classify themselves as a social group, or into smaller sub-sets based on the specifics of how often they perform as actors (full time, part time, occasional, "wanna-be," community theater, hobbyist, has been).
When with fellow actors, there can be jealousy or elitism within the craft itself. “Working actors” may look down on those less fortunate but who practice the craft and love the art form nonetheless. Their definition of ‘actor’ usually is exclusive to someone who has made a living as an actor, with all of the sacrifices and training, experience and identity that that involves. The “working actors” of Hollywood often have a closed-door attitude, seeking to keep the industry talent pool as small as possible so that those who do wish to make a living will be able to do so. Newcomers are seen as ‘competition’. This very attitude runs counter to the general background of the American Labor Movement and to the federal regulations and guidelines under which unions operate.
Union unity or any type of unified voice or front can prove difficult. For one, many actors consider themselves artists commenting on society more than actively being a part of a social movement, as unionism can be viewed. Actors divide themselves by whether or not they are paid (professional, amateur, community theater, student), their economic status (starving, working, celebrity), and their professional profile (day player, principal, star). The industry types actors by the medium they work in, the work they actually do (theater, stage, theatrical or film, movie, television) and what they are known most for doing (leading man, leading women, character actor, comic, background artist or extra, stunt professional, singer, dancer, voice artist, animation voice artist, variety artists, entertainer and so forth). Whether or not they are affiliated with a labor organization (union, non-union, SAG, AFTRA, AGVA, AGMA, CWA, Actors’ Equity, etc.) or their dominant talent (dancer, singer, actor, or triple threat) may define who an actor is. For the record, the term actor is non-sexed. Where once it was actor and actress, for the most part all performers who act now identity themselves as 'actors'.
At various times actors may form or be identified with cliques, networking groups, workshops, extended families, troupes, ensembles and casts. Because of high turnover, the day player nature of their work, high levels of rejection and sometimes-tenuous finances, actors can be extremely adaptive.
Hollywood, and with it Greater Los Angeles, may be looked upon as a company town for the movie and entertainment industries and the 42nd Street / Broadway Great White Way area of New York a part of that city's identity and chemistry. Actors play a key role in each of these company or trade settlements and how they make their livings effect the social interaction of these communities.
By virtue of the demands of the craft, of the need to study and to observe, working or long-time actors tend to be educated, articulate and well read, defying a social stereotype presented in contemporary media.
Acting is a key part of the larger social world of the entertainment industry, mass communications and leisure aspects of society as a whole.
The Crown Jewel of Unions
The Screen Actors Guild represents a membership which may not be steadily employed. An estimated 90% of serious full time actors are out of work at any given time, with as high as 80% of the SAG membership not primarily employed in the field their union represents. The membership may or may not be serious about their trade, which outside of the craft remains a part of the myth of Hollywood. The fact that the best acting performances leave the impression of a reality brings the public to the understanding that it must be easy and anyone can do it. They do not see the classes, sacrifices, decisions, rehearsal and work that go into the craft. Most of society fails to understand what it is to be an actor, beyond the performances they witness.
Today 85% of union actors make under $2,000 a year at their craft, with fewer than four percent living their upper middle class to wealthy lifestyles solely on their income from acting. Published reports vary, however most agree that as many as six out of ten members of the Screen Actors Guild go without any acting related income in any given year.
The Guild has been called the one truly democratic union because it functions with freely elected officers who, even at the level of the national president, are not paid or compensated for the time they invest. It is a union made up of actors working for actors, who in turn hire paid staff to carry on the day to day functions of the Guild, including legal counsel and financial consulting. While this may sound altruistic, it is also true as a long list of presidents, officers and board members have had to put their careers on hold, spend time away from family and jeopardize their own relationship with agents, casting directors and management in the interest of what is good for the membership of the Guild.
Screen Actors Guild Nevada Branch Treasurer Vickie Sutton summarized her view of why the Screen Actors Guild is unique:
This union is unlike any other union. Our union is so different. It’s about a dream, working in that dream, pursuing that dream. Members are much closer to their union and what it represents. The membership is so diverse, yet under one banner, able to vote on all contracts and be a part of every aspect of the union. I take great pride in my union
Membership in the Guild differs from most other unions. In addition to full time actors, dancers, singers and other performers, SAG membership includes others who do not earn their living within the industry, yet are as proud of their union and their union card as any Hollywood star. The vast majority of SAG's memberships are not ‘actors’ in the true sense. The Guild has among its members people who may have looked right for a part and were in only one movie for a few lines, actors and extras who work on movie sets more for the enjoyment than the paycheck, those who are more management in their political leanings than pro-labor, and many who never took their jobs on a movie set seriously. There too are the producer or director's friends, under the obvious influence of management, who were given a part or given a letter of intent to allow them to join the Guild. While representing professional performers, the majority of voting members of the Screen Actors Guild are not themselves full working professionals within the industry or the craft. It is probably safe to say that many SAG member actors continue to participate in the theater community as a creative outlet. The theater community serves as a nurturing source of allowing actors to practice their craft. Successful film actors and movie stars often “return to the fold” because it remains their first love or stage acting provides a reassuring reminder of their identity, purpose and meaning.
SAG is a national union, with a structure that centers on elected officers and a national board of directors. Local branches assist in providing services to local members and recommending any local contracts or variations from national contracts to the national board. All funds are distributed through the national office, with general budgets and appropriate specific requests administered by the elected treasurer and voted on by the National Board of Directors.
A look at the history of the Guild, the similarities in challenges faced during the evolution of the Guild and the formation of a dissident movement and successful revolution within the union, provides a foundation to understand the potential success or failure into the twenty-first century. Any study must include the nature of acting as a profession, of labor in Hollywood and change within one of the highest profile unions in the world.
The Screen Actors Guild prides itself on being the crown jewel of international entertainment unions. It was formed during the Great Depression as a union to stand up for the rights, working conditions and position of actors as laborers in the growth industries of the 20th century, motion pictures and broadcasting.
I’ll bring this section on unions with a reference to Chicago author, broadcaster and commentartor Studds Turkey, spoken over National Public Radio on Labor Day, 1995:
“I ask young people, ‘do you know what makes an 8 hour day?.’ Four Guys who were hanged in Chicago back in 1886 at the Haymaker Riots. What non union workers take for granted in working conditions, hours and pay, are the results of one hundred and eleven years of unions. “
Do not forget, if your quest to be an artist, that you are dependant on your fellow artists, on the other trade unionist who work in this industry and on the support of others for your own success and well being.
Screen Actors Guild National Director of Education, former Performers Alliance founder Todd Amore, having spent 17 years of his life as a full time actor, spoke to a Nevada Branch membership meeting in May, 2003. He shared the findings of Screen Actors Guild historian Valerie Yaros. Rule One, which now states that union talent does not work nonunion, once spoke of an still echoes anther statement: that union actors work with, for and are in solidarity with their fellow performers, no mater what stature or place in the industry.
Keep that in mind.