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creative focus: Business as Usual?

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Actors' strike hits advertising, but production plans roll on
Days before the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists' strike against the advertising industry was due to begin, agency broadcast producers, casting agents and commercial production companies vowed to continue working through the strike, with or without union actors.
"The bulk of agencies are going to produce our way through the strike," says David Perry, director of broadcast production at Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' (4A's) broadcast production committee. "It's going to be more difficult and may require getting on a plane, but it's going to happen."
After weeks of negotiations, the actors unions failed to reach an agreement with the Joint Policy Committee of the 4A's and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) on a new three-year SAG/AFTRA TV and radio commercial contract. Talks stalled April 14, precipitating what could be a lengthy SAG/AFTRA strike beginning today.
"There are no negotiations currently scheduled," Ira Shepard, labor counsel to the JPC, said last week. "We made what we thought was a lucrative, global and final offer, and the union rejected it. The industry has developed a strike contingency plan, and so we expect to continue working with available talent that is willing to work."
The demands of SAG/AFTRA and the JPC are so diametrically opposed that many feel the strike may be a long one. "There is no way to negotiate middle ground," says Matt Miller, president of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP). "At the heart of the strike is a real issue, and both sides believe in their position very strongly. ... I don't know what it will take to resolve it.
"Either the agencies are going to cave in and do something that is going to make it very expensive
to make commercials here, or the actors are going to decide they need to work."
The key issue for SAG/AFTRA, which represents 135,000 performers, is the JPC's proposal to replace the pay-per-play residuals formula for broadcast network television with a flat fee. The actors unions want to retain the pay-for-play network structure and extend it to commercials that run on cable television, currently paid at flat-fee. The JPC contends a pay-for-play residual formula would lead to a 350 percent increase in annual cable residual payments, and has offered a
60 percent increase in cable residual rates to $1,627 and a guaranteed flat rate of $2,575 for network commercials, both for unlimited use during a 13-week period.
The pay-for-play residual formula is outdated, argues the JPC, having been designed in the early days of television when commercials aired on the three major networks and reached more than 90 percent of the American television audience. Given the proliferation of cable and network viewing options and the greater amount of media time required for advertisers to reach a similar viewership, the unions' proposal would be unjustifiably costly, the JPC argues.
Another heated issue is compensation for commercials on the Internet. The unions have proposed payment based on a use-measurement residual system. The JPC has
suggested payment of two session fees for broadcast commercials on the Web.
The SAG/AFTRA boards are offering local and national advertisers and agencies "interim agreements," but the JPC has strongly advised its members against signing such contracts and has offered them guidance on how to conduct business as usual during the strike. The AICP supports that position and is also educating its member companies about how to operate during a strike.
Some agencies have moved their production dates in an effort to avoid the fray, while others have cast nonunion actors or double-cast union and nonunion talent. "Obviously this is something we've seen coming and have been planning for," says David Lyon, president of Temerlin McClain in Irving, Texas. "To the degree that we can, we've accelerated some production."
"We've definitely had one-third more production [happening], trying to get stuff in under the wire--particularly with a client that has
a spokesperson," says Avatar Kramer, senior producer at Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco.
"Various producers are committing to their nonunion casts. That's the reality," says Rob Thomas, svp/
senior producer at FCB Worldwide, San Francisco. "The world isn't going to stop because of these things. Clients expect their spots on air, and we're going to produce the best spots we can under the conditions we are given."
Some jobs, such as those more dependent on dialogue and performance, may become more difficult to cast. But many insist it can be done, even if it means leaving the country.
"Worse comes to worse," says Miller, "they can find a lot of talent in Canada and the U.K., South Africa, all over the world."
The irony, Miller points out, is that SAG and other industry associations have been opposed to U.S. production leaving the country, but may now be accelerating it due to the strike.
There is also the possibility that actors unions in Canada and the U.K. will join the U.S. unions in their boycott of the advertising industry, which would further complicate
production.
In the case of a long strike, agencies may opt to tailor their creative to beauty- or image-oriented commercials rather than comedy or drama spots that rely heavily on performance.
Los Angeles casting agent Sheila Manning says there is no shortage of talent, and that her agency last week cast two comedy commercials with nonunion actors.
"The majority of my clients feel comfortable shooting national network spots with nonunion talent," says Manning. "They've been double-casting union and nonunion. It's been a very busy six weeks."
Manning says the days leading up to the strike have given talent agents the opportunity to explore the depth of nonunion talent available to the ad industry. Compared to the last major actors' strike, in 1988, when the talent pool was much more limited, Manning says she has been pleasantly surprised this time around.
"Advertisers are paying more than fair money for the talent, and they are getting people who are really good actors, nonunion actors," she says. "If this is a portent of things to come, it is going to be very easy for production to continue, especially in L.A."
--with J. Dee Hil