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Labor of Love

4 Mar, 2005 By: Erik Gruenwedel

“Gilmore Girls” star Lauren Graham was not happy to be in makeup on a Saturday morning taping a TV promo for the critically acclaimed series and pending season two DVD release.

“I wasn't getting paid,” said Graham of her extracurricular duties.

Co-star Scott Patterson sympathized but admitted the “Gilmore” cast of largely unknowns was in no position at the show's start in 2000 to contractually demand anything regarding future DVD participation.

“We were nobodies,” he said.

DVD commentary, special features and related material are often an unpaid labor of love for the cast and crew of many TV shows and films.

Select stars mandate proportionate compensation for DVD residuals and bonus material appearances, others are paid scale (less than $1,000) and the majority are offered the freedom to wax poetic about their roles.

“The policy from most studios is that they do not want to pay talent for participation on DVD bonus material,” said Jeffrey Lerner, senior producer, New Wave Entertainment. “It is considered part of marketing and getting more traction for their show next season.”

Lerner, whose company has produced bonus material for “Nip/Tuck,” “Harry Potter,” Friday Night Lights, Troy and, recently, Constantine, said less than 10 percent of actors refuse to participate.

“There are posterity issues that you forget about,” he said. “There are people who actually care about the craft they do.”

At the recent DVD launch party for Lions Gate Home Entertainment's psychological thriller, Saw, star Cary Elwes considered his involvement with commentary in almost altruistic reverence.

“If it sells the product, it is your duty [as an actor] to get behind it,” Elwes said.

Changing Priorities
Despite DVD's significance in the entertainment food chain, actors received just $115 million in video/DVD residuals (reportedly about 15 cents per disc) in 2003, according to the American Federation of Television & Recording Artists (AFTRA).

That figure — based on 20 percent of the studios or DVD distributors' license fees — doesn't include pay for bonus materials and wasn't increased in the recent $200 million wage and benefits package AFTRA and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) negotiated with studios and networks.

That said, DVD's dominance as a revenue generator for studios is underscored by industry statistics that claim the format (and video) represented 35 percent of gross revenues in the 1980s versus 62 percent in 2000.

“Once you understand the [studio and TV] producers' position, you understand their intransigence to increasing residuals of any kind,” said a source familiar with AFTRA and SAG.

‘Seinfeld' Syndrome
Typical bonus materials consist of Spanish subtitles and perfunctory sound bites from cast and crew, but some box sets are creative endeavors featuring elaborate packaging and inventive content that focuses on characters and the talent that played them.

For example, the short lived but critically acclaimed 1999 TV series “Freaks and Geeks” was released on DVD (DreamWorks Home Entertainment) in separate six-and eight-disc box sets, complete with 29 commentary tracks, a 28-page fake 1980s high school yearbook with an essay by creator Paul Feig and Q&A with producer/writer Judd Apatow.

“We went crazy with that,” Feig said.

Creative expectations coupled with staggering financial potential TV shows on DVD afford can make for some difficult negotiations when it comes to hit shows. It resulted in cast members from the former “Seinfeld” TV sitcom reportedly refusing to accept scale for their participation in the box set's exclusive commentary and special features.

Negotiations resolved the matter, but not before many in the content food chain realized the financial prowess of DVD and importance of bonus features.

“I was a little worried when they made that public,” said Gord Lacey, president TVShowsOnDVD.com, an online barometer to the medium's appeal on DVD. “It was showing [talent] that if you play hardball, you might win.”

At the end of the day, industry experts say performers have a legitimate desire to get more of the DVD pie and producers, citing budget constraints, don't want to give it to them, resulting in a leverage situation that typically favors the studios.

“I think the ‘Seinfeld' cast was right because when you see the show in syndication every day, what is the only perk other than owning them on your own for buying? You want that extra material and commentary,” Feig said. “In essence they are part of something that is spurring sales.”

Guardians of the Hype
Despite the apparent lack of funding available from studios for talent participation on bonus material, producers claim most stars want to be included with or without compensation or their agent's approval.

For this spring's coveted “Moonlighting” DVD box set release from Lions Gate Home Enteratainment, stars Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd willingly participated for free on commentary, according to David Naylor, president of The DVD Group, which produced the segments.

“They had a fondness for the project,” Naylor said. “It was Willis' starting vehicle.”

Then again, actor Richard Kiel, the towering “jaws” nemesis to Roger Moore's James Bond, wouldn't commit to commentary for his March 2, 1962 “Twilight Zone” episode, “To Serve Man.”

“[Kiel's] agent said it was insulting to offer him artist scale,” said Paul Brownstein, producer of special materials for the popular “Zone” DVD franchise. “The agent refused to even take Mr. Kiel the offer to narrate his episode.”

Kiel's agent, Steve Stevens Sr., said the character actor, who is apparently in failing health, was paid “a lot of money” for his participation with commentary on the movie Pale Rider and the Bond films.

“What's scale? That's nothing,” Stevens said. “If [Brownstein] had made me a [counter] offer that I felt he wasn't trying to get [Kiel] for free … but I never heard back from him.”

Stevens said DVD releases and commentary often represent the only form of income for yesterday's stars, and studios that expect talent to participate for free are doing a disservice to the actors' legacy.

“It is just not fair,” Stevens said.

Brownstein remains miffed at Kiel's exclusion, considering veteran TV stars such as Leonard Nimoy, Cliff Robertson and Oscar-winner Martin Landau all contributed commentary for their “Zone” appearances.

“At the end of the day, all you can really do is ask them,” Feig said. “You can try and get the studio to pony up some dough, but it is never going to be enough. People are always going to want a greater percentage.”

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