One of the hallmarks of the new SAG-AFTRA contract is what guild president Fran Drescher calls a “streaming participation bonus,” or what some studio-side folks disparagingly term a “Robin Hood fund.”
The idea — as guild leaders said time and again diring the strike, and in last week’s press conference announcing deal highlights — is to get as many actors paid as possible. That’s because the new bonus splits money between performers on the top streaming shows and a fund that’s divided between everyone else working on streaming.
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SAG values the bonus pool at $120 million, or $40 million a year over the three years of the contract term. In a headline, $40 million is an impressive number but it’s also: the budget of “The Fabelmans,” less than what Dwayne Johnson could make on his upcoming Amazon holiday movie, and about the same as Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s 2022 pay package.
If you’re an actor trying to make a living in Hollywood, what does an extra $40 million really mean for you? Simple math suggests it’s not much. Divide $40 million by 160,000 members and it’s $250 a person, with half going to taxes. But of course not all 160,000 members qualify for the streaming bonus, or even close.
In speaking with IndieWire, SAG-AFTRA executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said the bonus goes to people working specifically on made-for-streaming projects. Theatrical films or broadcast shows that later appear on streaming do not qualify.
While it’s unclear exactly how many actors will qualify, Crabtree-Ireland tells us the guild estimates that the number falls somewhere between the “thousands” and the “teens.” In theory, that should mean a more sizable paycheck for a group of actors who haven’t previously recognized their worth in streaming. These people, Crabtree-Ireland said, were stuck on a streaming show with a handful of episodes and a long hiatus between seasons.
“That’s what really created the crunch for actors is that deadly 1-2 combination, so this is meant to address that,” he said.
Let’s break it down further: When a streaming show becomes successful (that is, reaches more than 20 percent of a streamer’s overall U.S. subscribers in its first 90 days), it qualifies for a 100 percent bonus of the existing residual (the writers’ comparable bonus is 50 percent). That should generate the extra $40 million each year the guild expects.
Of that bonus, 75 percent goes directly to principal performers on that show whom already get a fixed streaming residual. The other 25 percent goes into a fund allocated to all other members working on streaming who qualify, and some amount of that will be paid into contributions for the benefit plans. How exactly that shakes out, and who gets paid, is still TBD and will be determined jointly by the guild and the employers.
Calculating residuals is complicated, and it varies by subscribers on a service, the length of the program, and whether you’re a day performer or series regular. But let’s say you’re a weekly guest star on a half-hour episode on Netflix, Hulu, or Disney+. Under the 2020 agreement, your first residual was about $2,850. Under the new deal, it goes up to $3,462. With a viewership bonus, your first residual is $6,059 ($3,462 + ($3,462 x .75)).
For an hour-long episode for the same weekly guest star, the 2020 deal netted $4,056, and the new deal brings in $4,927, or $8,622 if you get the bonus.
Of note: A broadcast rerun might still bring in more in the long run and hitting that bonus threshold might be kind of tough. If you’re one of those actors whose streaming show doesn’t hit that upper echelon, you’ll get a cut of a pot worth about $10 million, minus the undetermined amount that winds up paid into benefit plan contributions. If only 5,000 members end up qualifying, that’s an extra $2,000 in your pocket a year. If it’s closer to 20,000, then only $500.
“Is the 25 percent of the $40 million enough? No, not in the long run, but it’s a good start,” Crabtree-Ireland said.
The hardest part, he said, was setting up this fund in the first place. It was literally the last thing the companies agreed to before the strike ended and still met resistance after the AMPTP rejected plans to take a raw cut of streaming revenue. Now that it exists, you can bet they’ll be coming back for more in three years.
An extra $2,000 sounds nice, but perhaps not something that will move the needle. Crabtree-Ireland argues the fund is designed to make it a “sustainable career” for working performers and those in the middle class, people who need every dollar in order to qualify for the guild’s health plan. The guild views this as a creative way to get them a little extra cash.
“Over time this has the potential to actually do something really meaningful, especially if over time we’re able to expand the amount of money that comes in,” he said. “For many actors, something like $1,000 or $2,000 can mean the difference between qualifying for health insurance or not. It can mean everything for someone who’s making $23,000-$24,000 a year and that’s the difference for their benefits. So I do think that it has real significant potential to change how actors perceive the way the streaming business is treating them.”
While we’re talking about the health plan, Crabtree-Ireland added that actors who have been on strike can still qualify for healthcare through the guild this year, even though they’ve been on strike for months and haven’t been hitting earnings requirements. Whatever you earned up until the strike began is pro-rated throughout the 118 days actors were on strike and counts toward your eligibility limit.
“If they’ve earned at least that much, they’ll get an extension of their health plan coverage, and an extended period of time in which to earn enough to trigger another year’s coverage,” Crabtree-Ireland added, and the same for seniors who are Medicare eligible and are active earners.
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