An Actress's Thoughts

Filmmakers’ Unions and Gender: ACTING. Part 3 / 3


  • „Of course we can have another woman on the Board. But she’s got to have balls*.”
  • „A woman on the Board only makes sense if she is well-known and the right calibre*.

* BALLS: colloquial expression for man’s testicles, a symbol for masculinity,  courage and assertiveness.
* CALIBRE: term for the diameter of firearms.

Having written about Filmmakers’ Unions: Who’s in Charge? in Part 1 and Filmmakers’ Unions and Gender: Directing in Part 2, today’s final Part 3 will focus on the German Acting Guild BFFS.

Nearly everything is different about the BFFS Acting Guild when compared with the directing guild BVR: it has far more members (some 2,500) among which just over 50 % are female. As opposed to the directors’ BVR with 4 chairwomen and 5 chairmen The BFFS has 6 men and only 1 woman on the board, having added yet another man 2 years ago. One thing both unions have in common though are their male secretaries, actually the acting union even has two. In addition there is an advisory body (called Beirat in German), to which the chairpeople recently called up magazine editor Helmut Markwort (b. 1936) in addition to Jobst Plog (b. 1941), a former broadcast director. In view of this mass masculinity (the only chairwoman Julia Beerhold is on a 3-month-break from her office at the moment) it is not really surprising that the union has not been doing much gender politicswise, and when I say union I really mean the chairmen since the whole organization is organized as an oligarchy.

General Assembly and Motions

But still, can’t the members get active and initiate something despite all this? The motion for the BVR directors’ diversity report was also something that came from within the members, it was supported by nearly all members and implemented right away. Could something similar be possible within the BFFS acting guild? Yes, according to the statutes it could. Members can put forward motions (they are even motivated to do so, – more on this later) as is written in § 20 Procedure of a General Assembly: “Motions for the General Assembly are only dealt with if the petitioner is present and states the reasons for the motion.”
The members also decide on the membership fees (acc. to § 20), and § 12 “Duties of the Members” is also worth mentioning: “It is the duty of the members to support and boost the purposes and aims of the organization by using their best endeavours (…)”. So it’s not about simply letting decisions and reports by the chair through on the nod. Instead it’s about co-shaping the union’s politics actively.
Alas, there is one little flaw in this: the quotes are not from the statutes of the BFFS but rather from that of the German Stunt Association / Bundesverband der Stuntleute BdS, so to speak a sibling organization, in as far as stunt people and actors are the only professional filmmakers in front of the camera.
And the stunt people go even one step further: When the date of the upcoming General Assembly is announced to the members – with the classical “save the date”-mailing – the members are also requested to put forward suggestions and motions, and when they get the official invitation they find two empty spaces to optionally fill these in on the “I will come / won’t be able to come” answer form.

BFFS-Mitgliederversammlung 2014: Ein Saalname als gutes Omen?BFFS: General Assembly 2014:  Maybe the room’s name – Saal Femina –  is a good Omen?

According to the BFFS statutes unfortunately members are not allowed to put motions forward for the General Assembly. And they don’t determine the membership fees, the chair does this, as well as nominating members for the advisory body.
I am wondering about the reasons for such a restrictive situation that does not let the members really decide and certainly does not let them propose. Fear? Distrust? Thoughtlessness? I really can’t explain this lack of participatory possibilities.
A while back the legislative period for the chairs was changed from 2 to 4 years in the statutes, following a request by the chairpersons themselves. To me this seems like a bad idea. If it is imperative that one or more or all chairpersons stay in office for 4 years or longer because maybe they are in the middle of a campaign or project or negotiations for the union – then the members will surely be convinceable to vote for 2 x 2 years instead of 4. In a way, if the change to the statutes is prompted by the chair, it’s a bit like saying “Do leave us in peace, all you members out there”.
Anyway, we find a situation where the chairpersons would determine the politics, the orientation, the major concerns of the union and also shape them. All that is left to do for the members is to nod and say yes and be there as masses. (nowadays the union with its more than 2,500 members is quite a heavy weight in negotiations with producers and politicians and such.)
This mode of sharing tasks can work of course, and it does, as this way the BFFS has achieved quite a lot. But at the same time it is not very democratic if a handfull of people dictate what is going on. Because at the same time it means that they decide what is NOT going to happen. Of course there are a lot of areas that are very much on fire at the moment, but the dire working situation for actresses – which after all are one half of the members and at the same time half of all professionals in this profession – has been put off by the BFFS far too long.
2010 – nearly 5 years ago – the BFFS commissioned a study on the economical situation of acting people (Bührmann et al. – I mentioned it in Cinema, Career, Children?), one of its results was that the situation of actresses is even worse than that of actors. Has this aspect of the study triggered anything?

