The Hollywood actors’ union on Thursday approved a $134 billion strike for the first time in 43 years US film and television business shut down amid anger over pay and fear of a technology-dominated future.
The leaders of SAG-AFTRA, the union representing 160,000 television and film actors, announced the strike after negotiations with studios over a new contract failed, with streaming services and artificial intelligence at the center of the stalemate. On Friday, the actors will join screenwriters, who left the job in May, on picket lines in New York, Los Angeles and the dozens of other U.S. cities where scripted shows and movies are made.
Actors and screenwriters hadn’t gone on strike at the same time since 1960, when Marilyn Monroe was still in movies and Ronald Reagan was the head of the actors’ union. In double strikes, more than 170,000 workers take on old-fashioned studios like Disney, Universal, Sony and Paramount, as well as techies like Netflix, Amazon and Apple.
“I’m appalled at the way the people we’ve done business with are treating us!” Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, as the actors’ union is called, said at a press conference in Los Angeles on Thursday. “How far we are apart in so many things. How they advocate poverty, that they’re losing money left and right when they give hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It’s disgusting. They should be ashamed!”
Ms Drescher shook her fists in anger, noting that “the whole business model has changed” with streaming and that artificial intelligence would change it more soon. “This is a moment in history – a moment of truth,” she said. “At some point you have to say, ‘No, we’re not taking this anymore.'”
Many of the actors’ demands mirror those of the writers, who belong to the Writers Guild of America. Both unions say they are trying to ensure a living wage for working members, especially those who make movies or television shows for streaming services.
Screenwriters fear that studios will use AI to generate scripts. Actors worry that the technology could be used to create digital replicas of their likenesses (or that performances could be digitally altered) without payment or approval.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates on behalf of Hollywood companies, said it had worked to reach a reasonable deal at a difficult time for an industry rocked by the streaming revolution, which was hit by the pandemic. accelerated.
“Unfortunately, the union has chosen a path that will lead to financial hardship for countless thousands of people dependent on the industry,” the alliance said in a press release outlining 14 areas where studios had offered “historic” contract improvements. Those include, according to the alliance, an 11 percent pay rise in the first year of the contract for background actors, stand-ins and photo doubles and a 76 percent increase in remaining payments for “high-budget” shows flowing overseas.
The alliance added in a separate statement: “We are deeply disappointed that SAG-AFTRA has decided to halt negotiations. This is the choice of the union, not ours.”
Behind the scenes, studio executives responded to Ms. Drescher’s anger in a variety of ways. Some said they underestimated her ability to lead the sometimes unruly actors’ union, dismissing her as little more than the cartoonish figure she played on “The Nanny” for six seasons in the 1990s. Others continued to mock her for giving an Academy Award-caliber performance at the union’s press conference.
Though Hollywood braced for a writers’ strike since the beginning of the year — screenwriters have walked out eight times in the past seven decades, most recently in 2007 — the actors’ uncharacteristic determination caught senior executives and producers by surprise.
The actors last staged a major strike in 1980, when the economic specifics of a still-nascent boom in home video rentals and sales were a bottleneck. Their latest action is part of a resurgent labor movement, particularly in California, where hotel workers, school bus drivers, teachers and cafeteria workers have all gone on strike for some time in recent months.
The first distress signal for the studios came in early June when about 65,000 members of the actors’ union voted to go on strike. Nearly 98 percent of voters supported the authorization, a figure that narrowly eclipsed the writer’s margin.
Still, studio negotiators entered the talks with an optimistic feeling. They were stunned when they saw the union’s list of proposals — it totaled 48 pages, nearly three times the size of the list at their last negotiations in 2020, according to two people familiar with the proposals who spoke on the condition of anonymity to conduct confidential conversations.
Then at the end of June, more than 1,000 actors, including Meryl Streep, John Leguizamo, Jennifer Lawrence, Constance Wu and Ben Stiller, signed a letter to the guild leadership emphatically stating that “we are ready to strike.”
The Hollywood studios will now have to navigate a two-front labor war without a modern playbook to refer to. There are many open questions, including whether the actors and writers should be allowed to demand that future negotiations with the studios be conducted together. One guild will not be included: the Directors Guild of America, which signed a contract last month.
The actors’ strike will be an immediate boon to the striking writers, who have been walking on picket lines for more than 70 days; the Writers Guild has yet to negotiate with the studios. Now those picket lines will likely be raucous and star-studded spectacles – struggling thespians still trying to gain a foothold alongside A-listers with bodyguards getting paid $20 million or more per movie role.
The strikes are the latest monumental blow to an entertainment industry that has been rocked to its foundations in recent years by the pandemic and profound technological shifts.
Hollywood studios have seen their share prices plummet and profit margins shrink as cable and network television viewership – as well as box office numbers – have collapsed due to the explosion of streaming entertainment.
Many companies have resorted to layoffs and removing series from their streaming services, all in the name of increasing profit margins and appeasing recalcitrant investors. Studio directors had already put the brakes on ordering new television series last year, because their streaming services continued to burn.
In an interview on CNBC on Thursday morning, Disney CEO Robert A. Iger said that given all the “disruptive forces” in the company, “now is the worst time in the world to add to that disruption.”
Barry Diller, the seasoned media executive, said in an interview that the recent industry turmoil had caused distress for both parties.
“You have a complete change in the underlying economics of the entertainment business that it previously owned for at least the last 50 years if not the last 100 years,” he said. “Everything was basically balanced under the hegemony of big five studios, and then oh my god came the tech companies Netflix, Amazon and Apple and the fast, transformative things that came out of Covid. The result is that you have a company that is simply turned upside down.”
After the strike was announced, the union issued rules for its members. In addition to not being able to work on camera, they are not allowed to promote ongoing projects. That includes attending Comic-Con, film festivals, and movie premieres.
That means actors can’t promote movies during an all-important summer box office window, when big-budget movies like “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer,” and “Haunted Mansion” are released.
Some of those promotional opportunities are already gone: late-night shows like “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” only ran reruns during the writers’ strike.
The effects of the double warnings should be felt by viewers within a few months. For example, unless there is an immediate resolution to the labor disputes, the ABC fall schedule will debut nightly lineups of reality series and game shows, including “Celebrity Wheel of Fortune,” “Dancing With the Stars,” and “Judge Steve Harvey.” ‘ — as well as reruns of ‘Abbott Elementary’.
If the strikes drag on into the fall, blockbuster movies coming out next summer, such as “Deadpool 3,” may be delayed.