Hollywood prepares for a total strike: 160,000 actors set to bring the film and TV industry to a standstill

Studios and the SAG-AFTRA union have until midnight Wednesday to reach a deal. If no agreement is made, performers will join screenwriters on the picket fence for the first time in more than six decades

Actress Jane Fonda supports screenwriters on the picket line outside Netflix offices in Hollywood, California on June 29, 2023.Jay L. Clendenin (LOS ANGELES TIMES / GETTY)
María Porcel

Wednesday, July 12, midnight. That’s the deadline for Hollywood’s major film and television studios and the powerful actors union SAG-AFTRA to reach a deal to avoid a strike. For the film industry, a strike would be a serious blow. According to January data from the Motion Picture Association, the movie business generates 2.4 million jobs in the United States, pays out $186 billion in total wages and is made up of over 122,000 companies. Now the sector is facing a perfect storm: an actors strike in addition to the screenwritters strike that has been going on for more than two months. It’s been 63 years since both unions striked together.

The Screen Actors Guild, which joined with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in 2012, represents 160,000 actors. Many of them are well-known such as Meryl Streep, Ben Stiller, Pedro Pascal, Charlize Theron, David Duchovny and Jennifer Lawrence, but it also represents thousands of less famous performers who want fairer renumeration for their work in the streaming era. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) — which brings together 11,500 screenwriters — have been protesting at the gates of Hollywood’s major studios since May 2. Not a line has been written since then. Many TV shows, such as daily talk show programs, have stopped altogether, with reruns aired in their stead. But there are scripts that have already been written, possible adaptations on the way, and other stories from other places to be told. In other words, some projects are being filmed. That could all change if the studios fail to reach an agreement with the SAG-AFTRA. If 160,000 actors go on strike, there would be total chaos. Negotiations for a deal ended on June 30, but both parties decided to allow more time for talks and pushed back the deadline until July 12. However, an agreement still does not seem to be in sight.

This would not be the first time that actors and screenwriters striked together. In March 1960, as the WGA was in the middle of a five-month strike, an actor named Ronald Reagan — who was then just president of the SAG (it would be another 20 years before he was elected U.S. president) — announced that the SGA would be stopping work too. At the time, he said, half jokingly, half seriously, that he was simply “trying to negotiate for the right to negotiate.” And he succeeded. After a 40-day total strike, which was supported by major stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, the producers gave in and ceded to the actors’ demands. Above all, the SAG wanted actors to be compensated not just for starring in a TV show or movie, but also for what a production makes afterwards, for example via reruns, syndication, DVD releases and streaming. The actors also wanted the right to healthcare and pensions. It was a giant leap forward.

Actor Charlton Heston protests outside Paramount Studios during a 1980 actors' union strike.
Actor Charlton Heston protests outside Paramount Studios during a 1980 actors' union strike.Bettmann (Getty Images)

Nothing like it has been seen since. In 1980, there was another actors’ strike, and the WAG striked a year later. The WAG held another strike in 1988, and during the 2007-2008 season, which lasted more than 100 days. In 1986, actors went on strike for just 14 hours. In 1988 and 2000, commercial actors stopped working, but not the union. Now, the SAG-AFTRA is set to join the screenwriters strike, and all of Hollywood is holding its breath.

The SAG-AFTRA has many demands, since it has many concerns. The actors argue that advances in technology are threatening performers’ jobs, and undercutting earnings. Given the production and distribution model for TV and film has changed, their contracts should be changed to reflect this, they argue. The actors complain that streaming platforms are cutting costs in a bid to maximize profits, and are now going after them. The SAG-AFTRA is seeking increases in minimum pay to offset inflation, rules and limits on the use of self-tape auditions, and royalties that reflect the success of the most-watched shows — a demand that studios have refused to accept.

Meanwhile, screenwriters are expected to picket in front of Amazon studios in Culver City on Wednesday, June 12, which is “Prime Day,” the retail giant’s biggest sales event. The WGA claim that their proposals would cost the streaming giant just $32 milllion a year, or 0.006% of its profits.

Meredith Stiehm, president of the WGA, protests at Paramount studios alongside Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, on May 8, 2023.
Meredith Stiehm, president of the WGA, protests at Paramount studios alongside Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, on May 8, 2023.Chris Pizzello (AP)

An issue for both actors and screenwriters is artificial intelligence. The WGA have expressed fear that AI will be used to produce scripts based on already existing series and films. This technology is able to pull ideas from different places and create new stories, characters and dialogues. Actors also afraid of AI, namely its ability to mimic actors’ voices, likeness and performances. The SAG-AFTRA wants the new film and TV contract to regulate the use of AI and ensure that actors are compensated not only when their likeness is used, but also when their work is used to program AI systems.