The Unequal Pay Campaign that was launched by the BFFS this summer was something I meant to put before the members at last year’s general assembly, but of course that was not possible since members can’t put forward motions – and so it was not discussed there. I imagine that a campaign would get a higher standing within the union and the outside world if it were started in the general assembly. Not from the top, by order of the chair, but from the basis, classic democracy. At the same time of course I am very happy that chairwoman Julia Beerhold was very open for this proposal after a short period of consideration, and I am grateful that she probably enforced the campaign amoing her chair colleagues.

Membership Fees

As already mentioned it is the chair that determines the membership fees. I champion the idea of this being the members / general assembly’s duty – following a responsible discussion of course. The fees are not very social at the moment, in fact the poorer members pay relatively higher fees. There is a scaling: members with up to 20 shooting days per year have to pay 120 €. The ones with up to 40 shooting days pay 240 € and if they had more than 40 days then the membership fee is 360 € annually.
This system is a bit problematic because as a rule actors and actress with less shooting days also tend to receive lower daily wages, theirs are normally the smaller, more unimportant parts. So let’s have a look at the system of another union, a bigger one: verdi (vereinigte Dienstleistungen – united services). There the membership fees equal 1 % of the average gross income. Unemployed members who receive unemployment benefits pay 0,5 % – but at least 2,50 € per month.

Example 1 – up to 20 shooting days – 120 € membership fee / year
Member A with 12 shooting days with a wage of 1.000 € each would get 12.000 € per year, 1 % = 120 €, that’s the same as the BFFS membership fee. But of course in this group we also have all those who have far less shooting days and / or ,special’ i.e. lesser wages. So someone with 8 days and an average of 900 € = 7,200 € (and the rest of the time unemployment benefits) would pay 120 € at the BFFS, but 1 % would be only 72 €.

Example 2 – more than 40 shooting days – 360 € membership fee / year
Member B with 41 shooting days and a daily wage of maybe 3,000 € would have an annual income of 123,000 €, 1 % of which is 1,230 € (with a daily wage of only 2,000 € the total would still be 82,000 €, 1 % would be 820 €).

Maybe the 1 % of total gross income is the better and more just model anyway (with a lower fee for poor and unemployed), since the majority of actors and actresses don’t only do film and TV work and the BFFS does want to broaden its area of work to theatre people as well. According to the study by Bührmann 35 % of actors/actresses have a yearly income of less than 10,000 € (1 % of which is 100 €).
Keeping this in mind it would probably be a good idea if the BFFS did not only have ,big calibres’ as chairs, people from the higher realms speaking for all, just as it is not a good idea when it’s (nearly) only chairmen representing all members including the 50 % females.

