Writers strike largely to blame for the downturn

Unemployment and under-employment are as much a problem for thesps as they are for workers in nonpro sectors, according to the latest earnings stats from the Screen Actors Guild.

SAG actors saw earnings decline 2.5% last year to $2 billion, mostly due to TV earnings plunging 8.4% to $682 million as series went dark due to the Writers Guild of America strike for the first few months of 2008. Feature film earnings slid 2.4% to $620 million as studios cut spending after a pre-strike hike in production while commercial earnings edged up 0.4% to $801 million.

The guild published the figures in the SAG Actor quarterly magazine — which began hitting member mailboxes this week — as part of a 2008 national board directive requiring annual disclosure of earnings covered by SAG’s pension and health plans. (The figures don’t include many of the paychecks for megabucks stars because of the caps on employer contributions to SAG’s pension and health plans. For feature films, SAG’s contribution cap is set at $232,000 per picture per actor.)

“The years 2007 and 2008 saw some extraordinary events occur in the media business, from the WGA strike, to the stockpiling of feature films and the impact of the financial crisis on ad spending and production financing,” Ray Rodriguez, national deputy exec director of contracts, wrote in the magazine.

Rodriguez made no mention that SAG minimums didn’t increase during the second half of 2008 as the guild leaders held out unsuccessfully for a better feature-primetime deal after the contract expired. The earnings decline played out against the backdrop of SAG’s elections in September with the moderates blaming the Membership First faction for its refusal to take the deal that was eventually ratified this summer.

The figures underline the grim picture for rank-and-file actors among SAG’s 120,000 members. SAG’s health and pension plans — which are operated jointly by trustees representing SAG and the entertainment industry — disclosed in September that employer contributions are down 10% in 2009, without taking into account the decline in the decrease in SAG-covered pilots due to nearly all producers opting to go with AFTRA.

SAG plans CEO Bruce Dow disclosed last month at SAG’s membership meeting that the year-to-date figure on employee contributions was off 10% to 11%.

The earnings report showed that SAG’s TV earnings in 2008 fell back well below earnings in the three previous years. Biggest decline took place in principal session work, which declined 11.4% to $397.1 million; residuals were off 3.5% to $248 million and background work fell 6% to $37 million.

In feature film work, 2008 earnings for principal session work declined 5.6% to $369 million, while residuals increased 5% to $223 million and background work plunged 13% to $28.7 million.

Earnings under SAG’s vidgames contract slid 56% to $2.77 million. AFTRA covers most of the unionized voice work on vidgames. The impact of the declining earnings for SAG thesps will come into sharper focus in January on two fronts. SAG’s pension plan — which disclosed last March that the value of its assets declined 22.7% in 2008 to $2.1 billion — will slash accrual rates for benefits from 3.5% to 2%.

SAG’s health plan will kick up Plan I monthly premiums from $50 to $83, with Plan II rising from $65 to $98. The plan will also charge senior performers a premium for the first time of $25 a month.

Currently, employers pay a contribution equal to 15% (9.25% for health, 5.75% for pension) of an actor’s salary into the SAG plans.

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