Wednesday, August 31, 2005


The show had a fine closing out-of-state, and now the production is in a limbo of sorts. I know the writer/director has already started work on his second opus, so this may be as far as this particular train runs. Still, the producers have been left with a turnkey production that could be mounted nearly anywhere on short notice, so there may be some life in it yet. Not holding my breath, though. Whatever else may happen, at least I was paid fairly well, and I ended up with an additional 3 hours toward my Equity candidacy.

I had another voiceover gig on Monday, two radio spots for an extremely limited run in one of the tiniest markets in the country. (Not complaining, just mentioning it as a preface to what follows.) It was a patch session, meaning I was in a booth here in Chicago while everyone else — the client, director, agency people, and primary engineer — was in a studio hundreds of miles away. Doing patches almost involves a different skill set, because it's easy for things to get confused if you don't keep your communication concise and limited. And heaven forbid the engineer opens his mike while you're talking, because you end up hearing yourself echoing in a room on the other side of the country about a half-second behind yourself. Much worse than using an ear prompter, and it invariably causes you to stammer like a fool. So you end up being like Joe Friday, giving the facts, just the facts, and only when spoken to.

Anyway, on this occasion the director drops a heavy hint to me that he'd like me to do this session "off card", meaning without a union contract, which — giving him the benefit of the doubt — either shows him to be a novice or else indicates that he was under some sort of ridiculous pressure from the agency or the advertiser to keep the costs down. I say "ridiculous" because union scale for what I was doing was only about $200, and probably with no usage to follow, which is waaaay less than they were already spending just for an hour of dual studio time. If I were to think along more sinister lines, I would suspect that what they actually wanted to do was run the hell out of the spots ad infinitum, or wanted to deliberately fill a stable of off-card actors (for various reasons, none of them good for the membership of SAG or AFTRA).

Unfortunately, this second, sinister suspicion was underscored after my session when the sound engineer made a comment to me regarding the amount of work he could get me if I went FiCore. For those who don't know, "Financial Core" is a sort of classification that a person working in non-Right-to-Work states can claim. There's a loooong history to FC, which I may go into later, but the gist of the thing is that people who claim FC status are technically not a member of the union, but are paying dues to the union anyway. Why would someone do this? So they could work both sides of the fence, doing both union AND non-union jobs. There are strong feelings on both sides of the FC issue and, depending who you talk to, it's either touted as a nifty loophole for actors or The End of Unionism As We Know It. I've got my own opinion, but here, to me, is what it all boils down to, regardless of who you're listening to:

If you work FiCore on a commercial job, you are potentially giving yourself a product conflict for life.

"Product conflicts" are why you don't see The Guy From The Pepsi Commercial also doing a Coca-Cola commercial. When you do an on-camera spot, the advertiser wants you to be exclusive to their product — they don't want consumers to see you pitching for their competitors and identifying you with the wrong product. In return for this exclusivity, advertisers pay actors a holding fee every 13 weeks (up to 21 months) until the spot stops running and/or they decide to release the actors (some savvy advertisers will stop running their spots, but hold the actors for an additional cycle to ensure there's a lag before the actors audition for competing products). In case you doubt that this happens very often, I can only tell you that my own experience is that exactly the opposite is true — success breeds success, and casting directors will audition actors from their own mental "pool" of those who have been cast before. It has, in fact, been a serious problem at various times for both me and some of my friends because being in a really memorable commercial will prevent you from being cast even in non-competing product categories since, for instance, no staid financial services company is going to want The Goofy Guy From The Budweiser Commercial in their own spot, no matter how calm and serious he's able to be.

Unfortunately, the problem with doing non-union spots is that the employer is not obligated to put any limit on how long they will run their spots. Typically, they pay a one-time buyout fee (often larger than union scale for the day), but then own the right to air that spot in perpetuity. And the problem with that is that — IF the actor subsequently does a spot for a competitor, and the two spots air around the same time — the competitor can legally sue the actor for having ruined their commercial, and force the actor to pay for a re-shoot (with a different actor, of course), the cost of which is EASILY in the six figures. So, if you do a non-union Subway commercial today, you've effectively eliminated yourself from doing any other fast food commercial ever, for the rest of your life.

This, to me, is the single biggest reason actors should not go FiCore. Whatever else may be said in favor of it (and, believe it or not, I can think of circumstances where it is indeed warranted and even know one actor whose decision to go FiCore I respect), the one incontrovertible fact that proponents of it cannot brush aside is that actors are legally liable for six-figure reshoot fees if they ever work for a competing advertiser.

Of course, those familiar with the subject will point out to me that there is no exclusivity for AFTRA radio spots — actors can, and do, work for competitors without fear of legal reprisals. And, after all, this is how the entire subject came up Monday: it was ostensibly with regard to radio spots. The point, however (at least to me), is that it's a line — cross it and you've got a reputation as an off-card and/or FiCore actor. Most likely it also closes a door behind you, since the unions take a dim view of it. If you work off-card, they can (and most likely will) bring you up on disciplinary charges for violating Rule One. Try to dodge the disciplinary hearings by going FiCore, and you've effectively withdrawn from the union, and they have no obligation to take you back.

And, in an industry that relies so heavily on reputation (what is "fame" after all?), why in heaven's name would I want to go down a path that, to many, casts a pall on my reputation, even if it's technically legal?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have a point about commercials. However you neglect to mention indie films and theater work.

Lets say you are not a member of any of the unions and find yourself in the position to join SAG. When you join this is what you give up:

"This means that SAG members will not accept an acting role in any studio, independent, low-budget, pilot, experimental , non-profit, interactive, educational, student, or ANY production, unless that producer has signed a Contract or Letter of Agreement with the Screen Actors Guild.

In addition, by joining the Screen Actors Guild, members also agree to abide by Rule 9, which states that members of one of the Four A performers' unions (SAG, AFTRA, Equity, AGVA, AGMA) will not accept non-union work in another union's jurisdiction."

In other words, once you become a SAG member, you may not accept ANY non-Union work.