The Screen Actors Guild plans to crack down on Web shows using SAG actors without an agreement at the start of the new year.
As a result, some Web video producers have begun refusing to work with SAG actors.
Web studios HealthiNation and For Your Imagination said they have decided not to use union talent on their shows. But on the flip side is the newly launched site Strike.tv, which leans on union actors and writers for its Web programming.
The sharp philosophical divide over whether to hire union actors for Web video productions underscores one of the many issues that Web producers now face as the Internet TV business starts to mature. Many producers are drawing their lines in the sand now and setting policies on using union talent to avoid complications later.
The big issue is cost. Hiring SAG actors for a Web show can increase the costs because producers need to pay a portion of the actor’s gross compensation to SAG to cover pension, healthcare and other union benefits. That paperwork and cost is prohibitive for some studios, which worry that union involvement could hinder an already tenuous future.
“We are a nonunion shop,’ said Raj Amin, CEO of online health programmer HealthiNation. “Given that you aren’t monetizing it the same way as network television, it will pretty much kill the business if you have to go union.”
He said his company had considered developing a celebrity-driven show, but ultimately did not because HealthiNation would have had to pay royalties and episode fees equivalent to those of television. “It was just not an option,” Mr. Amin said. “My fear as a producer of these shows is if the wrong rules will be exercised it will make it tough to get this content off the ground.”
Paul Kontonis, CEO of Web video shop For Your Imagination, also has opted to produce shows only with nonunion talent. He made that decision when SAG wanted his company to become a signatory because the FYI show “Kyle Piccolo” stars a SAG actor.
“If a SAG actor is going to work on a Web project, it has to be a union production,” said Todd Amorde, SAG’s national director of organizing. Mr. Amorde added that SAG keeps an eye on Web shows and pays close attention to which shows have advertising and which shows use high-profile talent. SAG said more than 750 Web shows have been produced to date under a SAG agreement.
More probably will go union in 2009 because SAG plans to enforce its rule that SAG actors will work only with producers that have SAG agreements. “There has been a lot of confusion over new media, and new media will be dealt with exactly as traditional media has,” Mr. Amorde said.
Mark Friedlander, national director of new media at SAG, said, “We are keeping an eye on it, but of course we want our members to work and to be compensated and we want the industry to prosper.”
According to SAG, if a program is available on the Web for more than six months, the signatory must pay about 6% of the revenue, including ad dollars, to the union. That’s essentially the equivalent of a residual, SAG explained. In addition, the producer would have to contribute 14.8% of all gross compensation to the SAG Producers Pension and Health Plans.
Those costs are too onerous for a startup business, Mr. Kontonis said. FYI will market and distribute shows with SAG actors if a production company has its own agreement with SAG, as “Kyle Piccolo” does, he said. But FYI will no longer produce shows itself with SAG talent.
“The way SAG is treating Web producing companies penalizes them for being their own distributors, but that’s the benefit of being on the Web,” he said. “This could potentially hurt Web shows that are small and starting out.”
Other Web programmers said they are happy to work with SAG. “Though great work can come from nonunion members, we are very proud that all of our shows come from either WGA, SAG or DGA members,” said Brian Rodda, one of the co-founders of Strike.tv. The site, which launched last week with a handful of Web series, was founded by a group of Hollywood writers and actors during the writers strike earlier this year.
Still others make the choice on a case-by-case basis. Thom Woodley, co-founder of the production house Dinosaur Diorama, has produced the Web shows “The Burg” and “The All-For-Nots.” He makes the union determination depending on the budget, the casting needs and sponsorship opportunities of a given show, he said.