How SAG Was Founded

The Actor's Road to Empowerment

by Ken Orsatti, 1995

(Mr. Orsatti was Screen Actors Guild National Executive Director, 1981 - 2001)

Imagine working on a film with unrestricted hours, no enforced turn-around and no required meal breaks. Imagine working under a seven-year contract that you cannot break and more than likely will be forced to renew, for a producer who can tell you who you can marry, what your morals must be, even what political opinions to hold.

This was Hollywood for actors in 1933 under the studio system. Rebel against the studio and you were in for a hard time, better to quit while you're ahead. Fortunately, a group of actors risked their careers to start the Screen Actors Guild. Studio boss Irving Thalberg swore he would die before accepting the Guild. In 1936, Thalberg died and in 1937, the studios accepted defeat and signed a contract with the Guild that, for the first time in Hollywood, gave actors a sense of empowerment.

But the road to empowerment did not end in 1937. While the Guild had won actors better working conditions, the studios still basically "owned" their stars. As there was a tacit agreement among studios not to raid each other for a stars services at their contracts end, actors were not able to choose their roles which is crucial in building a career.

Help came, however, in the form of two actresses who were no longer willing to accept the absolute power of the studios over their destiny: Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. Bette Davis, tired of the inappropriate roles Warners forced on her, rebelled and was suspended without pay. When Warners issued an injunction against her working anywhere else, Davis sued and lost, but a rebellious precedent had been set. After her triumph in Gone With the Wind (1939), Olivia de Havilland also rebelled for better roles and was put on six-month suspension, and when Warners refused to release her from her seven year contract at the end of its term by claiming that the term of her suspension should be added on to her contract, she sued and won in the landmark "de Havilland decision" opening up to negotiation the studios "term-contract."

A few years later (1948), the Supreme Court dealt another fatal blow to the studios in its anti-trust Paramount Decree ordering that the motion picture industry be broken up, clearing the way for independents to enter the industry. Suddenly, actors had the power to control their own careers. When Jimmy Stewart negotiated to work on Winchester '73 (1950) for a percentage of gross receipts, he set a precedent for star deal power that is still in force today.

While there was reason to rejoice at the empowerment stars enjoyed with the dissolution of the studio system, for the non-star contract players, risk and insecurity were the inevitable side effects. The great dominant parents had sent their children out into the world to fend for themselves: guaranteed employment as it existed with the old studio contract was obsolete. However, while the studios were gone, a more benign guardian angel remained to fill the void in the form of the Screen Actors Guild. With the advent of television, the studio system was dealt its final blow. SAG was able to win rights for actors through its first commercials contract in 1953, residual payments for television reruns in 1952 and, in 1960, after a strike, residuals for films shown on television. With the implementation of the Pension and Health Plan, won in the 1960 negotiation, and residual gains, SAG's role in filling the studio system void and finding the means to empower its members was well on its way.

In 1969 the Guild board, "cognizant of the innate desire and need of actors to practice their craft, even under disadvantageous conditions" and "to encourage employment opportunities for Guild members," proposed the first low-budget theatrical contract. It was approved by the largest membership vote in the history of the Screen Actors Guild.

Today, the freedom and power for stars brought about by the demise of the studio system, is evident in the fact that most stars have their own production companies becoming, in essence, their own mini-studios. The actor who produces, directs, initiates his/her own projects is no longer a phenomenon but an accepted part of the industry.

But, for those actors who pound the pavement to act, who choose not to direct or produce, who do not have the option of becoming their own "studios," what does SAG offer in this increasingly complex and diversified industry that, with technological advances, "morphs" almost daily? In an industry with unemployment rates that remain shocking, how does SAG continue on its track of empowering its members?

First and foremost, members have to be empowered by knowing their rights. Today SAG actors head for the set armed with contracts that respond to the exigencies of new technology and the diversity of membership. Contracts that, along with salary and work condition protections, contain specific non-discriminatory, affirmative-action language. Perhaps the most significant change in contracts, and an empowerment that would have been unthinkable in the studio days, are the upfront financial assurances that have been written in over the past four years: cash bond requirements have been tightened and a lien provision on independent pictures is required.

In response to an explosion in low-budget filmmaking, a variety of low-budget contracts such as Affirmative Action, Limited Exhibition Agreement and Experimental, among others, have been created, allowing more and more non-star performers to not only explore their range as film actors, but even to become auteurs. Unfortunately, there is a tendency on the part of actors working these contracts to allow producers to bend the rules and exploit them. Self-empowerment is built into Guild contracts; violating them simply dilutes that power for every other member.

In the early days of SAG, "checkers" went out to the set mainly to "check" to see if the people working on sets had union cards. Nowadays, on any given day there is a Guild representative out in the field checking on complaints ranging from food to exposure of minors to smoke. SAG representatives respond to every call that comes in, and while it is SAGs aim to resolve production problems amicably, the sad fact is that actors oftentimes are wary of calling the Guild for fear of repercussions, undermining one of the principal means of empowerment for the SAG member.

In the wake of several serious accidents on sets and on location, SAG, along with the other unions, has instituted rigorous ongoing safety guidelines, revised in response to new technology. Again," knowledge is power" only by knowing their rights can members fight for them. The Safety Bulletin clearly states "If you have a problem, call the Guild." This should be every SAG members empowerment mantra.

Power for SAG members, ultimately, means work opportunity and income. In the "bread and butter" area of commercials, the Guild has kept up to date with the establishment of the cable structure in the Commercials contract and, in the $4 billion a year field of Informational production, with changes in the Industrial contract that reflect the realities of lower-budget productions. To create more work opportunities, SAG is actively working with producers to strengthen the Guild's position in the marketplace as well as organizing new union production through advertising and trade show appearances. Additionally, with the negotiation of the Interactive Media contract in 1993, SAG places its members on the cutting edge of an area that will be a major source of employment in the immediate future.

From winning the basic human necessities of decent working conditions in 1937 to fostering the growth of the actor as an individual in the face of Twenty-First century technology, the Guild has empowered its members by fulfilling its dual capacity of nurturing employment opportunities while maintaining an active vigilance in member protection. When freed from the confines and "protection" of the studio system, actors were left with a responsibility to control their destinies. With SAG as guardian, and sometimes avenging, angel, the studio system void is being filled today with actors who have more tools and opportunities for self-empowerment than ever before.

(Reported by Melanie Webber)

Guild Presidents