Re-Imagining SAG/AFTRA

As 2015 begins, I’m already working on a possibly yearlong concept for which I encourage any thoughts via the blog or twitter (@philsutfin).   The concept is… if we blew up the voice-over world today and started from scratch… what would it look like and how would it be better (if at all)?  I have several ideas but, I admit, I’m so firmly entrenched in the agency/management mindset that it is often difficult to see beyond established models so… what I’m really saying is…  I’m open to any new concepts if I think it can make sense. Today’s installment is: Re-Imagining SAG/AFTRA

Let me start by saying that I think SAG/AFTRA is great in theory for every actor.  I’m admittedly biased for a few reasons: 1) I live in NY where I have seen the union be effective, 2) my wife has been a board member for several years and I know how hard and thoughtfully the board works for the members, and 3) I’ve been on the SAG/AFTRA health plan for several years and I’m thankful for the coverage.  More importantly, I have always felt that SAG/AFTRA has been part of an excellent balance of power with Production (Ad Agencies, Studios, Networks, et al) and Talent Agents.

So why should the current system be blown up?  Because non-union voice work especially in commercials is greater than at any point in history and there are no actions in sight to curb the non-union work.  In fact, non-union work would encompass even a greater percentage of the dollars if not for all of the celebrity voices skewing the numbers in favor of SAG/AFTRA.

How did this happen?  There are several factors but three primary ones led us to the current circumstances.  1) SAG/AFTRA engaged in at least a decade and a half of disastrous in-fighting where politics trumped any contract negotiations and also led to 2) the strike of 2000 which forced major advertisers to rely on non-union talent for the first time and 3) a contract impasse (since 2002) with former SAG/AFTRA franchised agents.  The balance of power I spoke of only a couple of paragraphs ago was essentially ripped apart and the primary winner was easily advertisers.  Add internet technology and the rise of PTP sites (which also favored production) and voiceover Talent Agencies should have been crippled but non-jurisdictional promos, narrations, TV affiliates and radio imaging in conjunction with celebrity work, trailers, political ads and animation allowed the talent agencies to at least diversify and maintain revenue.  The loser?  The rank-in-file union scale commercial actors who watched their day-to-day work dwindle in some markets by over 75%.

So what is a solution?  A SAG/AFTRA PTP site modeled as a combination of and  Now I understand that Realtime Casting is attempting to do the same thing (at least from the PTP end) and, in fact, I would encourage SAG/AFTRA to look at Realtime as a possible solution.  After all, they needn’t spend a ton of money when they can simply license what already exists and Realtime has always acted in concert with the union’s interest.  As I see it, the site would work with two options and send projects to either 1) individually listed talent whereby the service would act very much like or Voice123 does currently or 2) send projects to specific agencies like Voicebank whereby the agents would cast among their own stables.

Now that’s not necessarily a novel idea and this is where I get specific with how to pay for it.  Talent will need to pay a yearly service fee (somewhere between $200-500) despite the union’s sometimes-strident position against PTPs.  That money will pay for building a site (or licensing one like Realtime) as well as significant marketing.  Currently, the other PTP sites are paying somewhere between 5-10K a month in marketing and SAG/AFTRA would have to match that kind of budget.   The second component consisting of agents would be free but based on a very big contingent.  Talent agencies would need to sign a new jointly negotiated SAG/AFTRA franchise agreement.  The talent agencies therefore have an incentive to sign on, as they would hope to profit from the new and fee free technology.  On the other hand, if the talent agencies don’t sign, their talent would be denied listing their agency as their representative and all negotiations would be handled independently minus their input (and possibly their commission).   SAG/AFTRA would therefore have a great carrot and stick to get the talent agencies back to the table and negotiate a fair agreement.

Another component to the new site would be incentivizing smaller advertisers to take advantage of the system.  I see two easy ways to make things simple for the buyer… 1) creating electronic one-time contracts for jobs.  For instance, if I’m a small ad agency who does mostly print and I’m asked to do a radio spot, I likely would be intimidated if I was asked to become a Union Signatory.  The one time contract allows me to sign off (or check) a single form (I imagine something akin to the typical software license which no one ever reads) to create a union job.    2) Talent payment would also be crucial especially for the individuals listed on the service without representation and SAG/AFTRA could seek out 3rd Party bids among Talent Partners, ART, etc. to handle all of the sites payments.  As soon as the agency filled out the one time contract, a talent payment rep would call and provide the service with a total estimate for the job as well as one single bill including all the performers, their union pension and health and all associated taxes.

Finally, do I anticipate this actually happening whether in the form I outlined or some other variation?  In fact, no.  Why? Because the service would need to charge a yearly fee to exist (as well as to improve over time) and SAG/AFTRA has a strong ethos about paying for services in advance. This mindset has to change to be competitive.   I understand the foundational principle of not exploiting actors with advance fees but subscription models are one of the reasons why the internet has thrived and we have seen such phenomenal advancements in technology.   SAG/AFTRA can thumb up their noses at all the PTPer’s but they do so at their peril. Every moment their noses are in the air, innovation and technology moves away from them and their members are left asking how they were left behind.

I’m gong to end this with a commercial… what else?  It is a Nike ad about golf, which like SAG/AFTRA has incredibly strong traditions, and comically addresses how technological adaptation has advanced the game over hundreds of years.  The title of the spot is “Play in the Now” and I implore SAG/AFTRA do the same.


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