AN OPEN LETTER TO LEAD ACTORS
SCREEN ACTORS GUILD
July 2008 - by Peter Coyote
A small minority of actors are internationally known, iconic figures, whom audiences flock to see in films and on television. Producers know these actors as the best means to insure return on their investments and reward them appropriately for that security. In addition to talent, these actors have had that extra measure of good fortune, and have been propelled to the very top of our profession. It is to these actors that this letter is addressed, because your good fortune may have insulated you from issues currently afflicting the majority of actors who support you as the ‘friends’, ‘lovers’, ‘cops’, ‘lawyers’, ‘judges’, ‘villains’, and ‘side-kicks in films, and who are also hard-working, talented and skilled professionals.
Since 1990 the earnings of the top leading actors have increased exponentially while the salaries of nearly all other actors have been systematically driven down. In many cases, the earnings of established character actors have been rolled back by 60-70 percent. This occurs, in large part, because the working professional (as opposed to the star) is at a disadvantage when negotiating in the new corporatized production environment. We do not possess a unique, marketable (and often media exploited) brand, and consequently lack the power to make or break the existence or profitability of a film. Consequently, respected, veteran actors with numerous credits and hard-earned “quotes” now routinely receive "take-it-or-leave it" offers, often at “scale”---a beginners wage.
Our actor’s Guild has two weapons to employ in protecting its members: the threat or fact of strike, and the power of its “star” members. The power to strike is the union's ultimate weapon, but it is a crude and draconian one and wounds everyone in our industry. Consequently, like nuclear weapons, it is rarely used. The industry is currently facing its second strike this year because the majority of its membership is suffering and feel they have no other recourse. If you possess only one weapon, it’s the one you use. Given the radical depression in earnings there’s little wonder that a strike is on the table again.
There is a simple way leading actors might bring a second, more flexible and targeted weapon into the fray on behalf of your colleagues which incidentally, would provide the ancillary benefit of insuring that you consistently play opposite actors of the highest caliber. If you were to include language in your contracts specifying that, in your films, the "quotes" of your peers must be recognized as a negotiating floor for their compensation, if you publicized that fact, and, if you kicked back a modest amount, say on salaries over six million dollars a film to make that money available, each and every actor negotiating to play opposite you would be empowered to demand the fair compensation that he or she has won for their work.
Why should you be asked to kick back, you might well ask? (and even wonder at the nerve of the suggestion? ) There are a few reasons that make sense to me. 1) You are the engines of the industry, and consequently immune to pressure and intimidation. 2) You are the wealthiest sub-community of the actors, and, possessing the awareness and sensibilities of artists, understand the mutuality of our work in a way that producers never will. 3) Such a gesture would buttress your peers who cannot win such gains for themselves except by sabotaging the entire industry with a strike, which prevents much work in which you have points from getting made.
Also, let’s relate to the non-celluloid world for a moment. Once an actor reaches the six or ten million dollar mark for several months work, they are financially secure for life unless they are morons or have extremely bad habits. By the time they’re earning 15-20 million, some measurable percentage of those earnings is meaningless. A major star on a film we were doing together, once told me, (We were discussing this issue) “Hey there’s no difference between 17 and 18 million to me! My agent tells me so-and-so gets it and so should I.”
That “no difference money” is the difference between earning a living or not for most of the rest of us. A modest return to insure the health of the entire community (the principle behind income taxes) hardly seems excessive. While this would not solve all the problems of our community, it would certainly remove much of the desperation and rancor from negotiations and make earning a living once again possible for far more of the membership. It cannot be legislated by law, only by custom, but as a custom it would lend a definite grace to our industry, and perhaps set a model that might inspire others. (Why do the words “Corporate executives” leap to mind?)
You cannot grow roses without mulch. While stars represent the beautiful blooms of the industry, the soil of the industry, the medium of growth supplied by all those who surround you, is being starved for nourishment. Eventually, this lack of payback to the medium supporting all the growth will kill, if not the plant itself, at least its quality and vitality. Our industry is not secure while the majority of its players are not. To change the situation requires consciousness, solidarity, and power. We have the consciousness and solidarity. We appeal to you for help with the power.
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