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Why Hollywood writers and actors are going on strike

SAG-AFTRA announcement means both actors and screenwriters in Hollywood are on strike simultaneously for the first time since 1960

Tom Murray,Josh Marcus
Monday 17 July 2023 05:57 BST
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Oppenheimer actors walk out of UK premiere as Hollywood stars join writer strike

Thursday (13 July) marked a historic shutdown for Hollywood as actors guild members joined writers striking for a fairer deal.

SAG-AFTRA (The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) announced that its strike comprising 150,000 television and movie actors would begin at midnight on Friday.

Follow along here for real-time updates on the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Meanwhile, WGA (Writers Guild of America) members have been on strike since May.

This is the first time since 1960 that both actors and writers have picketed film and television production companies.

“It's disgusting, shame on them,” SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher said of the offer they rejected from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

The writer’s strike had already kneecapped the entertainment industry, taking late night talk shows off air and making awards shows virtual or unscripted.

With the added weight of tens of thousands of actors, Hollywood is effectively in limbo until an agreement with production companies can be reached.

How will this affect the film industry?

“The studios literally don’t care about us or treat us like human beings,” Zack Arnold, editor and associate producer of Netflix’s Cobra Kai told The Independent. “The way of life as a creative, as a storyteller, as a filmmaker is on the line.”

Oppenheimer actors walk out of UK premiere as Hollywood stars join writer strike

Arnold says the strike was caused by a “perfect storm” of streaming dominance, which has led to the erosion of residual pay, and the advent of AI in the industry.

“Both of them are such paradigm shifts in how business is done. I think that there’s no way to really resolve both of them amicably without a real change in the way the business is done,” he says.

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Joe Plummer, the president of Wavelength (a New York-based indie studio behind Sundance players like Where's My Roy Cohn? and Farwell Amor), agrees: “There's so much disruption that has happened over the past 10 years that, eventually, it was going to have to come to this point where we get down to the real nuts and bolts of how the industry operates.”

During past eras of TV production in particular, shows tended to have seasons with more episodes, and major hits like Seinfeld that went into syndication could guarantee performers a steady stream of residual payments for decades. Now, even highly popular shows on streamers like Netflix’s Bridgerton typically have seasons with less than 10 episodes.

Top actors still earn millions, but most SAG-AFTRA members are barely getting by, according to the union. Half of members make less than $26,000 a year from acting and barely qualify for guild health insurance, according to CBS News.

Other main sticking points in the union contract negotiations, which were already extended once this month before the strike, including the use of artificial intelligence.

The union claims that the major studios proposed only offering a day’s pay for rights to use an AI-scanned version of an actor for life.

“Actors now face an existential threat to their livelihoods from the use of AI and generative technology,” Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s national executive director, said in a news conference on Thursday. “They proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay, and the company should be able to own that scan, that likeness, for the rest of eternity, on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation.”

(The studios have said this is an inaccurate description of their position, and that AI scans would only be used in the production in which an actor was already employed.)

Some worry the use of AI would go beyond just creating digital background extras but rather be used to reanimate dead performers, or replace writers altogether.

“AI is obviously a potential existential threat for actors, depending on how it’s going to be used,” Andrew Susskind, an associate professor in the film and TV department at Drexel University, told the Washington Post. “Studios might say, ‘Ey, what’s the harm in doing a new Cary Grant movie, who is it hurting?’ But maybe it’s hurting his reputation.”

Even without the threat of AI, other trends helped writers towards a strike.

Hollywood has increasingly adopted so-called “mini rooms,” short-term writers rooms where staffers only work on a production for a short period, rather than for the whole season.

Union members say this practice has made it increasingly difficult for young writers to attain even a modest middle-class lifestyle in the TV business.

“If it were up to me, I’d outlaw mini rooms. They have destroyed the quality of TV shows & decimated writer pay. Mini rooms are one of the main reasons I voted to strike!” tweeted Claws writer Darrin Dortch. “Learning about mini-rooms made it suddenly make sense to me that so many shows seem to struggle with continuity or a continual season arc these days. No wonder.”

