ACCORDING TO LIZ - The allure of Hollywood. Stories of Lana Turner going from purchasing a soda to becoming one of the highest-paid actresses of her day, and of other small town teenagers smitten with the acting bug, “discovered” while working as a waiter or an usher.
Few people come to Los Angeles already wealthy. They have always had to sacrifice to make it here, but that does not give studios the right to exploit their labor.
Recent unionizing at Amazon and Starbucks and the recent tentative win for the workers in the showdown between the Teamsters and UPS will have more long term impact, both on how much we will pay for their products, and how the balance of power may change between corporations and their indentured workers.
George Clooney, Rosario Dawson, Mandy Moore, Margot Robbie and Jason Sudeikis — walking picket lines and arguing for fair wages.
What is a fair wage for an under-$25,000 a year aspiring actor when those walking with them already making millions?
What is a fair wage for an atypical job, one that is not 40 hours a week, week in and week out, one for which there is uncountable competition?
Most striking actors are not big stars. They are hard-working artists struggling to get by in an entertainment industry that is run by the tastes of audiences that are notoriously fickle, and by bottom-line obsessed studio executives and investors who prioritize profits above people – especially those whose names are not on marquees.
What is a reasonable business model so the companies that fund the films can make enough to make some more and that people who make their living as actors don’t end up on the street after one bad year?
A company’s obligations towards its workers have been brought up again and again by those opposed to corporate greed, and popularized by discussion about Thomas Piketty’s work on income inequality.
The Screen Actors Guild last went on strike on March 7, 1960, led by future President Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston – two of my least favorite Hollywood people, the latter whose National Rifle Association leadership empowered tens of thousands of killers across our land, and the former who went on to destroy unions in the United States.
Among the union’s top demands back then? Health care coverage and residuals for movies aired on television, reruns, and syndication. Sound familiar?
In the summer of 2020, a year prior to Fran Dresher's election, in response to rapidly escalating healthcare costs, increased demands for medical services, and mounting deficits, the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan raised the floor of earnings needed to qualify by almost 50%, from $18,040 to $25,950 a year, effectively dropping between 10% and 20% of its 33,000 members and 32,000 of their dependents from coverage.
Then, as now, over 90% of SAG-AFTRA members made less than $25,000 a year.
Additionally, health care premiums rose substantially on January 1, 2021.
As of January 2023, the minimum earnings requirement was $26,470. Quarterly premiums remain at $375 for the participant, $531 with one dependent, and $747 with two or more.
Qualification for COBRA (limited continuation of coverage) increased to $20,400 in earnings between October 1, 2021 and September 30, 2022 and carries hefty premiums – from $1,005 for just the participant to $2,501 for one with two or more dependents. And that’s per month.
More than many day-player actors make.
A far more onerous provision provides that qualifying income could not include pensions or residuals, the payments actors earn for reruns, syndication, streaming or DVD releases of work previously paid for in another media… despite the fact that the IRS considers them income.
It’s the performers who have paid into the health plan for decades who are hurting, many now facing a lack of employability due to ever-prevalent age discrimination in the industry, as well as competition from those who will take minimum scale for a chance to get a foot in the door of show biz.
Sharon Stone lost her SAG-AFTRA health insurance during the pandemic because she fell $13 short of qualifying after 43 years in the business. Barbra Streisand, Whoopi Goldberg, Ed Asner and Morgan Freeman after working 40 or 50 years and more believing their high-quality health coverage was secure for life, have all protested the impact on seniors and retirees.
Shannon Doherty, star of the hit show “90210” has been battling a recurrence of cancer and lost her coverage because she was not able to work: “I’m curious for people like me who have worked since they were 10 and paid dues to @sagaftra how when we aren’t able to work for health reasons why our union abandons us.”
Is that fair?
A real solution to that part of the equation may be for the studios to throw their might behind a nationwide single payer healthcare system.
But that brings us back to what they are really fighting about. Money? Or control?
Corporate mergers – are all about money not entertainment. And the upper echelons of management make more money, have higher quality health plans and golden parachutes for when they waft out of the boardroom.
But the real power is in controlling how much money is spent on what in production. So what happens when the studios can dial up A.I. – Artificial Intelligence – created competition?
The best known actors and their lawyers and money managers won’t have to worry about a few weeks’ or even a few months’ downtime. And their images are studio assets so it’s doubtful their livelihoods are at risk any time soon.
Drama sells, and engaging their audience is every actor’s best skill, whether it be convincing the director of their next gig or emoting onscreen to millions. So SAG joining the WGA on the picket lines has made for newsworthy copy during the dog days of summer.
WGA writers may have taken a hit from studios moving to streaming models, and there is no question that streaming residuals need to be addressed for all participants now that part of the industry has come or age, but they still make many thousands of dollars a week for weeks on end as compared to a journeyman actor who may pull down a few thousand once or twice a month.
Looking at the average income of self-identified actors, not enough to live on in Podunk let alone Los Angeles, will always be skewed in an industry where there is more desire to participate, and is based more on ephemera – the “it” allure – than skills that can be learned.
It’s not so much that these actors – the ones that are actually making a living at it – are suffering financially, it’s that they are looking ahead, subconsciously if not in fact, and seeing the ever-escalating shift of power to those on top, and their loss of leverage to negotiate anything be it salary, working hours... or A.I.-generated competition.
In this new digital economy, when A.I. can manipulate pixels to create images, actors and the writers who put the words in their mouths may no longer be necessary. This threatens all but those who control and can monetize it.
For whom do you care? The actors? Or the monopolists of Wall Street?
(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)