CAMPAIGN REPORT ON PRODUCTION AND POST PRODUCTION: The Equity Factor - Depending on who you talk to, the commercials boycott is either really hurting or is having very little effect on production. Belinda Archer speaks to many in the industry who are mana

If you listened really closely to the Milk Tray commercial screened last Christmas, you would have rumbled the fact that the man in the trademark polo-neck was French.

If you listened really closely to the Milk Tray commercial screened

last Christmas, you would have rumbled the fact that the man in the

trademark polo-neck was French.

Similarly attentive ad-watchers may have heard the stories that Weetabix

dragged in extras off the streets of Soho to star in a commercial at the

end of last year, while Nationwide was also caught promoting amateur

casting sessions and one production company had its bid to recruit

foreign actors thwarted when it learnt it would cost four times the

agreed budget.

Anecdotes about the effect the Equity dispute has had on commercials

production are legion, from dramatic tales of entire shoots being

transported to Australia or the US, to hairy accounts of unnecessarily

protracted casting sessions, over-run studio slots and the forced use of


Interestingly, however, the more lurid tales spring from people who

refuse to be quoted on the record. This is because the boycott by actors

of all commercials-making in the UK, which began last September after a

protracted row over voiceover fees - with Equity claiming agencies’

proposals would result in earnings being cut by two-thirds - remains

highly sensitive.

Most stories regarding its effect, therefore, have to be viewed with

circumspection, given that all sides of the dispute are still embroiled

in elaborate posturing and political stand-offs. But it does seem that

market forces have cut some artists’ fees dramatically. James Studholme,

managing director of Blink, is one production house chief who insists

publicly that the dispute has had a notable impact, namely on the

quality of commercials, which he claims have suffered because of the

lack of readily available professional talent.

’The story from agencies is that the dispute is making absolutely no

difference to quality, but we think that is not true. While we might not

be able to make like-for-like comparisons, our casting directors are

definitely having a lot of trouble finding people,’ he says.

The search for alternative talent has been an ’inconvenience’ at best

for production houses. One way round the ticklish problem has been to

use ’real people’. Companies report that they have received an

unprecedented number of scripts over the past few months that cast

genuine members of the public or, in the case of retail clients, real

workers at the companies’ outlets.

This may neatly sidestep the issue in one way, but it has opened up

another can of worms: production houses are having to divert more

resources and energy into extracting performances from amateurs that

Equity professionals would give in a fraction of the time. And time, of

course, is money.

Lizie Gower, managing director of Academy, comments: ’Undoubtedly, with

shoots in the UK it has taken longer and more patience has been required

for casting, but most agencies have been very good at allowing extra

casting sessions and extra time for directing.’

Other ways round the dearth of professional talent have been to cast

models, children or even non-Equity members, given that many

up-and-coming actors are not union members and therefore not breaking

the strike. The use of foreign actors has also been a solution, although

this has mostly proven to be prohibitively expensive for agencies and

clients and not exactly ideal when dialogue is needed. As one director

puts it: ’You just can’t get a Dutchman to do a good Yorkshire accent.’

Interestingly, a joint report, carried out in February by the Institute

of Practitioners in Advertising and the Incorporated Society of British

Advertisers looking at the effects of the boycott, found that 76 per

cent of visual artists appearing in ads at the end of last year were

still British.

Aside from the arguable compromise of quality resulting from the use of

amateurs and foreigners, and the extra time and effort required by

production houses to cast commercials, some have also reported a notable

loss of business because of the boycott. Most players are keen to

emphasise this has been ’negligible’, but others insist that several

agencies have seen fit to shift entire TV projects overseas, thereby

sidestepping the thorny issues at home altogether.

One leading production house chief says: ’Agencies have taken work and

given it to foreign production companies, moving the whole job abroad

because it has proved more cost-effective to do so. That is where we

have really suffered.’ Despite the claim, however, the IPA/ ISBA report

found that only three out of 249 commercials scheduled to be made during

October and November last year were made abroad as a direct result of

the dispute.

Studholme insists that UK shops have tried hard to keep the work here,

if only because the alternative is usually too expensive. ’There hasn’t

been less work for us. London agencies are very honourable and are

trying not to go abroad, even though they have been annoyed by us

pulling out of the dispute and, as they thought, fuelling Equity’s

argument,’ he says.

Gower similarly believes the main loss of work has been sustained not by

the production companies themselves but by the casting


’The people really losing out are the casting directors, those working

in casting suites, and the junior members of the film crews such as the

focus pullers.’

The impact of the Equity strike on post-production houses would appear

to be even more negligible. David Jeffers, the ebullient managing

director of the post-production house, the Moving Picture Company, seems

to speak for most facilities companies when he argues: ’In a word, the

strike hasn’t made the blindest bit of difference. In fact, we are 25

per cent busier this year than last year.’

As the dispute drags on and commercials continue to be made, so the

strength of Equity’s boycott seems to weaken as agencies and production

houses prove more nimble in getting round the strike. Creative directors

are increasingly refusing to accept that only true thespians can produce

the goods, while market forces are also having the desired effect: the

average cost of a voiceover has dropped from around pounds 3,000 in 1991

to pounds 1,384 by November 1997, according to the IPA.

Studholme sums up: ’We are all very resilient and everyone is getting on

with the job. The dispute makes it harder for us - but the point is that

we are still getting the work done.’