Making Sense of SAG

Actors, though intermittently celebrated, have only recently shed a scurrilous and shady reputation. With industrialisation and mass leisure time came the opportunity for them to make money and gain some respectability. The talkies, firmly established not long before World War II, gave actors, through inspirational films, propaganda and service entertainment, the chance to reach a […]

Last Updated: May 28, 2009 @ 1:49 PM

Actors, though intermittently celebrated, have only recently shed a scurrilous and shady reputation.

With industrialisation and mass leisure time came the opportunity for them to make money and gain some respectability. The talkies, firmly established not long before World War II, gave actors, through inspirational films, propaganda and service entertainment, the chance to reach a stature anomalous to their history.

Actors had gone from notoriety to an elite discussed in cosmic allusion in barely more than a generation.

And now that golden age has certainly peaked. Like the car business and the airlines, celebrityland is suffering from acute overcapacity. The cocooned untouchables are now trapped in the media equivalent of the stocks of medieval Europe.

Sometimes the actors make it worse. From a multitude of rehabs to Whitney Houston’s constipation and Farrah Fawcett’s terminal illness, nothing is private and everything is game.

In many ways SAG is an anomaly, too. The majority of other artists have to fend for themselves, and the disparity of wealth in SAG is something that sits jarringly with the excesses of the superstars, which in normal circumstances would be a union to eradicate.

In my native Scotland one of the most famous theater companies, now defunct, was 7:84, meaning 7 percent of the population controls 84 percent of the wealth — possibly a good description of SAG.

The new SAG contract threatens to widen the divide, though in the long run I think it will do the opposite.

New media has proved to be the most debated part of the proposed contract. Many actors, possibly most, are confused by the financials stipulated in the contract and the dramatic capability of cheap technology. The majority of stuff on YouTube and the like is not optimised for new media.

Whenever I encounter someone hesitant about shooing on a digital camcorder and posting online I refer them to Norway in HD, which is filmed with a Sony Handycam HDR-UX20. Although these episodes are landscapes rather than dramatic or comedic material, they quickly convince what can be done on a shoestring.

The $15K a minute this contract allows for non-union new media could go very far in the right hands.

On the Yes side, Kate Walsh describes the deal such: “… looking to the future, breaks unprecedented ground in new media." Literally, there is truth there because the current agreements on new media are quite scanty but she uses the word it imply a bonanza in the contract.

The most contentious issue is the proposal that pre-1971 movies and pre-1974 television would be shown online without a residual obligation. Now that’s what I would describe as unprecedented — and a very dangerous precedent it is, too. Considering that many people rely on residuals, especially after markets have been so battered, the measure will have disproportion impact on older actors.

Among those supporting this is former SAG president Melissa Gilbert, still most famous for “Little House in the Prairie,” which began in1974, an unfortunate coincidence.

What with this and motion picture nursing home fiasco, euthanasia for thespians will be in the 2011 negotiations! Both sides are overlooking the lack of money in new media to support the industry and its expensive habits.

I’ve discussed this before in these pages in connection with newspapers, but to clarify: Advertisers will spend less on the internet because the chances of successfully engaging with the viewer/user are higher. If an ad is broadcast during a TV program, the typical viewer will be making a mental note or scribble down a phone  number. If the same ad is online with a streamed show, the user can click immediately and have the advertiser details appear in a new window.

The advertisers don’t have to wait for results and then plan future campaigns around speculative projections. The customer is captured. They solicit details, download a cookie — pretty soon the advertiser has its market demographic without the long and expensive broadcast effort.

No media company has found a substitute income online — TV and movies will not be any different. If anything they will dismantle their commercial base as companies advertise far, far less for way better results and will probably bring viral marketing into the mainstream, targeting all generations and interests.

One laughing recipient will be sending it all his contacts — you have to watch this! – and TV will be forgotten.

By withdrawing residuals and streaming pre-71/74 freely on an ad-supported basis I also think the industry is muddying the legal waters of internet piracy. If I pirate this corpus of creative work, many decades of TV and film, who’s losing? What losses can the copyright holders claim when they are not paying the participants and giving it away free?

And on a moral level, the actors who have proved their worth and earned their keep are now subsidizing the current stars who are rewarded lavishly — I won’t name names, but we know who they are … for flop after flop.

But what if the streaming of this older and vintage material builds a substantial audience?

Now, considering how often the vaults are plundered for contemporary reworking, these shows could flourish on a wave of nostalgia, particularly when there is so much reality TV. The viewers can only come from one pool. So TV would be cannibalized, and the largely Yes contingent would be forced to fight for fewer roles on tighter budgets as their as their predecessors “enjoyed” an unrewarded revival.

The No side thinks they will be robbed and the Yes side thinks there be a crock of gold at the end of the New Media Rainbow. I suspect the SAG factions will be reunited when they are passing around handkerchiefs.