Friday, November 27, 2009

Writers & Actors who break the rules.

As expected, this week is a complete loss in terms of contacting anyone. Thursday, the LA freeways were empty, like a movie about the end of the world. My dinner for friends worked well, turkey, drink, football, obligatory naps, more turkey and that was it. Since there's nothing really to report on Travel Day, I thought I'd let you in on an industry secret. Not really a secret but something few people know about.

I'll start with a story about Jon Voight, the actor made famous in Midnight Cowboy with Dustin Hoffman.  A few years ago, Voight was asked by a friend to be in his low budget movie. So low that it was non-union. Voight belongs to the Screen Actor's Guild, known as SAG. As with all unions, including my own WGA and WGC (Canada) they're pretty tough on producers with good reason.

Actors and writers regularly get screwed. 

Back to Voight. He agreed to be in his friends movie as a favor. However, when SAG found out they went wild. They told Voight he could not do it, or they would kick him out of the union. This wasn't some new actor or some unknown actor, it was an Academy-nominated famous actor. But SAG was not bending.  Now, you have an Oscar winner and about 40 other nominations who has been told he cannot help his friend. It left Voight with one choice.

Financial Core.

Financial Core is a little-known and infrequently used and what it does is allow a union member, any union, SAG or UAW or United Steelworkers, any union, to take a non-union job and still retain his union status to a point.

It's a very odd law that was started by an individual in a union in the mid-west who protested against his union deductions going to support a political candidate he didn't support. Basically he wanted his share of the money going back to him and whichever candidate he wanted to donate to. In short, as long as he pays his dues and fees, he is allowed to stay in the union without having all the rules apply to him.

How did actors and writers get into it?

Somehow, it translates to SAG, WGA and even DGA in that the member who chooses Financial Core can work on non-union productions and still retain his/her membership in that guild. But they lose the right to vote and the monthly magazine and the wrath of other members who can shun him. They can't vote nor go to the parties and miss out on other neat stuff.

But they remain in the union nontheless.

And the guilds hate it. As a matter of fact, they won't even talk about it and sometimes deny it exists. And it's not just about the person who chooses to go "core". If one does it, others will do it and the union will lose money they collect from the producer and actor.

Back to John Voight. He did go Financial Core and did start his friend's movie, but it was closed down after union protesters shut it down. All was relatively quiet until 2005, when Voight was nominated for Best Actor in a TV movie by SAG voters.

But that's not the best part.

SAG refused to allow him to go to the ceremonies. This wasn't the Academy Awards, just the SAG membership who vote for whom they think had exceptional performances that year for movies and TV. And Voight wasn't allowed in. And just because he had won an Oscar and had been nominated four other times as well as a few dozen other awards, they were going to show him that he would be sorry.

No tux, no limo, no meeting his peers at the ceremony. And no after awards dinner either.

The same applies to the WGA, during the strike some writers continued to work under the table while others chose Financial Core. It's hard to pay your bills sometimes and since WGA would not even consider any breaks. After the strike, the union leaders wanted revenge on those who either lied or went core, but very little came of it except for hard feelings.

Were the writers wrong, should they be punished? It's a tough decision, and you need to realize that the writers themselves have conflicts as well. There are roughly 8000 members of WGA, and of these there are less than 2000 who are working, although it's almost impossible to get the guild administration to give an accurate number.

That's an unemployment rate of 80%. The U.S. rate of unemployment is 10% (although realistically it's more like 15-20%). The guild has writers who make $2-4 million a year and the majority wait for residual checks while earning nothing.

I know unions very well, having grown up in Windsor, Ontario, across from Motor City itself. I worked on the line at Chrysler and later covered the UAW beat both in Windsor and Detroit. I also belonged to a television union, NABET. Unions are essential, otherwise the owners would completely take advantage of employees. Can you say Walmart?

To it's credit, WGA has a low budget deal in which the writer is paid a small amount of the minimum scale rate and then, when the film is sold, the writer gets full payment.  The minimum scale is around $42,000 for a budget under $2 million and it has to be guild sanctioned. Non-union work is a no-no.

What happens if you do a non-union job?

You can get thrown out of the guild, you can get fined the full amount you earned or you can get slapped on the wrist and told not to do that.

Read Voight's letter at:


  1. That was one helluva letter Voigt wrote. Hard to believe that could happen to someone of his stature. And here I thought unions were suppose to make one feel 'safer'. It's shameful.

  2. From my experience with WGA, they like the big moneymakers and ignore the small guys, but SAG especially is afraid that many of their members who don't make Brad Pitt paychecks will follow suit with those who go core just to pay their rent and food.

    Most actors make less than $10,000 a year and sometimes ya gotta pay the rent.

    Voight has gone wacky right wing, but I still think he as any member of SAG should be respected rather than harrassed by stupidity and fear.

    I asked WGA if I could make a movie in Canada with WGC as I was a member of the Cdn union long before WGA, and they said no. In other words, I can't make a movie in Canada even though I'm Cdn. But ultimately there's a way to settle it as I get my health and pension in WGA and WGC is very accomodating.

    I call WGC and they give me practical advise and even suggest easier ways to accomodate their rulings. WGA is not nice, won't tell you anything and just sticks to policy. Won't even give email addresses.

    Even the building on 3rd and Fairfax has security people who treat you like shit, even though we're the guys who pay their salaries.

    But their pension is nice, although it's not really theirs, it's producers contribs.

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