October 12, 2010

To:       Every single Actor in New Zealand, big and small   
From: Holly Shanahan (One of those New Zealand Actors now based in Australia)   
Re: Speaking Out…

Kia Ora koutou,

Greetings from Melbourne all you fine and talented people I dearly love or could dearly love.

With all the debate and press going on back home I firstly want to say that the small community of actors based here in Melbourne are with you in spirit at this time of change and turbulence in our industry.

I feel with all the issues being discussed that there is a viewpoint that needs to be put forward. I will try and keep this as concise as I can… although as most of you know, I love to talk, so I’ll do my best.

There is so much information being bandied about, and I have read it and re-read it and read more. Above and beyond this I have been involved in discussing, rediscussing, contemplating, yelling and tearing my hair out on this issue for many years.

What I want to put forward is the viewpoint of one Kiwi actress who has worked as a professional actor for most of her adult life in NZ. I have worked under contracts with many of the major production companies, and also handled contracts and given advice to many actors from a representation viewpoint. Our conditions are poor. I hope no one is disputing this. If you believe our pay rates, contracts and working conditions are excellent then you are seriously misinformed… I would probably go so far as to say deluded! 

I now live and work in Australia, which I must say is quite odd, very different, often too hot, and I am constantly homesick. But, something I do enjoy here is the overwhelming benefits a strong union provides actors. Now.. anti-Union friends and colleagues, please don’t get your backs up and just hear me out, I am on our side 2million%! I am not here to say we must to follow directly in the Aussies footsteps. No. But what I do believe we need, what Kiwi actors need, is to stand together to develop OUR Union in OUR way and use it to improve our conditions and assert our rights. 

Those of you who know me well know that I was a HUUUGE sceptic when the MEAA stepped across the ditch to ‘help’ us establish an Actor’s Equity in NZ. I questioned their motives and the impact that their rigid conditions and somewhat heavy-handed approach would have on our industry, and whether this would drive work away from our beautiful home. 

In saying that however, I have always been ardent in that our community NEED a Union to represent our interests. We need a union that is strong; a united voice to negotiate vital issues regarding our working conditions and wages, which I have only seen slipping further and further over my life as a professional in the film and television industry. I have seen this as entirely due to our lack of UNITY, often born of fear. Fear of losing work if we stand up for ourselves. 

How many of us have thought, well the pay is shit, but if I don’t take this job someone will…! 

I have! Jeepers, I’ve done it many times!! and I consider myself to be very staunch on actors rights!

This is an attitude we have to change guys! It is wrong! It is a disrespect to ourselves and what we do. It is destructive to our profession and it only empowers producers and production companies. We need to be empowered too! We are the faces, the life and the talent that brings what these people make and produce to life. We need to value the fact that without us their work would be

  1. Made by non- actors (hence a high probability it is crap. Can we agree that performances are a one of the major components that makes a good film?)
  2. Made somewhere else (likely not in any of the Western countries who have strong Unions, and choices are then often limited and often not the most desirable considering tax conditions in most international locations and considering the small financial trade-off of contracting us correctly. To put it very simply)
  3. Non existent! 

