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Hollywood grinds to a halt as actors unite with writers in strike

The members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) have begun their first day of strike, joining screenwriters, who walked off the job in May, on picket lines in New York, Los Angeles and the dozens of other American cities where scripted shows and movies are made.

Videos of picket signs have already floated onto social media, with slogans like “No contracts, no peace”, “Scripts Don’t Grow on Trees!” and “The Future of Writing Is at Stake!”

The decision came after SAG-AFTRA, the union representing 160,000 television and movie actors, negotiations with studios over a new contract collapsed, with streaming services and artificial intelligence at the center of the standoff.

George Clooney has led A-listers voicing support for the strike, while the cast of Oppenheimer left a London premiere prematurely on Thursday night to “go and write their picket signs”.

Meanwhile, Disney CEO Bob Iger condemned the threatened strike action as “very disruptive” at the “worst time” as well as calling the expectations of writers and actors “just not realistic”.

Many of the actors’ concerns echo what the Writers Guild of America is fighting for: higher wages; increased residual payments for their work, specifically for content on streaming services; and protections against using actors’ likenesses without permission as part of the enhanced abilities of artificial intelligence.

According to the writers, the studios offered little more than “annual meetings to discuss” artificial intelligence, and they refused to bargain over limits on the technology.

Unsuccessful negotiations

In June, actors’ submitted a proposal totalling 48 pages to the studio negotiatiors, which nearly triple the size of the list during their last negotiations in 2020,

Then in late June, more than 1,000 actors, including Meryl Streep, John Leguizamo, Jennifer Lawrence, Constance Wu and Ben Stiller, signed a letter to guild leadership, declaring pointedly that “we are prepared to strike.”

The writers have raised numerous grievances. The writers are seeking to put significant guardrails around the use of artificial intelligence. But the most pressing issue to them is compensation.

After failed negotiations with studios, union negotiators unanimously endorse a strike, marking the first joint work stoppage by actors and writers in 63 years. As a result, all scripted TV and movie production will come to an immediate halt.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which bargains on behalf of Hollywood companies, said it had worked to reach a reasonable deal at a difficult time for an industry upended by the streaming revolution, which the pandemic sped up.

“The union has regrettably chosen a path that will lead to financial hardship for countless thousands of people who depend on the industry,” the AMPTP said in a news release that outlined 14 areas where studios had offered “historic” contract improvements.

Those included, according to the AMPTP, an 11% pay increase in the contract’s first year for background actors, stand-ins and photo doubles and a 76% increase in residual payments for “high-budget” shows that stream overseas.

The alliance added in a separate statement: “We are deeply disappointed that SAG-AFTRA has decided to walk away from negotiations. This is the union’s choice, not ours.”

Picketing outside Netflix’s offices on Tuesday. On Friday, struggling actors and A-listers alike will join the lines. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Actors’ and writers’ concerns

Screenwriters are afraid 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.

Fran Drescher, the president of SAG-AFTRA said she was shocked by the way actors were treated. “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 CEO.s. It is disgusting. Shame on them!

“The entire business model has been changed by streaming and that artificial intelligence would soon change it more. “This is a moment in history, a moment of truth. At some point, you have to say, ‘No, we’re not going to take this anymore.’” she said at a news conference on Thursday (13 July) in Los Angeles.

Earlier, Drescher said actors were united to build a new contract that honours their contributions in the industry, reflects the new digital, streaming business model, and brings all their concerns for protections and benefits into the now.

The actors’ walkout will provide an immediate boon to the striking writers, who have been walking picket lines for more than 70 days; the Writers Guild has yet to return to bargaining with the studios. Now those picket lines are likely to be raucous and star-studded spectacles.

The strikes are the latest monumental blow to an entertainment industry that has been rocked in recent years by the pandemic and sweeping technological shifts.

A prolonged production shutdown could also prove damaging to local economies, particularly the workers who help support productions, such as drivers, costume dry cleaners, caterers, set carpenters and lumber yard workers. When the writers last went on strike, for 100 days in 2007, the Los Angeles economy lost an estimated US$2.1 billion (SGD2.77 billion).

Studio executives have also contended that they can weather a strike.

Last month, David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, said, “We’ve got ourselves ready, we’ve had a lot of content that’s been produced.”

Two weeks ago, Ted Sarandos, the co-chief executive of Netflix, suggested the streaming service would be better protected than his competitors because of how many unscripted and foreign series it has in production.

“We could probably serve our members better than most,” he said.

Members of SAG-AFTRA supported the striking Writers Guild of America at a rally last month outside Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California. Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

More than 170,000 workers are engaged in dual walkouts

Actors and screenwriters had not been on strike at the same time since 1960, when Marilyn Monroe was still starring in films and Ronald Reagan was the head of the actors’ union. Dual strikes pit more than 170,000 workers against old-line studios like Disney, Universal, Sony and Paramount, as well tech juggernauts like Netflix, Amazon and Apple.

After the strike announcement, the union issued rules for its members. Along with not being able to work in front of the camera, they will not be permitted to promote current projects. That includes attending Comic-Con, film festivals and movie premieres.

That means actors will not be able to promote movies during an all-important stretch for the summer box office, when big-budget films like “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer” and “Haunted Mansion” are released.

Some of those promotional opportunities have already disappeared: Late-night shows like “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” have been running only repeat episodes during the writers’ strike.

The effects of the dual strikes should be noticeable to viewers within a couple of months. Unless there is an immediate resolution to the labor disputes, the ABC fall schedule, for instance, will debut with nightly lineups of reality series and game shows — including “Celebrity Wheel of Fortune,” “Dancing With the Stars” and “Judge Steve Harvey” — as well as repeats of “Abbott Elementary.”

If the strikes drag into the fall, blockbuster films scheduled to be released next summer, like “Deadpool 3,” could be delayed.

Screenwriters have walked out eight times over the past seven decades. Historically, they have had the stomach for a prolonged strike.

In addition to the 100-day walkout in 2007, the writers also walked picket lines for 153 days in 1988. Writers have also shown signs of remarkable unity.

In mid-April, 98% of more than 9,000 union-represented writers authorised a strike.

The actors last staged a major walkout in 1980, when the economic particulars of a still-nascent boom in home video rentals and sales was a sticking point.

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