Ad shoots hit the road to sidestep picket lines

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With the commercial actors strike now in its sixth week, strapped production companies increasingly are mounting "runaway productions," taking shoots out of the country to avoid crossing picket lines.

"Three months ago, people were really worried about runaway production. And this is basically forcing advertising agencies and advertisers to go elsewhere," said Chuck Ryant, president of Bob Industries, a boutique production company based in New York and Los Angeles. He added in the next few weeks, Bob Industries expects to take most of its jobs to Canada.

"Unions were fighting to keep the work in the country but now they are driving it out of the country," Mr. Ryant said. "It's going in a lot of bad directions for everybody in the long run."

"We're stuck in the middle as production companies; we've got to work," said an executive at a major West Coast production company who requested anonymity. "If the actors get what they are asking for, 30% more production will go out of the country and 30% less will happen here because they can't afford it. Are we willing to lose that much so that fewer actors can make astronomical amounts of money? Make less, so that we can use more people, and everybody's making a piece."


According to lawyers representing advertisers, actors are asking for a fourfold increase in residuals payments. The Joint Policy Committee on Broadcast Talent Relations for the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies released to its members last week the results of a study that purports to show that actors belonging to the Screen Actors Guild making $87,159 under the current contract will make close to $500,000 under the latest proposal made by SAG. The committee is offering a contract under which these actors would make $118,130.

"SAG is asking that we extend the per-use concept of payment for talent in [broadcast] network to cable uses. We, on the other hand, are trying to get a flat rate for network uses, similar to what we currently have in cable," said John McGuinn, counsel at Schmeltzer, Aptaker & Shephard in Washington and chief negotiator for the committee.


The group put together numbers based on the extension of the per-use concept. As an example, they took a situation in which there are eight on-camera performers and one voice-over at scale, all of them working in two 13-week cycles. They found that there were approximately 922 cable uses of this talent.

"The bottom line, in that circumstance," Mr. McGuinn said, "is that the union proposal would result in a talent payroll of $499,723. This is an impossible situation."

John McGuire, associate national executive director of SAG, has not seen the study but disputed the findings.

"I don't know where they are getting their figures from, but they are all wrong," he said. He confirmed that SAG and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists have agreed to return to the bargaining table, with a federal mediator, June 13.

In the collective minds of most production companies, SAG actors not only are asking for more than they are worth but also are creating hostility and antagonism by engaging in job disruptions.

Matt Miller, president of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, said that while SAG has the right to strike and withhold the performances of their members, "[it does] not have the right to stop others from working.

"What SAG is trying to do is not just withhold their talent, but also interrupt and disrupt people from working, and all that will do is drive production to other countries."

Mr. McGuire defended SAG's tactics. "We are certainly disrupting productions," he said, "all within our legal rights. And I don't know what AICP is talking about when they say we don't have such a right."


Meanwhile, grips, electricians and other members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees have been regularly crossing picket lines.

IATSE contracts are with AICP only, not with ANA or the Four A's, and these contracts contain no strike and no picket clauses, which prohibits them from going on strike in sympathy with SAG. Although IATSE members are free as individuals to avoid jobs that are being picketed, in sympathy with their sibling union, most crews have not.

"They are all crossing the line, they are so pissed," said the production executive who requested anonymity. "You have an actor making $90,000 on a national commercial and these guys are carrying cables at $400 a day. When you think of a strike, you think of coal miners, you think of janitors looking for a dollar. Here you've got casting agents showing up at strikes, with bottles of Evian, handing them out to all these people on the line. It's ridiculous."


Norm Glasser, business representative at IATSE/Studio Electrical Lighting Technicians Local 728 in Panorama City, Calif., acknowledged that members of his union have been crossing picket lines.

"Let their conscience be their guide," Mr. Glasser said. "We're not saying they should cross, but . . ."

"We're working," the production executive said. "We're avoiding picket lines" by taking productions out of the country and using non-SAG actors. "We can keep working with non-union talent. The folks from movies and TV, they probably can't. Let's keep in mind, how much of an emotional arc do we need from our characters in 30 seconds? Most of the time [the actors] are props. Everybody I know is working, we're just all going out of the country."

Otherwise, most productions are going non-union.

"We're doing things non-union now," Mr. Ryant said, "we're struggling to find the best people. We're really finding out right now what working non-union means, how that affects selections creatively and how that affects performances."

Production "is harder to do, everything is a little more time consuming," said Ken Yagoda, exec VP-director of broadcast production, Y&R Advertising, New York. "I don't care what anyone says, it definitely has an impact. There's definitely less work."

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