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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Generations Actors Guild Speak Out!

The Generations Actors Guild (GAG), now in the second week of withholding their services from SABC1 soap opera, Generations, convened a press briefing today to address the media about the reasons behind the stay-away.

This was against the background of misinformation being communicated to the press, particularly around issues of the actor’s remuneration and a misrepresentation of their demands to the production house and the broadcaster. GAG also wanted to use the opportunity to contextualize certain peculiarities about the creative economy, particularly the TV industry – where issues such as rates, profit share and syndication fees were concerned. 

Actors around the world, and South Africa operate in a context where, much like professional sportspeople, their careers have a limited life span. The pay structures of said careers, therefore, are scaled differently in order to ensure sustainability of an actor’s career. This is especially true when an actor is strongly associated with a particular TV show or character, making them less marketable for other projects.  Some of the devices employed are:

-          Syndication fees paid to actors whenever the programme is broadcast overseas, or residual fees whenever the programme is repeated.
-          A fee whenever a brand pays the broadcaster to integrate their product into the storyline, in such a way that it is endorsed by the actors.
-          A share in the bonus that the broadcaster pays the production house when the TV series has performed exceptionally well.  

Despite the fact that this is international best-practice, (and factored into their contracts)  Generations actors do not receive these fees – fees that make the difference between ensuring an actors revenue stream for life, or condemning them to an existence where, despite being associated with an extremely profitable and successful project,  once they leave the show, it’s ‘lights out’ - they do not receive the fees that they are contractually entitled to, and their income is abruptly cut off.

“There is a worrying reluctance to share real information of how many countries, and for how much money, the show has been sold to over the two decades of it’s existence” comment GAG. “This is a real issue, as within those sales, are our syndication fees – and we have never received them.  If all actors in our country were paid repeat and syndication fees that they’re contractually entitled to, the lives of most of our most gifted talent would look very different. We wouldn’t have these troubling reports of some of South Africa’s most loved actors dying in poverty and obscurity, despite the fact that their series are on daily repeat or being broadcast in markets overseas. We need to address this issue with urgency, and MMSV and the SABC have been unwilling to come to the party and open the books to show us the money trail.”

Where the issues of their rates & salaries were concerned, GAG explained that they are subjected to particularly high taxes, since they are employed as freelancers. The realities of their pay-packets, therefore, are markedly different from what has been communicated in the media – the average salaries on the set are actually R30,000 per month, not the sum of R55,000 communicated to the media.  

Critically,  GAG wanted to provide detail about how their fees are broken down, using the fictitious R55,000 as a case study, to demonstrate that even a salary that looks quite generous when communicated, is in reality much more modest when real costs are factored in – as follows:

-          R55,000  hypothetical gross salary  - (no benefits.)
-          25% freelancers tax is R13,759,  which leaves R41,241.0
-          subtract the 15% agents fee of R 6186.
-          That leaves R35, 054, 85  - as the REAL take-home salary. 
-          Factor in medical aid, (without the benefit of employers contribution) at R3000 per person, for the individual and 2 of their children – R12,000 (for 3 people)
-          This leaves 23, 054.88 – subtract 4,000  for life insurance, provident fund/retirement annuity
-          This leaves R19, 054.88 for living expenses - rent/bond, school fees, living expenses, vehicle, etc. 

If the amounts communicated above were for a professional who can anticipate a working life-span of some 30+ years, there is a reasonable expectation that it is a manageable sum, even as it is subject to heavy taxes and fees. However, the realities of an actors abbreviated career life-span (average 10 years), are concerned, then it becomes clear that this is not a sustainable fee to ensure that an individual is able to effectively maximize their monthly pay package for a lifetime, in a way that a professional in another sector would be able to. 

Generations is South Africa’s, indeed, Africa’s most successful TV programme – but that success has not filtered down to its key players – the cast. A cursory investigation of how some of the show’s most prominent previous cast members are living today will confirm this fact – and GAG believes that this discrepancy  needs to be addressed with urgency.

The creative industry in South Africa is operates in an unregulated environment – there are no mandated minimum fees,  which makes actors extremely exceptionally vulnerable to  exploitation and to victimization. The employers set the terms, based on nothing but their own perception of what they should be paying – essentially, their whim. In a country that has managed to set down minimum fees for some industries where exploitation is rife, such as domestic work, it is clear that an intervention is needed in the creative sector.  The members of GAG are at pains to point out that their withholding of services is not the first time this has happened – other actors have spoken out, individually, and been blacklisted and sidelined for it.  The action that GAG has embarked on,  however, is the first time it has happened on such a large scale, and for comparatively speaking, such a long time.

“We operate in an environment where there are essentially only 3 major players in the TV industry who offer employment opportunities for actors – the SABC, Etv and M-Net.  We notice that there have been calls for us to ‘just leave and get another job’, but it’s not as simple as that when there are so few options.  It made more sense for us to deal with the situation we were in, as opposed to choosing to walk away. More importantly, however, is that there are some fundamental wrongs that have become common practice in the TV industry that we felt it was our duty to begin to correct.  So, instead of retreating and looking for other jobs, we chose to improve the conditions that we operate in,  for ALL South African actors. To us, this is not a struggle for the 16 people involved – it is an industry-wide battle, and we’re fighting for a wholesale transformation of how the industry is structured and run.” explain the members of GAG.

On Monday, 25th August, the Minister of Arts & Culture held a meeting with the members of GAG and the SABC to explore options of how the current impasse could be resolved. The outcome of the meeting was that the SABC requested a meeting with the actors to begin to iron out their grievances, and look to how the situation could be worked out.  The members of GAG have accepted the invitation, and remain resolute in their goals to effect a wholesale normalization of the industry. 

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