Last week, 65,000 members of SAG-AFTRA, the largest performer and broadcasters union in the nation, went out on strike after the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) — the organization that represents major studios and streamers, including Amazon, Apple, Disney, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Paramount, Sony, and Warner Bros Discovery and others — refused to put forward a fair contract offer. SAG-AFTRA members have joined striking Writer’s Guild of America workers who have been on strike since May. It's the first time both unions have been on strike together since 1960.
“The eyes of the world and, particularly, the eyes of labor are upon us. What happens to us is important. What’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor,” said SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher. “When employers make Wall Street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors who make the machine run, we have a problem.”
The main issue in the strike is that the compensation for SAG-AFTRA member has severely declined over the last decade with the rise of streaming platforms. Union leaders also say artificial intelligence “poses an existential threat to creative professions” because they lack protections against having their identity and talents exploited without consent or adequate compensation. Like in so much of the rest economy, these multibillion-dollar media conglomerates are prioritizing Wall Street and shareholders over thousands of working performers.
SAG-AFTRA Members in Maine Speak Out
While Maine does not have a thriving film and television industry, there are several actors from Maine in SAG-AFTRA’s New England Local — which represents 3700 members working in television, radio, digital media and film in the region. Most of the Maine SAG members act in small parts and in background roles, often traveling to Massachusetts where generous film tax credits attract Hollywood productions.
“When you choose to be an actor in New England, you do have to supplement it with other income,” said SAG-AFTRA member Jay Dunigan, who has had roles in such films as the last years's Whitney Houston biopic "I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and the upcoming comedy/drama “Hangdog,” which was filmed in Portland. “For principal actors it’s very rewarding for five days. You get over $1000 a day and usually overtime, but that’s one gig for probably one or two you might get in a year. And you can’t live on $16,000 a year.”
SAG member Paul Bellefeuille of Standish spent nearly three decades in the broadcast business as a radio announcer and performer before landing his big film role as the “Angry Old Canadian” in the 2018 film Super Troopers 2. Since then he’s performed roles in the 2019 comedy/mystery "Knives Act", the television series Castle Rock and "Mr. Henderson,” the comic relief in Joyner Lucas' music video for "Just Let Go”
Bellefeuille says he gets some residuals, or royalties, from DVD sales and commercial television re-runs, but receives no compensation for views on streaming services.
“The studios cry that they have to do it this way because they ‘have no way of keeping track,” but they can get those numbers — they just don’t want to,” said Bellefeuille. "It’s all about transparency and they’re not being very transparent about it. And that to me is a big deal.”
Dunigan says a lot of his actor friends in Los Angeles are finding themselves left behind in the transition to streaming services.
“You’re using someone’s ability to tell a story that people are going to watch and you’re not going to pay them for that? They’ve just got their heads in the sand counting all that money,” he said. “The middle class has just gone away and I would apply that to the movie and television business where you could once earn a middle class living.”
A 2020 TikTok video by “Orange Is the New Black” actor Kimiko Glenn recently resurfaced in which she showed that one her residual checks from the award-winning Netflix show was a measly $27.50. Soon other actors began sharing the pittances they earn from residuals for their work. Voice actor Brock F. Powell tweeted that he was actually “paid a negative penny” on a check, taking back "the measly one cent” he was previously given for a full episode.
Bellefeuille and Dunigan said they are also demanding that the production companies compensate actors when reproducing their likenesses using AI. In the 2018 film the “Catcher Was a Spy,” Bellefeuille was one of 300 background actors who appeared in the crowd at Fenway park, but they were reproduced to make it appear there were thousands more fans. Dunigan said filmmakers did the same thing with an audience shot from the Whitney Houston film.
In one extreme case, the actor Erik Passoja found his likeness used in a video game without his permission after he appeared in the 2014 film "Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” as a Belgian geneticist. The game grossed over a billion dollars, but he received nothing for his likeness being used.
“A friend called me after the game's release, saying, "Hey, my son just shot you!,” wrote Passoja on Facebook. “Turns out, my likeness was also used in the online PvP game. Players can shoot me in the face, blow me up, stab me, push me off a cliff, and burn me alive, all while I scream and die in extreme violence. This is not a Belgian geneticist. This is a completely different character….All I received was the original session fee. I had no say in how my likeness was used, or that it would be subjected to such violence.”
Meanwhile, productions being filmed in New England like Beetlejuice 2, which will be filmed in Vermont with some scenes shot in Maine, are on hold indefinitely until the strike is over. The longer AMPTP refuses to treat their workers fairly and share some of the wealth these actors and writers create, the longer fans will have to wait for their favorite shows to come back while businesses that depend on the film industry in New England will have to weather the storm.
Stay Tuned for SAG-AFTRA Action in Maine Next Month
Next month, SAG-AFTRA members are planning an action in Portland, so we will keep you posted on the date and time. In the meantime, SAG members are continuing to do work on commercials, so if your union or business is looking for a performer to appear in an advertisement, please reach out to us and we can help you find some wonderful SAG-AFTRA talent in Maine. Having recently hired a fantastic SAG-AFTRA voice actor from Maine for an upcoming educational animation, we can vouch for their amazing talent and professionalism.