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COUNTERPUNCH

Actors Also Pay Price for Star Salaries

September 04, 1995|EUGENE BOGGS | Eugene Boggs is a professor of law at the University of West Los Angeles and a member of the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of SAG. and

The skyrocketing salaries for major stars described in "Carrey! Schwarzenegger! Stallone! Silverstone?" (Calendar, Aug. 12) do pose several problems for the industry, but your article focused on only two: 1) budgetary pressures on studio chiefs and producers, and 2) the attendant risks of job loss such executives face if highly budgeted films fail at the box office.

There is another, in my view, troubling consequence of what your article terms "hyper-inflated" star salaries (and such creative contributors). That consequence is that as such salaries are rising, employment opportunities for lesser-known performers are decreasing in quantity and declining in quality. The beleaguered executives referred to in your article, in their search for some means of controlling ever-escalating production costs, have settled on the performing community's "middle class" as the line of least resistance.

By "middle class" I am referring to that broad range of professional actors and other performers who have traditionally filled Hollywood film roles ranging from second leads through day player parts. (There was a time when professional background actors, commonly known as "extras," were a part of that performers' middle class, but the economic realities of today's Hollywood have effectively ended any such pretensions or aspirations for all but the most determined and resourceful of professional extras.)

In Hollywood today, actors of unquestioned ability and long experience are increasingly being pressured to work for union contract minimum rates plus 10% for their agent's fee (so-called "scale plus 10") by producers who are looking to cut costs elsewhere after having "given the store" to a major star. The harsh realities of the marketplace make any justification of these policies by the producers unnecessary. Still, if any rationale is needed, it is instantly available in the following stock response: "Stars get pictures made and, hence, generate everyone else's jobs. Be thankful they exist and that you're being offered a job thousands of others would sell their souls to get."

This phenomenon has been given extensive coverage in the local Hollywood trade press, but, as with so much that goes on in what your newspaper terms "The Biz," this issue, involving, as it does, more or less ordinary working people, rather than the Eisners, Ovitzes and Cantons of this world, is simply off the Los Angeles Times' "overclass" radar screen.

Finally, many will read this and ask, "So what? Movies are still getting made with the major stars that ticket buyers want to see. Who cares about the spear carriers?" My response is that anyone who is really interested in movies as either an art form or a business or both better care. The movie business is--as Hortense Powdermaker described half a century ago in her classic anthropological study, "Hollywood, the Dream Factory"--a society unto itself with its own distinct culture. As with societies on a national scale, the widening of the gap between rich and poor and the contemporaneous decline of a stabilizing middle class marks Hollywood as an increasingly decadent, increasingly unjust society. The Times reported last month that "Waterworld" production executives attributed part of the film's cost overrun to poor planning that resulted in extras unnecessarily working long days. Union extras were working at the contract rate of $65 for eight hours when "Waterworld" was shooting!

Can attitudes like that affect Hollywood's product? Unlike Sen. Robert Dole, I actually go to the movies and yet I too believe that there is indeed room for concern. Many others who want to see the industry prosper share those concerns. I invite you to visit your local multiplex and judge for yourself.

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