To actors, advertising doesn't pay (enough)

A strike this week by 135,000 actors signals trouble in Hollywood - and a shift to cable.

The placards read, "When you play me, pay me" and "Advertisers: Do you trust them?"

Alongside 50 other picketing actors - on their way to disrupt the shooting of a Nike shoe commercial - Tisza Major explains the beef.

"Acting is my life, my passion and my dream," says the performer, who earned less than $7,500 last year making four commercials. "I now have people asking me to take less than starvation wages to do my job."

In a coast-to-coast strike that began this week, 135,000 union actors hope to claim a bigger share of advertising profits in the booming US economy. Though focused on advertising, the struggle reflects growing labor discontent in Hollywood, which is likely to resurface in bargaining by actors and writers in the next two years.

It also reflects a shifting industry landscape. Increasingly, those who produce Hollywood entertainment believe they are not sharing in its expansion into newer mediums, namely cable television and the Internet.

"This is really a technology dispute," says Gary Chaison, an industrial relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "The mediums for which these people perform their tasks have changed so much that they feel they must change the rules by which they play."

Actors want to end the system under which they get one-time fees for commercials that run on cable TV. Instead, they want to get paid for each time an ad airs, which is standard procedure for ads run on broadcast networks. And they want to discuss pay for Internet spots. Advertisers, meanwhile, want to extend the flat-fee system to broadcast ads.

The same issues are expected to come up when actors and writers negotiate contracts with networks and production studios.

The pay struggle comes as Los Angeles is already suffering from an exodus of movie and commercial production. A strike in 1988 - the last large entertainment-industry labor action - cost the industry nearly $500 million and was very destructive to that season's television production.

"These people are really putting themselves and their livelihoods on the line," says Greg Krizman, spokesman for the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Noting that the strike is costing SAG members about $2 million a day, he expects negotiations to take months.

And unlike a recent janitors' strike here, in which public support was widely acknowledged as building pressure for an agreement, observers see no such external momentum for actors.

"This may turn out to be more of a waiting game than anything else," Mr. Chaison says. "Janitors had public appeal ... almost in the sense of a civil rights crusade, but actors have no such immediate public outcry."

Comments like that really irk many of the actors in demonstration lines. Although some actors have lucrative contracts with major corporations, union officials say the vast majority must work other jobs to make ends meet.

"Most people don't know that actors like me are auditioning for parts two to three days a week, which means I can't be doing other employment during that time," Ms. Major says. "If they eliminate the current residual structure, I will never have the hope of supporting myself as an actor."

The two sides last met April 14 and remain far apart.

Advertising officials are reluctant to sweeten the pot for actors, noting that the proliferation of cable channels means each ad must run more times to reach the same number of people as a network ad. Their current offer is to make a one-time payment of $2,575 for a commercial that airs once on a network and another $1,627 if it airs once on cable.

"Name me an industry where the scale is $4,200 for one day's work," says Ira Shepard, labor counsel for the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

Most labor analysts say the strike will not have a huge impact, other than being a frustration to actors and ad agencies. About 40,000 of SAG's 97,000 members have appeared in commercials, earning about $600 million annually.

But the strike, with rallies beginning May 1 in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, is a further signal of labor unrest in the current economic expansion. The string of disputes include the janitors, Boeing aircraft builders, and flight attendants.

"What is interesting here is that more and more people at more levels of income are becoming restive over feeling marginalized in the new economy," says Jack Triplett, a Brookings Institution economist in Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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