The actors are on strike, the writers may soon be - is cinema dying?

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The Independent Culture

Have you noticed film's appetite for extreme violence - the abuse of children, the lampooning of women and other gentle creatures - seems unending, to say nothing of the marketing of idiocy and mind-damaging materials? But if the dollar that rewards those doing such things is pinched, the wronged squeal fast.

Have you noticed film's appetite for extreme violence - the abuse of children, the lampooning of women and other gentle creatures - seems unending, to say nothing of the marketing of idiocy and mind-damaging materials? But if the dollar that rewards those doing such things is pinched, the wronged squeal fast.

There is a strike afoot in the film, TV and show business. As a rule, strikes get as much public airing as the aggrieved can manage, because they have a cause that even brain-damaged film-goers may appreciate. But this work stoppage has not been busily reported, because these strikers are a touch wary. For those stars, celebrities and actors who work on adverts - either with on-camera presence or voice-over endorsement - have had a work stoppage for more than four months. In the past, they were paid a flat fee and then a percentage based on how often the ad ran. This was very lucrative work, even if some notable actors felt it cheapened their images or detracted from their artistic consciences.

The producers and the networks (the other side) had provoked trouble by proposing to abandon the royalty scheme, in favour of just a flat rate. Their argument is that television is no longer what it was - viewing figures for the networks have been in steady decline. Yet advertising ought to be related to the exact number of viewers exposed to an ad. That is actually how ad rates for television are determined, only after the official viewing figures have been agreed.

The two unions that represent actors - the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists (AFTRA) joined in the strike, though without the vehemence that might defend the minimum claims for unknowns who cannot get by without waiting on tables or parking cars. The notable actors who do commercials hired a public relations firm to promote their case, but the PR people elected to leave the public out of it. Instead, they sought to get glamorous clients into the boardrooms of those major corporations that buy so much advertising. Thus, General Motors could schmooze with Paul Newman and be sympathetic to the squeeze being put on him.

Now, however, the commercials strike is beginning to bite. Not that the public is complaining about any lack of stars in ads. But fewer commercials are being shot. This affects extras and small-part actors, studio space, camera rentals, crewing and post-production facilities. It hurts the little people as well as the big. SAG members' income from this work has fallen drastically, from $240m in 1999 to $1m in 2000. Related employment has lost a further $100m. Meanwhile, the television business reports little except its savings: the great myth, that advertising actually sells things, may not always operate. The US economy is booming and people are buying anything they can think of. Is advertising, in those circumstances, a waste of time?

The unions are very anxious - and the long-term consequences are enormous. For Hollywood (film and TV alike) is founded on the principle that stars, directors, producers and writers get not just a fee but a percentage thereafter. This was not always the case. In the golden age (it's what made gold for the studios), they had a Clark Gable, say, under a seven-year contract. He was paid an annual salary for a set number of pictures, but he got nothing extra when a picture prospered. Nowadays a Gable - call him Tom Cruise - gets to earn millions for the work done, and then receives a percentage (profit participation) on a picture's earnings. Mission:Impossible 2, which Cruise helped produce as well as star in, has already (before video) earned $500m worldwide - Tom's take could be a fifth of that.

In other words, the principle of profit participation - or residual income related to the number of plays - is vital. It's also important to know that the basic contracts for feature films between the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild and the producers and studios lapse early in 2001. There are militant forces in both unions ready for a serious strike - even for as long as a year. The studios are doing their best to stockpile movies (warning: expect many pictures finished too quickly). So the commercials strike is a rehearsal for a total work stoppage. (In which case, I'd say, be very careful - for if we the idiots can endure without celebrity ads, what else could we manage without? Could you have survived without M:I 2?)

But producers have technology on their side. They sometimes say: look, do you realise that we could make actors on a computer, if we wanted? Such phantoms would not belong to SAG, or any unions yet. No one knows how long a public appetite for morphs would last. The estates of some dead stars have already done deals permitting the computer regeneration of Wayne, Astaire and Bogart in TV ads. One thing is clear: the "people" in computers need not age or have agents. They won't make trouble - though their creators and lawyers could grow very possessive. So real actors feel the chill and prepare to fight to what once was known as "death".

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