As the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) prepares to announce the nominees for its annual awards ceremony on Dec. 18, it is not in such a celebratory mood. Hollywood's largest actors' union is currently grappling with whether or not to go on strike against studios over revenue from online films and television shows the same issue that compelled writers to strike for 100 days earlier this year. On Dec. 15, a New York City SAG town-hall meeting devolved into a heated back and forth between union President Alan Rosenberg who is planning to spend $100,000 of the group's money to lobby for a strike and many New York-based actors who questioned the wisdom of choosing not to work during a national recession.
Established in 1933, SAG arrived at a time when actors were to Hollywood studios what cattle are to ranchers: they were bound to multi-year, exclusive contracts, unable to choose their own films, their own career paths or, in some cases, their own relationships. Actors were essentially the studios' property, and anyone who dared protest Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, for example was suspended, effectively blacklisted for a time. The first SAG-studio contract was signed in 1937, but it was only following the Supreme Court's 1948 anti-trust decision against Paramount Studios, which broke the studio monopoly, that actors were set loose. Two years later, Jimmy Stewart negotiated his way into a percentage of Winchester '73's box office grosses or points on the back end, a practice which remains in place to this day. (See the 100 best movies of all time.)
Actors were now free agents, but they had many more battles to wage. The advent of television posed a new problem, since networks could re-run episodes without paying actors for the repeated use of their performances. In 1952, SAG both held its first strike and negotiated its first residuals contract, allowing for small payments to actors whenever a show they appeared in was rerun. Over the years, the issue of residuals popped up again and again. In 1957, SAG signed a contract covering payments to actors who starred in films that were aired on TV. In 1974, the Guild negotiated a more lucrative contract for its members that paid for "every rerun in prime time, rather than previous practice of paying for only two reruns, and residuals in perpetuity for TV reruns in syndication replacing 'the old buyout at the tenth run.'"
At 120,000 members, SAG is the nation's largest actor's union, ahead of the 70,000 strong American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). The current leadership's concern over digital media residuals is a valid one, though many A-list SAG members question the timing of holding a strike now, during a recession. Actress Rhea Perlman and husband Danny DeVito recently wrote a letter imploring the union to achieve a settlement with the studios rather than strike: the letter was seconded by such box-office draws as Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Cameron Diaz, Matt Damon, and Morgan Freeman. SAG president Rosenberg who has his own list of stars backing him (Mel Gibson, Martin Sheen) remains fixed on a strike. Starting Jan. 2, he hopes to hold a referendum over several weeks allowing SAG members to vote for or against walking out; 75% must vote "yay" for a strike to go forward. Considering the writers strike brought the industry to a standstill, one can only imagine how much damage Hollywood would suffer if actors do the same.