Inside the Heated Debate Over SAG-AFTRA’s Latest Studio Contract: Sex Scenes, Money and Quibi

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Guild leadership calls it the most valuable deal ever negotiated, but heads of the Los Angeles local say it leaves too many important issues unresolved

sag-aftra gabrielle carteris patricia richardson
Gabrielle Carteris; Patricia Richardson (Getty Images)

SAG-AFTRA members have less than a week left to vote on whether to approve the latest contract that the guild’s negotiating committee reached with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and the debate between supporters and opponents has become more heated than ever. SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris told TheWrap that the contract, valued at $318 million, is the most valuable contract ever gained by the union’s leadership, pointing to gains in residuals for high-budget streaming content and improvements on protections for actors involved in nude or simulated sex scenes. “This is a deal that we negotiated at a time when our employers and our members watched our work grind to a halt from an unprecedented pandemic,” Carteris said. “We have negotiated critical gains for our members, including meaningful increases in compensation and $54 million in increased contributions to our health plan. We negotiated for our future, and we achieved real gains.” But last week, 29 of the 42 board members of SAG-AFTRA’s Los Angeles local — the largest local in the guild — voted against the contract and urged a no vote. Led by local president Patricia Richardson and VPs Frances Fisher and David Jolliffe, the group has held a social media campaign and a series of virtual town halls urging members to reject the deal and have the negotiating team return to the table for a better deal. “Approving this contract is not going to get us back to work any faster,” Richardson told TheWrap. “So right now, with thousands of us out of work, we have to draw a line. We have to demand better benefits and protections that actors unions in other countries have negotiated for with the same studios we’re talking to. They’ve been talking about how good this contract is with some neat talking points, but when you look at the details there is so much that should be there that isn’t.” In both public statements and in interviews, the two sides have flung a series of accusations at each other. Richardson and other L.A. local members claim that the guild’s leadership have used their resources to make sure that “members only hear the Vote Yes message,” pointing to a postcard sent to guild members nationwide urging a Yes vote with only a few bullet points. Without mentioning Richardson or the L.A. local by name, Carteris said some opponents are trying to “politicize” the proposed contract, alluding to last year’s contentious guild election between Carteris’ Unite for Strength party and the opposing Membership First faction. Last August, Membership First’s Matthew Modine (“Full Metal Jacket”) failed to unseat Carteris but the faction earned a majority on the L.A. local board, including Richardson as head. “After a very tough negotiation, the studios will not give more money at a time when we’re going to see companies fold and shut down,” said Carteris, the former star of “Beverly Hills 9021o.” “Our leverage comes from the ability to strike. We’re not in a place where there is work to strike. And turning down this contract would not speak well to the process. To go back on a $318 million deal — the most lucrative ever, and that is a conservative estimate based on the worst possible scenarios — what does that mean for us if we go back? Would we get a better deal? No.” “I have been a part of strikes before and I’m not afraid of them, but would we really get 90% of our membership who are out of work for months to agree to strike when work does come back? Are they in a position to walk out? No. There is no better deal in a supposed round two.” But Richardson, best known for her work on the 1990s sitcom “Home Improvement,” flatly rejected such an argument. “Our leadership is telling us that studios aren’t going to give more money because of a downturn? That is a management line they are giving! They are making studio talking points to the members they represent! ” she said. “Rejecting this deal is sending a message to studios that we know they can give us a better deal that we deserve as the actors at the core of this industry and the stories we tell. And it sends a message to our leadership that we trust they can negotiate something better. If we send them back to the table, we send them back with the membership supporting them through our vote.” Both sides have launched websites arguing their cases, trying to win member votes before the 5 p.m. PT deadline on July 22. The disputes over the contract cover a variety of topics, but here are some of the most contentious points: 1.Intimacy scenes In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Hollywood has faced a stronger push to reform practices for filming nude and simulated sex scenes, including the use of intimacy coordinators to oversee and choreograph intimate scenes and ensure constant consent through development and filming. Carteris said that actors, intimacy coordinators and other industry voices helped develop new regulations for such scenes in the AMPTP contract. She pointed to stricter protections at auditions involving nude scenes with only one callback allowed, no photography or recording without actor consent, and no recording with personal devices. Personal device recording is also forbidden on sets for intimate scenes, while rules are now in place forbidding those “who are not essential to the filming or rehearsal of the scene” from being present during filming or around any monitors. Producers must provide a rider form to actors involved in intimacy/nude scenes with at least 48 hours notice, with full and finalized details of what is required of them in these scenes. “There are so many times in our industry where actors have not been given something to cover up with in between takes or have been asked by producers or