Producers don’t want crap work, and we want to work. But we first need to realise that we don’t just need them, THEY NEED US TOO!
I started a group on Facebook to encourage discussion on this topic many many months ago. A group which only 99 of my around 600 actor friends and extended professional networks in NZ joined. I feel we have been fearful and apathetic for a long time on these issues, and in a way, although I do not like the way it has come about, I believe this is a VERY important time for us to assert our rights and form a united voice to stand up and reclaim respect and basic conditions in our work.
To me, this is absolutely NOT about THE HOBBIT. It is a problem that has been simmering for a long time and this project has only surfaced this problem.
Now, I am still not convinced that NZ Equity go about representing and negotiating on behalf of NZ actors in the way I personally would like. However, I believe this is a teething process, and the management and representatives in our Equity need to continue to develop systems and means of negotiation and communication that fits in with our country and our nature as New Zealanders. We need to ask from them first and foremost what we want, and what we want them to do for us. Then we only need to get enough numbers in the Union to be able to allow them to speak for us collectively.
One thing I do believe is that we should not be basing our means of approach on the Australian model, which has been developed in response to the way of life and the industry here in Australia which is such a very VERY different place. Something I only realised and fully understood after living here.
I don’t believe in any way that the Aussie’s helped us set up our Union to screw us over. And if they did, fuck it, lets make it work in OUR way and screw them right back! That argument seems so irrelevant to me now. Australia do not run our union. We run our union and NZ actors have the chance to either use it as a tool to work for us, establish our own independent union if we aren’t happy with how it works, or sit on our asses and do nothing. Before we write NZ Equity off entirely don’t we need to at least see what it can do for us! The only way we do this is by expressing to Equity what we want, how we want it handled, joining the union together and seeing how we go. I think most Equity sceptics will be surprised that the Union actually wants the best for us.
I have not seen anyone putting their hand up to work tirelessly to set up an entirely new union to operate for NZ actors… We can use Equity for OUR GOOD! It is for us. Not for anyone else.
BUT we have to stop being afraid to stand up for our PROFESSION.
For me, acting is my livelihood, and I have been tired of being treated like a disposable meat puppet in some instances. I’m tired of knowing the pay is crap but doing it anyway. Tired of knowing that friends from other countries get cheques in the mail for television work (however small or large) that might screen in a few countries, when – to cite an example – myself and some of my very respected colleagues see $0 from the immense revenue on toys, merchandise and distribution on Power Rangers in over 82 countries. It frustrates me seeing talented friends in successful Kiwi films internationally get residuals in “Kudos”… Kudos doesn’t pay the rent. And earnings from all of this work is history, seeming so good at the time to be working. A lot of us struggle to pay the rent while our face is being bandied around in huge international markets. We get rollovers on TVCs, but productions are free to use our face and our WORK in television and film around the world in perpetuity for the comparatively tiny sum we are paid at the time.
This is not greed. This is what we are entitled to. And this is what every other major Western country grant their actors.
I value my talent, and my job as one that very few people can do! And I respect each and every one of you who do this mad job. We DESERVE to be treated with respect, and to have a standard contract which protects our interests and our rights in our JOBS!
Here in Aussie, I had to join Equity when I signed with my agent. It is strong and near compulsory. I was a little shy on doing this, but since I have it has been quite amazing to watch how it works for performers here.
Yes, it has inflicted some conditions on productions in the past which have lost Australia work which would have paid substandard fees or not offered minimum conditions they have demanded. As has happened over and over in every country in the world to every Union. But I want to cite a recent success story here which I don’t know has been brought up back at home yet.
Stephen Spielberg is making a series called TERRA NOVA, produced by FOX and being made here in Australia. In August FOX proposed terms that completely undercut the Australian Equity Offshore Television Agreement. They proposed to pay around ¼ of the daily minimum agreement rate ($214 minimum per day rather than the minimum $809 in the agreement), cutting all residuals for performers for the first five years of distribution (when most revenue is collected), extending overtime to 13 hours, undermining travel arrangements and making night penalties apply only between 2am and 6am, where usually paid after 8pm.
US performers would be employed under SAG conditions. But Australian performers would not.
The Offshore Television Agreement has held strong in Australia for the past 25 years, and these are conditions that all US productions have complied with when shooting in Australia.
Australian Equity extended this information to all members and asked that they add their names to a letter being sent to FOX stating that they will not accept any offer of work on this production unless the standard terms of the Offshore Agreement were met.
They had an overwhelming response and FOX… did not take the project elsewhere. Instead, they agreed to the minimum Offshore rates as equivalent to SAG, and to full Residuals as per the agreement and SAG guidelines. They negotiated with Equity on overtime, night loading and travel and agreed on the Offshore agreement.
