Jobs and earnings for SAG-AFTRA members set record highs in the first five months of 2021, rebounding from a near 40% decline last year in the number of members working during the Covid-19 pandemic. Not all members suffered equally last year, however, with freelance males who are 40 and older working 70% more jobs than their female counterparts.
According to the union’s annual performance analysis, which was presented Saturday to its national board of directors, “Data from the SAG-AFTRA benefit plans points to a meaningful rebound in covered earnings and employment. The period from January through May of 2021 set a new record high for both total earnings and jobs worked compared to the same period in prior years.”
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Much of this, the report says, was fueled by employment on streaming shows and the success of the industry’s return-to-work protocols that allowed production to resume during the pandemic. “Fierce competition among streaming platforms is generating demand for original content and advertising, which is translating to exceptionally high demand for SAG-AFTRA talent. While it’s still too early to conclude that this rebound will be sustained for several years, the most recent data points to the tremendous success of the Return-to-Work protocols and offers many reasons for optimism for the future.”
The industry-wide shutdown last year took a major toll on the guild and its members. “Data from 2020 illustrates the severe damage the Covid-19 pandemic inflicted on SAG-AFTRA and our members. Heading into 2020, the union was firing on all cylinders, reaching record high levels of earnings, employment and membership size,” the report says. “The evaporation of work opportunities in early 2020 eliminated a key income stream for a broad swath of our membership. The size of our working membership fell by 39%. Residuals continued to flow, offering a meaningful income stream for some, but not all members.”
In 2020, actor/performer earnings fell 24.1% from the prior year to $2.226 billion, while total residuals were down 6.6% to $768.6 million. Session fees for principal performers fell nearly 30% to $1.4 billion, while earnings for background performers plummeted 50.8% to $55.3 million.
Stunt performer earnings fell nearly 23% to $211.3 million. Earnings for singers were off 11.2% to $162.4 million, and dancers’ earnings fell 28.4% to $12.1 million.
Broadcast/entertainment earnings were down 5.2% to $142.6 million, while earnings in broadcast/news & information were up 1.1% to $572 million. Recording artists were the only other group that saw higher earnings — up 6.7% to $56.1 million.
In its conclusion, the report notes that “Despite the severe disruption in 2020, we still see many patterns of our membership remained relatively consistent. The proportional makeup of our membership by category and Local remained largely proportional to the pre-pandemic makeup. Employment patterns across age and gender remained stubbornly consistent with prior years.”
But as hard as 2020 was on all members, the report found that it was even harder on females aged 40 and over. “When all 2020 freelance jobs for SAG-AFTRA members are examined in the aggregate, the results show that the number of jobs worked by males and females track roughly the same until age 34. From that point forward, the employment opportunities for female performers diverge from those for males. After age 40, the disparity becomes even more pronounced. In fact, males age 40 and older worked 70% more covered jobs than females age 40 and older.
“In addition to the various career challenges faced by most professional performers, female performers over the age of 40 face the added challenge of drastically fewer employment opportunities.”
Last year, the union processed over $1 billion in residuals payments for its members, which was down slightly from the year before, although the average payment increased by 2%. Residuals paid for original streaming shows were up 67%, although the report notes that “these games were not enough to offset declining residuals paid for traditional live action television and theatrical content.