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Digital media payments for actors a key issue in SAG-AFTRA elections

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Screen Actors Guild President Ken Howard is seen onstage at the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Mark J. Terrill/AP
Screen Actors Guild President Ken Howard at the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.

One of the major concerns for actors is how they get paid for their work in the fast-changing world of streaming, which includes Netflix and Amazon TV shows.

On Aug. 20, the results will be known for an election that will set the next course for Hollywood’s largest union. Members of SAG-AFTRA are voting whether to retain the board led by incumbent Ken Howard, or to replace him with Patricia Richardson.

One of the big issues for actors is how they get paid  for their work in digital media, which includes Netflix and Amazon TV shows. With more and more original scripted content being created for streaming services, it’s a part of the industry that’s growing amost faster than any union contract can keep up with.

Jonathan Handel is a contributing editor at The Hollywood Reporter where he follows SAG-AFTRA news. He spoke with The Frame’s Oscar Garza.

Interview Highlights

The SAG-AFTRA ballots are out. What are the union members voting on?

They’re voting on national officers, the president and secretary-treasurer, and also board members from L.A., New York ... The issue for the challengers, in a sense, is a rerun of the merger ballot, which passed by a ratio of about four-to-one back in 2012. But the challengers feel that the promises of the merger [between SAG and AFTRA] have not been delivered. They’re not really saying what they’d do differently, but they’re saying, We don’t like the way things are.

What is the main issue here in this election? Aside from the leadership itself, what is at issue?

At one level the main issue is compensation from new media, which has been the issue that’s been roiling the unions since the writer’s strike in 2007/2008. But at another level it’s that this business, both on the television and the motion picture side, is undergoing enormous changes ... SAG-AFTRA encompasses not just famous names who are at the top of the pinnacle, who live lives of enormous privilege and enormous wealth, but many middle-class and even working-class actors who struggle to put food on the table and feed their families in an expensive city like L.A. or New York. The issue really is, as the industry changes, where is the work going to be and what is compensation going to look like?

How might these elections change the way we watch and consume media?

If the challengers do prevail here, then that may give them an opening to then, two years from now, take control of the boardroom itself. So you’d have somewhat of a split union for the next two years. What happened in 2008 is that they stalemated, essentially, for a year. [They] lost a year’s worth of wage increases, estimated at a total of, I think, $100 million in losses, and got nothing for that stalemate. So if we ended up with that again, we could end up with a production slowdown and with an effect on what people will actually see out there on their screens.

Note: Some of The Frame’s producers are members of SAG-AFTRA.

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