Terra Nova is in production in Australia as we speak with Australian performers afforded the same rights as US counterparts on the series.
This incident, and seeing how Equity worked as a voice for all Australian performers really solidified with me the importance of a strong Union. Yes they could have lost the project. But in accepting the original offer professional actors were set to be exploited for possibly thousands and thousands upon thousands of dollars, as well as extended work days and night shoots! This is an example of what our togetherness can accomplish in the future.
Working myself here on some Australian television work, I have been bloody delighted at the conditions which are basically, just standard. I get residuals if they show my television work, good rates and working hours. If I am engaged in the professional THEATRE I also get a standard rate! It feels like Christmas sometimes, but only because I have been used to not always having these conditions at work in New Zealand. I have worked on wonderful projects with wonderful people at home don’t get me wrong, but every contract I have worked under has had at least one condition (or lack of condition) which shouldn’t be acceptable.
Australian Equity is not perfect, so lets not think I’m blowing it’s trumpet. It is not the be all and end all shining example of what WE need to do, but it shows us that when a Union is strong, it can accomplish what it’s members want. Compared to working in NZ it is hard to explain how much better we are treated in our employment here because Australian Equity work for Australian Actors.
Now, there is one other thing I want to mention that people may be wary to bring up. But realistically, these conditions do not drastically affect everyone who is involved in this debate. At present they likely only affect less than 5-10% of the actors in NZ, and will continue to affect in any magnitude only the actors who are and in the future will be working full time professionally. I would say to everyone who is an actor, whether you are working full time or you do one small job a year, or work only as an extra, to consider the large implications of fighting for these rights. Please understand that the actors among us who are working full time on large projects are not just “lucky, oh bro they should be grateful to be working”. Should anyone in any job, be it an accountant or a lawyer or a hairdresser be grateful to be working under a prehistoric contract! This is destructive to all of us guys. We all know how hard this industry is, and whether we get along with all actors as individuals or not, we have to respect the hard work and the talent that goes into even getting a job in NZ, especially on an International project or large series.
Even though we may see them as fortunate, compared to the rest of the world our top actors are still working on contracts which are generally the lowest of the low in terms of conditions and pay. And this goes all the way down to one episode day players and beyond. We are all eating out of the money man’s hand because we are scared.
The ONLY way to get things right for ALL OF US is to stand up together. Forget the Wellington/Auckland animosity, who cares! It is petty and trivial compared to what is at stake for all of us together.
Let’s get calm and get together.  We have an amazing opportunity to do something, and the only thing that can stop us is by being afraid and divided. We all want the same things, basic rights and respect.
I’m definitely not talking V for Vendetta marching on Parliament or whatever wearing masks and exploding stuff with fireworks. We just need to calm down and stand behind each other. If we do this we WILL get a great outcome for our industry not just on one project or two, but in the long long term.
For those of us who are sceptical of Equity, why don’t we use these meetings to put together what we want equity to do for us and how, and then join and stand behind our decision?
This could be a milestone for us.
We will not kill our industry. Don’t let anyone convince us of that! We may lose some big projects in the short term. We can be realistic about these things, but the long term benefits for us and our AMAZINGLY BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY full of INCREDIBLY TALENTED ACTORS are that we are not going to financially close out any international production by asking for proper conditions and pay, which is such a small chunk of the overall cost of these film and television machines.
We will not make every single production that wants to come to NZ or already shoots in NZ leave.
We will make people angry yeah. Well, fuck them! Haven’t we been frustrated and short-changed with rates of pay and contracts for a long time? Are we not entitled to the very minimal requests and conditions we want and deserve. And is in not natural that when you stand on a bully’s toes they are going to get mad.
In writing this letter alone I know I will piss some people off that I utterly respect and love, and I know that they will understand that this is from my heart whether they agree with me or not. But something needs to happen and I am too passionate about it to stay quiet. We all need to be heard.
We will only gain respect in fighting sensibly for this. We will gain what we deserve as professionals. And we will gain unity in the acting community.
Come on guys, as I said, lets be calm, be together and work out what we want, what we deserve and just ask for it. TOGETHER.
That’s really all I can say, and hope that we can manage to make it happen as that is what I dearly hope for all of us and for our work in the future.
Thank you all for taking the time to hear my thoughts and I hope I can inspire togetherness and calm discussion on how everyone can proceed.
Much love and respect.
Nâku i runga i aku mihi ki a koe, 


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