Strike! Camera! Action!

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AP (4)

On strike in Hollywood

They walked the picket line for four months, and little attention was paid. Recognizable but anonymous, they are actors in commercials. They are cast for their generic perkiness or their unthreatening ethnicity. They have the faces and voices, and the skills, that advertisers need to seduce you into buying Tide, Bud, Ty-D-Bol.

Since May 1, these deft miniaturists — members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents 135,000 actors — had been on strike against the advertisers and their agencies, for reasons too complex to fit on a placard. And they were finding that not only they but their cause remained unknown. "This isn't about the celebrities," Tim Robbins says. "It's about the 'second doctor from the right,' the people in the background shots — actors struggling to make a living." Just the problem: The strikers weren't famous, not even almost. What they needed was star quality.

Kevin Spacey: One of the stars who energized the strike by writing fat checks for a relief fund; he notes that the average SAG members earns only $5,000 a year
In the nick of time, like the delivery boy in a Domino's Pizza spot, star quality arrived. Jay Leno donated $10,000 to a SAG strike fund, and soon Kevin Spacey, Harrison Ford, Nicolas Cage, George Clooney and Helen Hunt had ponied up amounts of from $10,000 to $200,000. Now that famous faces were attached to celebrities, the media woke up to the strike. So did some of the citizenry: a 16-year-old boy, who saw Richard Dreyfuss present the union view of the strike on Rosie O'Donnell's TV klatch, sent a $10 money order with a note reading, "Now I understand what this is about and I want to help." All the exposure intensified the negotiations, which continued on Saturday in a Manhattan hotel.


A key issue is the system that determines how much actors are paid for a commercial. Under the current "pay for play" formula, advertisers pay residuals in proportion to the number of times a spot airs on the networks — but not on cable, for which the actor receives a flat rate. That system is outmoded, both sides agree, at a time when more and more advertising dollars are spent on cable. Says Ira Shepard, a lawyer negotiating for the advertisers, "There is no industry in this country, if not the world, that can, in the year 2000, survive on concepts and rules that fit technology in the 1950 and 1960s, and the TV advertising industry is no different."

Where the combatants differ is in how to update the formula. The guild hopes to extend residuals to cable and other outlets (no more flat rate). The advertisers want to extend the flat rate to network TV spots (no more residuals).

The union also has proposed monitoring commercial payments; currently there is no check on the number of times a spot runs, and thus on the amount an actor is owed. Last year SAG conducted a study that randomly selected 32 commercials, most of them in the cable market. The survey found a discrepancy of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees and in some cases, residuals. Cable is no longer "an infant industry," says SAG president William Daniels. "Now you have 155 cable outlets to monitor. We need some kind of coverage."

Hopes are higher because of the current negotiations. But what if they fail? "We're going back to the streets," Daniels insists, sounding more like Jimmy Hoffa than Dr. Mark Craig, the crabby surgeon he played on "St. Elsewhere" in the '80s. "We have strategies to turn on the heat even higher." Some of the union's strategies will target manufacturers of the products its members are paid to tout. "There have been talks about a huge boycott against Procter & Gamble," says Robbins. "I don't think P&G wants celebrities telling America not to buy their products." This week O'Donnell asked Procter & Gamble and two of her other sponsors, Kellogg's and General Motors, not to run commercials made with non-union talent.


It's not as if the strike has made commercials disappear. The 167 people watching the NBC Olympics can testify to that. But you'll find more spots using animation instead of live action, and possibly more "golden oldies"; actress Bonnie Bartlett, who plays Sela Ward's mom on the ABC series "Once and Again," says Crest just re-released a commercial she shot in the 1960s. There are also few new spots that feature celebrity appearances or star voice-overs. A rare exception is Tiger Woods' Buick commercial; the golf god shot it in Canada and, when told he was a scab, feigned ignorance of SAG rules.

Canada, always an attractive location because of the strong U.S. dollar and the less expensive actors, now is busier than ever. It's hosting so many commercials that the guilds there have relaxed strict rules about importing talent from below the border. "They're so busy they can't handle all the work," says commercial producer Genevra DiLorenzo, head of production for Shelter Films. To SAG strikers, performers in these commercials are, simply, scabs. "The issues we have with Canada, our so-called 'fellow actors' — there are going to be ramifications up there," says Robbins with a throb of menace. "We're going to remember what actors up there are doing."

Some producers have fled New York (all those noisy picketers!) for Florida. Casting directors have called actors at home and urged them to cross the line under aliases. Production companies have also been caught taking out city permits under false pretenses. In one Dr. Pepper commercial produced by HSI, the permit said a TV series entitled "Uptown Girl" was to be filmed. Actors may be told they'll be part of an industrial film, a movie or that mythical "Uptown Girl" series. On the set they discover, oops, it's a commercial — unless they're nave enough to believe that everyone in a movie would walk around with a can of Dr. Pepper.


