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Hollywood looks into the abyss: Striking actors will begin picketing alongside writers in fight over industry’s future

‘We had no choice. We are the victims here. We are being victimized by a very greedy entity,’ said Fran Descher, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists president

Striking actors Hollywood
Screenwriters protest in Hollywood this Thursday.CONTACTO (CONTACTO)

Striking screen actors will begin picketing alongside writers in New York and Los Angeles in what has become the biggest Hollywood labor fight in decades. Members of the actors’ union will take to the streets Friday after their leaders voted unanimously on Thursday to go on strike over issues including pay and the use of artificial intelligence to replace their work. The expanded strike will shut down the small number of productions that have continued shooting in the two months since screenwriters stopped working. Oscar and Emmy winners will now likely be seen with some regularity on picket lines outside studios and corporate offices.

The decision affects the 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the actors’ union. The protest, which gained strength after the merger of two organizations in 2012, brings the industry closer to the abyss because it leaves hundreds of productions and companies without their essential raw material: talent. The actors now join the screenwriters, whose 11,500 members have been protesting for improved conditions since May 2. Only the directors reached an agreement with the studios, which prevented the three most important unions in the sector from going on strike simultaneously.

It is the first major strike by actors since 1980, and the first joint strike by actors and screenwriters in 63 years. The scale of the walkout is incalculable, but it is useful to have as a reference the 2008 writers’ strike, which lasted three months and had an economic impact of $2.5 billion, according to official calculations. The scriptwriters’ strike had already slowed down, if not completely stopped, the schedule for filming series and movies. With the actors’ walkout, productions that were still filming will be left without people on the sets. The strike also prevents performers from promoting their products. It is not even known when (if at all) the Emmy Awards, whose nominees were announced on Wednesday, will be held: there are possible dates in September (which is almost ruled out by now), November, and January.

Many actors made a show of solidarity on the writers’ picket lines, including Fran Drescher, the SAG-AFTRA president and former star of The Nanny. The union’s 65,000-member actors’ branch will now formally join them as fellow strikers.

Drescher delivered a fiery rebuke of studios and streaming services when announcing union leaders’ unanimous vote to strike Thursday.

“We had no choice. We are the victims here. We are being victimized by a very greedy entity,” Drescher said. “I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us. I cannot believe it, quite frankly: How far apart we are on so many things. How they plead poverty, that they’re losing money left and right when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs.”

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

Among the studios the actors have sat down with are Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Paramount, Disney, Sony, Warner and Universal. The negotiations were held in parallel to the writers’ strike and lasted until the last minute of July 12. In the early hours of this Wednesday, the SAG announced that the negotiation had not yielded results. Drescher stated that these had been “in good faith”, but that the proposals by the employers had been “insulting and disrespectful” given the “very important contributions to the industry” made by its interpreters.

The industry generates 2.4 million jobs and $186 billion in salaries through more than 122,000 companies, according to January data from the Motion Picture Association. The two guilds have similar issues with studios and streaming services. They are concerned about contracts keeping up with inflation, residual payments in the streaming era and putting up guardrails against the use of artificial intelligence mimicking their work on film and television shows.

The actors union is considered one of the most powerful groups in Hollywood. In 1960, when the joint writers’ and actors’ strike broke out, the president of SAG was Ronald Reagan. The position prepared him for his political career, and in 1967 he became governor of California. The SAG, which turned 90 this week, brings together such powerful names in the industry as Meryl Streep, Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, David Duchovny, Ben Stiller and Jennifer Lawrence, but also thousands of anonymous actors who are not stars and who, most of the time, don’t have a job.

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