The Wages

The above mentioned investigation „Lots of honour but so little pay – investigation on the working and living situation of actresses and actors in Germany“ (Bührmann et al 2010) stated that only 30.8 % of the interviewed actresses and actors earned more than 30,240 € per year, this means that 2/3 earn less. (And actresses on the average earned less than actors.) On the other hand, 10 % of all in this survey earned more than 80,000 € per year, just under 5 % even more than 100,000 €.
So the gap between rich and poor in the acting world widens. It’s the same as already mentioned (re: membership fees): the ones with lots of shooting days generally play bigger parts and get higher daily wages. The ones with the smaller wages are at the same time much more strongly affected by so-called ,special’ wages (i.e. lower than normal, ,just this once’…). In this context a comment by a casting director who visited one of the regional BFFS meetings recently might prove to be quite interesting. She said (roughly):
“When I cast a film then very often three quarters of my budget is used up by the handfull of leading roles. Then with the small rest I have to finance the bulk of remaining roles, and then I start negotiating with agents and ask them if for once they will let their actors and actresses work below their regular wage. The leads often earn more than the director of the film and that is quite a misbalance when you consider the input and effort. Actually, we really must start to talk about an upper limit to acting wages in television.”
This is a topic I have never heard of since I joined the BFFS. All that is mentioned from time to time is the claim that the freedom of wages is not to be touched (the sky is the limit). What we need to keep in mind is that most actresses and actors are in no position to negotiate (the study says that the great majority only lives off 10 to 20 paid shooting days a year). And on top of this the casting director and her comments make you think, don’t they.

In 2013 deputy chairman Hans-Werner Meyer was quoted in a BFFS press release:
„None of us can take things for granted. The big earners in our industry have worked very hard for every cent they earn. Nobody questions the wages that for example someone like the footballer Mario Götze earns (German male football player). So why criticize the much lower wages of our stars questions who give us dreams, identy and good entertainment? A country should be proud of its stars and not jealous. A country without stars is very unhappy. A country without culture is a desert.”
I don’t agree with this. Number one: I hear a lot of criticism – and quite rightly so I might add – of the exorbitant income of professional male football players in Germany (the mentioned Mario Götze allegedly earns 7 Mio. € per year) and the bonuses the men get for participating or winning european or world championships is also discussed quite controversely. And number two: it is not neccessarily jealousy if people talk about the top wages in the TV industry. Any union as a socially caring community should not ignore the differences between rich and poor in its own industry and the wage difference for men and women. This is something that does not only affect acting but also directing, editing and probably most other film divisions as well.
I agree with Hans-Werner Meyer in as far as he is criticising the tabloids, this topic should not be discussed in the media but within the industry first, in our union, maybe in an exchange with casting directors, at a regional meeting or the general assembly.

The Election of the Board

The general assembly in May 2014 was attended by less than 100 members. When the board was (re-)elected after 4 or 6 hours, there were only 88 potential votes left, through actual members still present or represented (i.e. had their vote given by a colleague under a power of attorney – if that’s the correct expression). That’s 3,5 % of all members. To be fair I have to add that the board was unhappy as well, or rather indignant at the poor attendance. But just between you and me: who could blame the ones that didn’t show up? The main task of the general assembly – apart from electing and approving of the board – is to receive the report of the chair on the activities of the union”. And this is – to put it a bit bluntly – quite strenuous, considering the epic lengths the chairmen and chairwoman go to in their individual reports.
All those who read the newsletter of the BFFS more or less regularly and that come to the regional meetings occasionally should have heard of the most things already. I am not trying to say that the reports should be abolished, no, not all all. But how about giving then in 1 hour instead of 4. Then we would have time for real discussions, for more participation and commitment of the members.
The election itself was quite sobering, because there really was nothing for us to vote on. all 7 chairmen and chairwoman stood for election again but basically as a take it or leave it team. We the members could not even decide for ourselves who we wanted for the two deputy chairs. So yes, everybody was reelected, there was the occasional No or Abstention, one candidate got 10 abstentions and one had 19 No-votes, but as was to be expected all were confirmed in their office for another 4 years.
This photo shows the seven members of the board plus the two male secretaries.