At the beginning of June, 97.91% of SAG-AFTRA members voted to authorize a strike if a real solution was not reached. “Together we lock elbows and in unity we build a new contract that honors our contributions in this remarkable industry, reflects the new digital and streaming business model and brings ALL our concerns for protections and benefits into the now!” said SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher, who is known for her role on the 1990s TV show The Nanny.

SAG-AFTRA headquarters in Los Angeles, California on June 30, 2023.
SAG-AFTRA headquarters in Los Angeles, California on June 30, 2023.CAROLINE BREHMAN (EFE)

Many actors have come out in support of screenwriters, including very famous stars who have joined the picket line. And for thousands of other actors, who do not have multimillion-dollar contracts, securing better work conditions is key to their livelihood. This is the case for Luis Fernandez-Gil, who has been working in Los Angeles for 20 years and has starred in more than 115 movies and TV shows. “In 2020 [when the previous agreement was approved] nothing was negotiated and the studios have taken advantage of that. There is an abuse of power,” he tells EL PAÍS by phone from his home in Hollywood, saying that a strike is “inevitable.”

For him, it is essential that the union’s demands for increased pensions and health insurance are met. He also wants fairer compensation. “To us, it’s logical for streamers to pay the same residuals,” he explains, who says that actors “could not survive” without residuals. “This is how talented actors are lost.” Fernandez-Gil says that this was not negotiated in 2020, as streaming platforms were still new, and it was not known how to monetize them. “But now they can, they have the data,” he says.

Fernandez-Gil also complains about the process of self-taped auditions, a trend that took off during the pandemic. He says that studios send actors up to 15 pages of script with three or four different scenes that must be prepared and recorded in one or two days. “Some are action scenes that make no sense to record, you need a mega-production, you need to make an investment,” he explains. “We want them to give us more time to prepare and a maximum number of pages.” Regarding the use of artificial intelligence, Fernández-Gil wants to put its use in film and TV on hold “until we see how it evolves in other industries.”

Fernández-Gil points out another issue: auditions. “Ninety-nine percent of actors who give up on the professsion do so because of the nightmares of auditions,” he says. “It is such a great, physical, mental, economic effort.. and it’s sometimes just because the studio wants to see you, when they are not going to give you the role. Now the actors are asking to be paid.”

The strike has come to dominate all talk in Hollywood. When Barbie premiered last Sunday, its co-writer Noah Baumbach did not attend the event. His partner, Greta Gerwig, who directed and co-wrote the script, told the press that he was on strike, fighting for the rights of all: “Nothing in Barbie happened without him, and nothing in Hollywood happens without writers.”

Meanwhile, publicists are fearing for their survival. Hollywood is an ecosystem; when one elements suffers, everything falls apart. Silvia García, who runs the Los Angeles talent agency SGG, says the strike would affect her “in the present and in the future, because everything falls apart, first filming and then promotion is cancelled in the future.” She says she is lucky because she also represents “models, singers, businessmen.” “We’re not going to be out of work,” she says with relief, “but there are agencies that specialize only in actors. Some may close.” García believes that the actors will go on strike because, after weeks of negotiations, there is still no agreement.

But Garcia, like so many others in the industry, understands the actors. “If you are an actor you have to fight,” she says. “Today, all the studios have their own platforms: Disney, Paramount... And those contracts were very badly negotiated. With television, when you filmed a show, you received the residuals for a certain time and you earned money. But with the platforms that’s not all the case.”

There is real fear that Hollywood may come to a standstill. On Monday, negotiators and representatives from the SAG-AFTRA spoke with some of the most powerful publicity agencies in the business. In total, some 140 representatives who have already been preparing in case there is a strike. According to an exclusive report by Variety, the mood was one of “panic.” Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the chief operating officer of SAG-AFTRA, and the union’s head of communications, Pamela Greenwalt, were present. EL PAÍS contacted Greenwalt but has not yet received a response. While the negotiations continue, the union will not say anything beyond what is included in their press releases.

In an open letter published in June in Variety, Crabtree-Ireland highlighted the dangers posed by technology. “Technology — specifically generative artificial intelligence — certainly isn’t the only issue that threatens the ability of creatives in the industry to make a living, but it casts a long shadow due to the amazing speed at which it is evolving and the troubling implications for its misuse,” he wrote. “This isn’t just about actors — or even writers, directors, or crew — it’s about the soul of entertainment. Audiences aren’t going to want to watch AI-generated shows that lack a human spark for the same reason it’s not interesting to watch two computers play chess.”

He added that “an actor’s brand is their voice and likeness, and SAG-AFTRA has long been working to promote state laws that safeguard a person’s right of publicity.”

“Let’s choose a future where human creativity is catalyzed by every tool available, not a hollow world where bots and algorithms generate our culture, and humans are an afterthought. Without people, you have nothing,” he concluded.

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