directors in an unequal environment to make last minute changes to a simulated sex or nude scene, and that’s unacceptable,” Carteris said. “This new contract puts an end to that.” Opponents want stronger wording in the contract involving personal devices on intimacy sets, including confiscation of such devices for the duration of filming and better definitions of penalties against productions and/or crew members who violate intimacy regulations. They also argue that directors, not producers, should hand out riders outlining details of intimate scenes so scenes aren’t taken “out of the realm of art and into the realm of commerce,” according to the opposition website. The AMPTP contract also lacks language about intimacy coordinators. Richardson argued that the last contract negotiated by ACTRA, Canada’s actors guild, requires an intimacy coordinator to be present present if an actor so chooses. Members of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee told TheWrap that the AMPTP felt that there were not enough intimacy coordinators yet to cover all projects with simulated sex scenes in Hollywood, a point that Richardson and other opponents reject. The guild said there are roughly 40 trained intimacy coordinators and plans to continue the training and certification process so that there will be a large enough pool to make them an industry standard for all productions. 2. Options and Exclusivity Back in the pre-streaming days, it was common for studios to hold exclusive rights to leading actors on TV shows that have 22 episodes a season and often have future seasons greenlit. Actors supporting a No vote have pointed out that these exclusivity rights are still in place for streaming shows with less than 10 episodes, and the latest contract makes no changes to that. “We are incapable of working on another project to support our families even though we are filming far fewer episodes,” contract opponent and “Chicago P.D.” alum Sophia Bush said during the Thursday town hall. “We got improvements on exclusivity in the Netflix deal the guild made last year, but there’s no progress here, and that means we can’t work on an independent film or a role on another show or anything else during our downtime, even if the show isn’t guarantee to be renewed.” Negotiating committee members told TheWrap that the AMPTP was only willing to make changes to exclusivity rules if multiple restrictions were placed on actors that they described as “burdensome” — such as forbidding promotional work on any other project a principal actor does during their downtime. 3. Residuals In exchange for a 26% increase in residuals for streaming projects, SAG-AFTRA agreed to changes in the fixed formula for residuals on shows in broadcast syndication. The L.A. local has slammed this move, saying that the new formula could mean “up to a 90% reduction” in residual payments and that performers on shows prior to 1998 will have their pension and health contributions taken out of their reduced residual. “The analogy I’ve always used is a lifeboat. We should be making the lifeboat bigger for everyone, not casting some out of the boat to let others in,” Jolliffe said during a virtual town hall on Thursday. “Streaming residuals are very important, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of performers who could be relying on those syndication residuals to meet the minimums to stay on their health plans. How could we abandon those people, especially during a pandemic?” Guild leadership has denied the 90% reduction claim. In a rebuttal statement sent out with ratification ballots, supporters said that the new formula “provides an opportunity for new residuals, for shows that would never have syndicated” because the old formula did not make it profitable for distributors to syndicate them. A video released by the guild’s leadership also said that the new residual formula will only apply to newly syndicated shows going forward, and that the 17 shows currently in broadcast syndication will continue to operate on the old formula. 4. The Quibi Factor While streaming residuals and intimacy-scene safety have long been key issues heading into AMPTP talks, a growing concern throughout the Hollywood labor force has been the rise of Quibi and its attempt to popularize short-form streaming content. The new mobile platform has been blasted by writers and actors who say that its format of 7- to 10-minute episodes allows studios to circumvent current standard provisions and minimums for SAG-AFTRA and WGA members. Even though Quibi has struggled immensely to find an audience since its launch, contract opponents say that the guild should still fight for minimums and extend current provisions to streaming programs under 20 minutes. They warn that without such protections, producers could be incentivized to trim a few minutes off of 22-minute sitcoms to dodge contract provisions. “I know that people see all these bad headlines about Quibi, but they have deep pockets and they’re not going to die off anytime soon,” contract opponent Rob Schneider said during the virtual town hall. “And studios aren’t going to move away from under-20-minute shows, so we need our guild to get those shows included in the contract.” Guild leadership said that changing the parameters of streaming residuals and minimums under 20 minutes was not an issue frequently raised by members during pre-negotiation membership meetings and was therefore not included in the priorities for this round of bargaining. “Streaming video under 20 minutes in length is not where members are making their money right now. In a situation in which we are bargaining over a wide array of contract terms in a changing environment, you don’t focus on the areas where there is no money,” Carteris said.  “While it remains an issue of concern for the members, and it remains an area to address in future negotiations, given the circumstances, we focused on putting real money in members’ pockets by strengthening the provisions where the work is. We achieved significant increases in streaming residuals — between 26% and 45% — and that is a much better use of limited bargaining leverage.”