Any strike affects people beyond the strikers and their employers. Producers and casting directors are trying to conduct business as usual, especially as the normally flush season for shooting Christmas and Super Bowl spots begins. But New York's major commercial agents are not showing off their Crest smiles. Signatories to the SAG contract, they cannot work on non-union projects. That leaves them with something they hate to do: nothing. "You see me spending all this time talking to you on the phone?" barks one top commercial agent, who sounds as if he could have hired himself from Central Casting. "That's 'cause my other line ain't ringing. Notice my assistant didn't pick up — I did. We had to let her go, to another part of the company."

David Hyde Pierce:

"All actors, whether successful right now or not, have all been out of work. Out of work doesn't frighten us, but it can make us very angry."
Actors, those on strike and those supporting them, have taken the time to paint a big, scary picture of union relations. "More and more companies are merging, fewer and fewer people are in control of everything," says David Hyde Pierce, who plays Niles Crane on TV's "Frasier." "So it makes it easier for large companies to dictate terms, rather than be responsive to what's fair and legitimate concerns of employees. This is not just about actors, not just about how this strike will affect the next actors' strike or the writers' strike. I think it's indicative of how management is going to treat labor in general over the next few years."

Burrow down below the megastar layer, down to the prole performers, and you'll hear the same views expressed in rhetoric that echoes old-time union firebranding. "There's enough money to pay everyone a fair wage in this economy," says Courtney Gebhart, a SAG strike captain who has had to scramble for good gigs. "But corporate greed is trying to kill the middle class. So what do you get? The teachers, the actors, the MTA in California. Everyone is on strike." Gebhart wants to locate the strike in the gut of, say, a wage slave who sees his company making millions while he can't make the mortgage. "This strike isn't hurting the celebrity, or the bartender/actor who does one commercial a year. But it will completely obliterate the middle-class actor. It'll make him a hobbyist."


So who cares about performers trying to make money not by bringing Shakespeare's poetry to life but by peddling hemorrhoid remedies? Among others, the people who run Hollywood. The commercials strike is seen as a dress rehearsal for the fractious negotiations expected as the contracts for SAG and the Writers Guild expire in the spring. In 1988 a writers' strike lasted 22 weeks; film production shrank and the fall TV season was delayed for two months. Now, in anticipation of a 2001 walkout, studios are rushing scripts into production faster than usual. Some TV bosses have already ordered extra episodes of some series that can be shown next fall.

"The best end of a strike is when both sides are complaining. It's a matter of give and take — no one gets what they asked for." —Richard Dreyfuss
With spoils from cable TV and the Internet up for grabs, both sides can be expected to put up a fight. And the amount of muscle SAG can flex here will give the industry a hint of the union's power next year. Says Dreyfuss, "I think there is a legitimate interest on the part of the people who will be involved in that strike to see how strong the union is right now."

The Screen Actors Guild, of course, isn't the Teamsters. "We have a very peculiar union," says Kirk Douglas, a SAG member since 1942. "Most unions, everybody makes about the same salary. In ours, some people make $20 million a picture and others are struggling to make enough money to live on. In my humble opinion, which is not so humble, the others have always been cheated."

But then, an actor's life is by definition unfair. In some walks of life, there are fewer qualified people than positions to fill (congressmen, for example, and film critics). But the ratio of good actors to good jobs has to be 100:1. They train harder than surgeons but have to take jobs as butchers. Any work is tough to find. So now, instead of waiting for a break, they are just as stubbornly waiting out the strike.

In the me-first world of professional entertainment, solidarity with the little people is too often a joke. The big people forget they were ever little. In 1994 the millionaire athletes of major league baseball went on strike for themselves — not to help their blue-collar brethren in the minors. So, whatever the resolution of the SAG strike, there's something sweet in the spectacle of stars of the wattage of Cage and Hunt and Spacey helping actors whose one golden goal is to display their art, and make a few bucks, holding a bottle of mouthwash. It's like the chef of a four-star restaurant linking arms with the french-fry guy at McDonald's. But as Pierce notes, "All actors, whether we're successful right now or not, we've all been out of work. Out of work doesn't frighten us. But it can make us very angry."

If the SAG strike is settled soon, on terms favorable to the union, it will be partly for a reason as corny as a Frank Capra climax: because the stars rescued the struggling actors they once were.

—Reported by Carole Buia and Amy Lennard Goehner/ New York