SAG-AFTRA Addresses Talks With Studios On “Applicability Of Force Majeure” For Actors Impacted By COVID-19 Shutdown

By David Robb, Nellie Andreeva


For weeks now, SAG-AFTRA has been in talks with employers about pay for performers who suddenly found their shows shut down last month. The union, which also has been talking about it to Hollywood’s agents, on Thursday updated its members on the progress of discussions with the companies, largely involving series regulars on ongoing series and pilots, and the main sticking point in them.

“The issues surrounding production shutdowns related to COVID-19, including the applicability of Force Majeure language from our collective bargaining agreements, are specific and situational. Employers have made different decisions from among the possible options of how to proceed,” the union wrote. “We are working directly with these employers to find arrangements that work to the benefit of our members and prioritize protecting their income during this period.”

Various payment schemes came into play shortly after the shutdown: some of the major studios were generous, while others declared the shutdown an unpaid “hiatus” covered by force majeure clauses in union contracts. SAG-AFTRA has objected to that interpretation, which has become the focal point of the back-and-forth with employers.

Netflix and HBO are known to be the only major TV companies to pay the series regulars on their impacted series using two different templates. Other studios remain in deep discussions with SAG-AFTRA.

There is also the issue of broadcast pilots, which have not been produced. Actors, who have pay or play contracts, are yet to be paid, with those conversations also still going on.

Many of the industry’s workers were given two weeks’ “pandemic pay” – money they got to keep whether they returned to their shows or not. But some performers, including guest actors but not series regulars on TV shows, will be working for free for their first two weeks back on the job: the  two weeks’ pay they got is considered an “advance” that will be taken out of their paychecks if they return to work.

“As a courtesy,” one studio told its performers in an email obtained by Deadline, “Performer will be advanced pay for the period Performer was booked and did not work during the week(s) of March 16, 2020 and March 23, 2020, if any, which additional payment will constitute an advance and will be credited against any and all compensation payable to Performer for services rendered at a later date, if any.”

The union held an agents-only webinar on Wednesday, saying in the invitation that it has had “many conversations with its agents regarding how signatory companies may be obligated to pay union performers pursuant to their personal services agreements during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. In the hopes of providing further assistance to you in this regard, the Entertainment Contracts staff would like to host a webinar with its agents so they can better understand what actions SAG-AFTRA has taken thus far to protect the interests of its performers (and their representatives) during this uncertain time. Staff will review the positions taken by signatory companies (including claims of a purported ‘hiatus’), the myriad of payment arrangements the union has already negotiated, and what the future likely holds.”

Two weeks’ pay – not advances – was the model the DGA worked out with the major studios. DGA president Thomas Schlamme and national executive director Russell Hollander announced on March 25 that “the major studios have committed to two weeks of pay to carry our below-the-line members impacted by production shutdowns, and we are in talks with other employers demanding they do the same or better.”

Many companies, though, have put aside money to assist those who have been seriously impacted by the shutdown. Netflix created a $100 million relief fund, most of which it said, would be going to the “hardest hit workers on our own productions.” And this was in addition “to the two weeks’ pay we’ve already committed to the crew and cast on productions we were forced to suspend.”

WarnerMedia and ViacomCBS also set up $100 million relief funds for their employees, and Comcast committed $500 million “to support our employees through continued pay and benefits where operations have been paused or impacted.”

As Deadline has reported, Netflix paid the minimum guarantees to actors on series, which were put on hold before they were set to go into production. Meanwhile, HBO’s payment schedule is said to include giving actors 25% of their pay now, 25% when production on their show was supposed to start and the remaining 50% when filming actually commences.

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