How are actors responding to the strike?

Immediately before the strike was announced, the cast of Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster, Oppenheimer, left the film’s London premiere prematurely to “go and write their picket signs”.

This sets the tone for other forthcoming releases, the casts of which will receive scorn from their colleagues if they participate in any publicity obligations.

The timing is not ideal – two of the biggest films of the year are scheduled for release next week: Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Oppenheimer.

Publicity for the two pictures was reaching a fever pitch thanks to marketing campaigns, talent interviews and red carpet premieres around the globe. As SAG-AFTRA grounds to a halt, so too will the publicity trains.

Following the announcement, SAG sent a memo to all of its members explaining the boundaries of what they were and were not allowed to do (via Variety) under the terms of the strike.

Except as set forth in the Notice to Members Regarding Non-Struck Work, all covered services and performing work under the TV/ theatrical contracts must be withheld, including but not limited to:

Principal on-camera work, such as:

  • Acting
  • Singing
  • Dancing
  • Performing stunts
  • Piloting on-camera aircraft
  • Puppeteering○ Performance capture or motion capture work;

Principal off-camera work, such as:

  • ADR/Looping
  • TV Trailers (promos) and Theatrical Trailers
  • Voice Acting
  • Singing
  • Narration, including audio descriptive services except as the services may be covered by another collective bargaining agreement referred in the Notice to Members Regarding Non-Struck Work
  • Stunt coordinating and related services
  • Background work
  • Stand-in work
  • Photo and/or body doubles
  • Fittings, wardrobe tests, and makeup tests
  • Rehearsals and camera tests
  • Scanning
  • Interviews and auditions (including via self-tape)

Promotion of/publicity services for work under the TV/Theatrical Contracts, such as:

  • Tours
  • Personal appearances
  • Interviews
  • Conventions
  • Fan expos
  • Festivals
  • For your consideration events
  • Panels○ Premieres/screenings
  • Award shows
  • Junkets
  • Podcast appearances
  • Social media
  • Studio showcases

Negotiating and/or entering into and/or consenting to:

  • An agreement to perform covered services in the future
  • Any new agreement related to merchandising connected to a covered project
  • The creation and use of digital replicas, including through the reuse of prior work

Performing on a trailer for a struck production or other ancillary content connected to a struck production

SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher
SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher (REUTERS)

How will this affect the TV industry?

Meanwhile, TV networks are expected to pivot to reality series and game shows, which are unscripted and do not require actors.

Late night shows such as The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel Live! have been dark since May as they rely heavily on scripted monologues and comedic segments.

Recurring dramas like ABC’s Abbott Elementary and Grey’s Anatomy will be replaced in the September schedule by game shows like Celebrity Wheel of Fortune and Dancing With the Stars, according to The New York Times.

Due to the lengthy scale of TV production times, the full effects of the strikes are unlikely to be felt for months or even years.

Casey Bloys, the chairman of HBO, told Variety on Wednesday that “at least through the end of 2023, we’re OK. And then into 2024, it starts to get dicier”.

Arnold warned The Independent that due to the scale of SAG-AFRA’s demands, he believes that the actors’ strike could continue all the way into winter: “This is going to be a game of chicken – who is willing to swerve first?”

The issue, he points out, is that writers and actors are not key workers like doctors or nurses, so there won’t be public demand for the studios to cave to their demands. Streaming companies like Netflix have billions of dollars and an enormous backlog of content, which they can afford to sit back on while low-paid creatives struggle.

Will the Emmys be delayed?

The union also said that the strike means any Emmy campaigning by actors will immediately end. As such, we may see a delay to the 2023 Emmys ceremony, which is currently scheduled for 18 September.

The nominations for this year’s awards were announced on Wednesday (12 July) with Television Academy chair Frank Scherma expressing his wishes for the ongoing guild negotiations to “come to an equitable and swift end”.

You can find a full list of all the nominees here.

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