Art & Commerce: Strike Zone

An actor offers his thoughts on a bitter impasse
Any way you look at it, the SAG/AFTRA strike is a lose-lose situation. Advertisers continue production, but nonunion talent offers a constant reminder to producers and their clients that the professional actor is not easily replaced.
At the heart of the matter: Proposal A, a flat-fee buyout that would eliminate the present “pay for play” system and kill residuals. Pay for play was built on the backs of the actors who came before, who endured low wages, poor working conditions and unfair labor practices. The bottom line? The residual system is the main reason any self-respecting actor pursues commercial work. I’ve never met an actor who aspires to star in a commercial–we do it for the money.
Have you ever been on a commercial audition? I’ve been on a few, at my own expense of time and money, competing against hundreds of similar-looking “types,” waiting hours on end to be judged on the basis of a 30-second performance. OK, we understand. As Hyman Roth, the wise old man from Godfather 2, aptly put it, “This is the business we have chosen.”
Let’s get back to the point. The advertiser, the client and ultimately the consumer reap endless benefits from the professional actor’s commitment to the process. The actor brings his whole life to the spot. Years of study and practiced skills are part of the package that enhances the advertiser’s message.
The argument that an actor can make $50,000 for a day’s work is specious. The only time an actor makes any real money from a commercial is when the ad’s successful–and everybody else makes money, too. Besides, if the commercial wasn’t generating sales, the advertiser would pull it.
Which brings up another point. The disparity between income potential for a national network ad and a cable ad is unmitigated. Actors want to narrow the gulf. But the introduction of Proposal A prohibits all talk. Proposal A initiates a reversal of fortune under the banner of cutting costs. It eliminates all the rights acquired over the past 30 years. It is asking the actors to go back in time.
Hey, what do I know? I’m just an actor. But I haven’t heard of an advertiser boycott against the networks over the cost of airtime. It would be news to me if corporate executives took a pay cut to enrich shareholders’ profits. What a concept! Instead, the advertisers want the actor to take the hit. All things being Godfather: “They make us an offer we cannot accept.”
I am reminded of the scene in The Player where the studio executives are discussing ways to cut production costs. One exec suggests that highly paid writers could be replaced, noting the studio could cull stories from newspaper headlines. The Tim Robbins character, understanding the inescapable need for talent in a creative art form, sarcastically adds, “Now if we could only eliminate the actors, we’d have something here.”
The professional puts a human face on a corporate product. Why put a cap on actors’ earnings? There’s no cap on corporate earnings. If the spot is a hit, everybody wins–the advertiser, the client, the consumer. Why not the actor? K
Fenton Lawless is an actor, singer and songwriter and a member of both SAG and AFTRA. A veteran of commercial voiceover work, he has appeared in such films as Air Force One and I Shot Andy Warho