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TV Actors and Recording Artists Push for Rewrite of California Labor Law

SAG AFTRA Protest
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TV actors and recording artists are pushing for a major change in California labor law, which is likely to draw stiff opposition from studios and record labels.

A bill introduced in the Legislature today would prevent labels from holding artists to contracts that last longer than seven years. Artists have sought in the past to extend the state’s so-called “seven-year rule” to record labels, but the efforts have failed amid industry opposition.

Now they have the support of TV actors, who are also looking for their own change in state law. Actors on TV series can be held to exclusive option periods for up to two years while a studio decides whether to renew a show. In an era of shorter and shorter TV seasons, that means that actors may not be allowed to work at all for a much greater proportion of their contract.

The bill would limit such exclusive options to one year. That means that once a TV season wraps, the studio would have to decide whether to renew the show and shoot the next season within a year.

The bill, AB 1385, is one of the more ambitious pieces of legislation affecting the entertainment industry in recent years. Its author is Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, who also authored AB 5, the controversial bill that placed strict limits on freelance work.

“The landscape of the entertainment industry has dramatically changed, yet companies still benefit from outdated laws that allow them to wield an overwhelming amount of control over artists,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “No worker should ever be bound to an unreasonable contract that holds them back from making decisions about their own livelihood. It’s time we changed the law to reflect a new reality for creators.”

The bill has the backing of SAG-AFTRA, which has been pushing to limit option periods in its contract negotiations. Studios are likely to warn that a strict limit on option periods might hinder their ability to make long-running series, or force them to move production to another state.

“The balance of power has shifted so dramatically against artists, and its gotten out of hand,” says one source familiar with SAG-AFTRA’s lobbying effort. “Nobody has been able to crack this practice.”

The seven-year rule has a long history in the entertainment industry, dating back to Olivia de Havilland’s lawsuit against Warner Bros. in 1943. In 1987, the recording industry obtained a carve-out from the Legislature, which exempted performing artists’ record contracts from the rule.

That means that labels can sign artists to multi-album deals that may extend well past seven years. The labels argue that they take on heavy upfront costs to develop and promote artists, and they need the ability to reap the rewords when they become successful. But artists frequently complain about being locked into long-term deals.

The Music Artists Coalition, led by Irving Azoff, also argues that the cost to develop acts has plummeted in the era of TikTok and SoundCloud.

“Streaming has been an unprecedented bonanza for the record labels, but not so for artists,” Azoff said in a statement. “We must protect artists and modernize this archaic law.”

The artists tried to have the provision repealed in 2002, but the effort stalled in Sacramento.