Acting up & down

Small wage rise for SAG

Tom Cruise, John Travolta and other members of the $20 million club do not appear to be suffering, but actors in less exalted salary ranges may have a thing or two to complain about.

Although the Screen Actors Guild on Monday announced record earnings by guild members in 1997, last year’s 3.8% increase was the smallest percentage rise in the last five years.

Total earnings for actors under SAG contracts were $1.59 billion, surpassing the 1996 total by $58 million. But because they are in negotiations for a new contract with motion picture and television producers, guild officials refused to comment on why the increase is so much smaller than last year’s, when the hike in earnings was 11.6% over 1995.

The figures, compiled by the SAG-Producers Pension and Health Plans, reflect members’ session fees and residuals for work in motion pictures, television, commercials, industrial and interactive productions, and the work of extras in each of those categories.

The largest source of income for SAG members last year was the $583 million earned for work in commercials, a 12.5% increase over the $518.3 million generated under that contract in 1996. “I think the figures speak for themselves,” SAG president Richard Masur said in an interview. “The vast majority of the increase in earnings under the commercials contract dates from the inception of our newly negotiated agreement. The majority of those rates went into effect after July 1, when the new rates went into effect, which I think speaks volumes about how effective that negotiation truly was.”

The commercials contract covers actors, singers, dancers, puppeteers and stunt performers.

Work in TV accounted for $564.5 million, a 5.9% gain from the ’96 total of $532.8 million, according to the new figures.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the record-breaking motion picture box-office totals for ’97, earnings by SAG members in features fell 10.2% for the year, from $405.5 million in ’96 to $364.1 million. In addition, income from theatrical session fees declined significantly, by 17.9 %, from $298.3 million in ’96 to $244.8 million.

That decline was offset by an 11.3% rise in theatrical residuals, from $107.3 million in ’96 to $119.3 million last year.

The news was a little better for background performers, whose earnings in ’97 rose 5.5% to $63.3 million. The previous year, it was $60 million.

SAG members’ income from industrial and interactive productions last year was $12.6 million, falling just $100,000 short of the money provided by those productions in ’96.

The figures were announced amid speculation that negotiations for a new actors’ contract with producers, which began in earnest last week, are riddled with problems that could lead to a strike before the summer. It is likely that the weakened earnings position of many actors, as shown in the figures, will play a substantial role in the contract talks.

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