Brien Dorenz, Bernhard F. Störkmann, Hans-Werner Meyer, Michael Brandner, Antoine Monot, Jr., Heinrich Schafmeister, Julia Beerhold, Thomas Schmuckert, Martin May. Foto: Martin Becker.

Brien Dorenz, Bernhard F. Störkmann, Hans-Werner Meyer, Michael Brandner, Antoine Monot, Jr., Heinrich Schafmeister, Julia Beerhold, Thomas Schmuckert, Martin May. Foto: Martin Becker.

Of course we the members, especially we the female members must accept the criticism of not having done enough and not having run for the chair. Even though of course this would have been difficult this year what with the whole chair only running for election as a team. But of course the criticism is justified, ando so we need to find out what are the reasons, the reasons why so few women want to or do get involved in the board work.
At least there is something positive to mention in this context: 11 members of the BFFS drew up a proposal to the board on how to get more women involved and also how to manage the change the people on the board in a smooth way – as that is one of the arguments of current chairpersons: nobody else can do our work since nobody knows as much as we do, and all the things we do at the moment are so important that a change of personell would be extremeley disruptive. So the 11 suggested a model that had been applied successfully right from the beginning by the Green Party: they had a team of two people, one who would be in Parliament the first half of the years and one who do the second half. So the second person (“Nachrücker or Nachrückerin” – the substitute) would come in and already be very involved in and informed about everything. The 11 opted for a model where 2 or 3 of the men would say at the election that they would resign in a year’s time and by then 2 or 3 new women for the board would have actively been sought and taught the ropes. Unfortunately the members of the boards did not like the idea and unfortunately it was also not a topic at the general assembly.
Here is the letter – unfortunately so far only in German: OffenerBrief_- Open Letter

When talking about the board and gender representation we also need to look at the public relations and the public appearances. As an example let’s take the DSP Awards 2014 (that’s an award for acting achievements out of the acting community). In the course of the evening – it was a very looong event – quite a lot of the chairmen went on the stage, some talked, one sang, one received a special award. The only chairwoman, Julia Beerhold, was present in the auditorium only, she did not step on the stage once. Some call this the BFFS’s most important PR event within the industry, and the BFFS was only represented by men. If press reviews are anything to go by then it is only the BFFS’s chairMEN who are present at the negotiations for wage agreements, at meetings with politicians, or who give the important interviews.

The Advisory Body

As already mentioned the BFFS-Board recently appointed Helmut Markwort (co-editor of Focus, a magazine) to the Advisory Body (Wir freuen uns über Freunde an unserer Seite/We are Happy about Friends by our Side).
I am quite unhappy with this decision for a number of reasons – but that would be very difficult to explain in English since I suppose that Helmut Markwort and the magazine Focus are probably unknown abroad, as are the other names I mentioned in my German commentary.
Anyway, I think it makes far more sense if the members of the BFFS were to decide on who gets appointed to the advisory body. Of course the chairpersons can champion their suggestions and give the arguments, and if they are good, then why shouldn’t the members go along with that choice? But at the same time, maybe there are good arguments for somebody else (maybe even for a woman friend by our side?), so that the body does not remain one for old men only.
Obviously this body is there to give advise to the union and its board of directors. So it would make sense to choose somebody with knowledge on things and topics the board is not so knowledgeable about. This could be someone who knows about the underpriveledged situation of actresses, or maybe of women in the working world, sice it is not an actresses’ problem we are talking about. According to the statutes the advisory body can consist of up to 3 people.

Conclusions and Outlook for 2015

The (board of directors of the) BFFS has already achieved quite a lot, while at the same time there are some blind spots concerning the representation of interestes of ALL actors and actresses. So something needs to change here. One step could be changing a few of the statutes to gain more democracy for the members and to boost involvement of all members, especially the females, at and in all levels and bodies.
Also it is desirable to put a special focus on disadvanted situation of actresses in the German film and TV industry in 2015. And also look at the pays gaps, the gender pay gap of course, but also the one between richer and poorer actors and actresses.