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  • SAG and AFTRA: Together Again

    Posted on February 28th, 2010 Mike 1 comment

    Late this past week, announcements were made by SAG and AFTRA that stated their intention to negotiate jointly for their next Film and Primetime Television deal. These negotiations are slated to begin this fall, although the current contracts – signed by AFTRA in 2008 and SAG many months later, in 2009 – don’t expire until June of 2011. These early negotiations were part of the settlement agreed to by SAG when they finally accepted the current contract. The announcement was not unexpected, especially given the upheaval SAG has gone through in the last 2 years, and the stated intentions of their new leadership under their new President, Ken Howard. But make no mistake. SAG is fighting to maintain relevancy, particularly in television, where their antics of the last year and a half have severely reduced their ability to maintain their representation.

    During the last pilot season (2009), SAG’s refusal to settle led to two major upheavals. First, about 98% of pilots were shot on something other than film. And second, that shift in production medium allowed the studios to put all of the actors on those shows under AFTRA contracts rather than SAG contracts. A little history is in order here. Previous agreements stipulated that SAG had exclusive jurisdiction over projects shot on film. However, SAG and AFTRA share jurisdiction on any projects shot on anything else. Since SAG’s refusal to sign a new agreement created a situation in which a strike action could conceivably be called, the “safe” route for pilot producers was to sign with AFTRA, which already had an agreement in place that had been signed months earlier. This would guarantee that pilots would be completed as scheduled. But it also meant that all such pilots would be shot on mediums other than film, be that traditional video cameras, digital cinema cameras, or anything in between. Since a number of television programs had begun to use digital cameras already, this was not a shocking development. Digital production is generally less costly (not always, but generally), and the quality of digital capture has improved by many orders of magnitude over the last few years. However, if left to its natural course, the movement away from film for television would likely have taken at least another 2 or 3 years. In fact, most of the major post facilities in Los Angeles were planning on that type of timetable. What SAG did accelerated that timetable by at least 2 years. This is borne out by the fact that the current pilot season is seeing a continuation of almost exclusively digital production, and an almost exclusive use of AFTRA representation. The removal of the SAG strike threat has done nothing to change that pattern. Which brings me back to this week’s announcement.

    SAG needs television. They need the revenues that television production brings, especially in terms of health and pension plan solvency. A year ago, they essentially cut their own throats and didn’t even seem to notice. While feature films are certainly a major contributor to SAG’s health as a guild, the loss of nearly all television representation is not something they can live with long term. AFTRA, on the other hand, has never been healthier. They have grown more quickly than they ever anticipated thanks to the dysfunction of their “sister” union. It is clear that SAG now recognizes this, and the resistance – not to mention the outright disdain – towards a rapprochement with AFTRA has been pushed aside. Old grudges can easily disappear when survival is at stake.

    For the post business, however, it’s not nearly that simple. The major post facilities were designed, built, and grown on the backbone of film transfer. All of the major facilities have vast investments in film equipment, with much of that investment having been made over the last 7 years or so in HD telecine equipment. For a number of these facilities, the sudden loss of daily transfer work due to the almost overnight shift to digital production is devastating. Now, it should be pointed out that film for television is not dead. In fact, over 25 shows this season were still shot on film. But with the handwriting clearly on the wall, the 2 years that the facilities thought they had before their film infrastructures were not able to produce significant revenue represents the loss of a buffer they were counting on. The changes long predicted are now beginning to emerge. Some of the most well established facilities are downsizing, with a number of talented, long term people being laid off. At least one major West Side facility has gotten out of the television business altogether. Another one is about to be sold. And at least one or two more could conceivably shut their doors before the beginning of the next production season in June. Of course, with any major change in which some companies are left out in the cold, others benefit. The movement away from film, and an anticipated subsequent movement away from videotape, has allowed smaller, boutique type companies to participate in a market that they could not possibly have competed in just a few years ago. With much less investment in infrastructure, more efficient use of commodity computing equipment, the advent of very inexpensive storage, and use of networking and more efficient work flows, these companies are poised to be the “major” facilities of the future. The talent being let go by the downsizing of the existing facilities will find their way to the newer ones, allowing for a continuation of relationships and, potentially, an increase in the quality of the work being done thanks to newer, more flexible and powerful software. The same finishing artist who was working on a very expensive Fire system in a major facility can easily be doing the same level of work using Smoke on a Macintosh. And in some cases, that artist can even own the equipment. A colorist who’s been working on a DaVinci 2K for the last 10 years can do even more on a Baselight or Lustre system at a boutique facility. Or he or she could own a Scratch system and accomplish similar level work.

    The upheaval of the post business is just that – a serious ripple in a formerly calm pond. Some companies will survive, others won’t. Some people will get hurt, others will reapply their talents by continuing to learn and not giving in to the fear that change can sometimes bring. I’ve been in this business for a long time, but I’ve never stopped learning and changing. Surviving in an industry that is at least partially driven by technology requires a career long commitment to constantly re-educate oneself as that technology moves forward, especially when it moves forward very quickly. The underlying talent is the same – a good editor is still a good editor regardless of whether he or she is working on a Moviola, an Avid, or a Final Cut system. A good colorist is just as good regardless of the system he or she is using, be that a DaVinci 2K, Baselight, Scratch, or even an Apple Color system. And a cinematographer’s talent is what creates his or her art, regardless of whether the device capturing that art is a piece of film, a Sony F35, a Panavision Genesis, or a Red One. But with all of these devices there is a learning curve that must be mastered. Those that somehow expect their current employers to keep them going by training them on the job are likely to end up as those who get hurt. Those who stay ahead of the curve by learning all they can and finding ways of becoming proficient on all new devices, and knowledgeable about all new technologies, are likely to be those who survive. But it is clear that for those in the post business, the time for complacency is over. The only surprise is that it took the actions of an actors union to make it obvious.

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