Actor Strike: TV and Movie Actors Vote for Biggest Walkout in Four Decades

The Hollywood actors’ union approved a strike on Thursday for the first time in 43 years, bringing the $134 billion American movie and television business to a halt over anger about pay and fears of a tech-dominated future.

The leaders of SAG-AFTRA, the union representing 160,000 television and movie actors, announced the strike after negotiations with studios over a new contract collapsed, with streaming services and artificial intelligence at the center of the standoff. On Friday, the actors will join 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.

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.

“I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us!” Fran Drescher, the president of SAG-AFTRA, as the actors’ union is known, said at a news conference on Thursday in Los Angeles. “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 C.E.O.s. It is disgusting. Shame on them!”

Shaking her fists in anger, Ms. Drescher noted that “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,” she said. “At some point, you have to say, ‘No, we’re not going to take 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 living wages for workaday members, in particular those making movies or television shows for streaming services.

Screenwriters are afraid studios will use A.I. 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 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 alliance said in a news release that outlined 14 areas where studios had offered “historic” contract improvements. Those included, according to the alliance, an 11 percent pay increase in the contract’s first year for background actors, stand-ins and photo doubles and a 76 percent 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.”

Behind the scenes, studio executives responded to Ms. Drescher’s fury in varying ways. Some said they had underestimated her ability to lead the sometimes-fractious actors’ union — discounting her as little more than the cartoonish figure she played on “The Nanny” for six seasons in the 1990s. Others continued to mock her as giving an Academy Award-caliber performance at the union’s news conference.

Though Hollywood had been bracing for a writers’ strike since the beginning of the year — screenwriters have walked out eight times over the past seven decades, most recently in 2007 — the actors’ uncharacteristic resolve caught senior executives and producers off guard.

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. Their latest action is part of a resurgent labor movement, particularly in California, where hotel workers, school bus drivers, teachers and cafeteria staff have all gone on strike for some duration in recent months.

The Screen Actors Guild headquarters in Los Angeles. The union’s members include film and television actors, journalists, radio personalities, recording artists, voice actors, internet personalities and fashion models.Credit…Caroline Brehman/EPA, via Shutterstock

The first distress signal for the studios came in early June when roughly 65,000 members of the actors’ union voted to authorize a strike. Almost 98 percent of the voters supported the authorization, a figure that narrowly eclipsed the writers’ margin.

Still, studio negotiators went into the talks feeling optimistic. They were taken aback when they saw the list of proposals from the union — it totaled 48 pages, nearly triple the size of the list during their last negotiations in 2020, according to two people familiar with the proposals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential talks.

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.”

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

The Hollywood studios will now need to navigate a two-front labor war with no modern playbook to consult. There are many open questions, including whether the actors and the writers may demand that future negotiations with the studios be conducted in tandem. One guild that will not be included: the Directors Guild of America, which ratified a contract last month.

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 — struggling thespians still trying to get a foothold next to A-listers with bodyguards who are paid $20 million or more per movie role.

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.

The Hollywood studios have watched their share prices nose-dive and their profit margins shrink as viewership for cable and network television — as well as box office returns — has collapsed in the wake of the explosive growth of streaming entertainment.

People taking selfies beneath the famous Hollywood sign Wednesday as SAG-AFTRA threatened a strike.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

Many companies have resorted to layoffs, as well as purging series from their streaming services, all in the name of trying to increase profit margins and satisfy recalcitrant investors. Studio executives had already put the brakes on ordering new television series last year as their streaming services continued to burn through cash.

In an interview on CNBC on Thursday morning, Disney’s chief executive, Robert A. Iger, said that given all the “disruptive forces” in the business, “this is worst time in the world to add to that disruption.”

Barry Diller, the veteran media executive, said in an interview that the recent upheaval in the industry had caused distress for both sides.

“You have a complete change in the underlying economics of the entertainment business that it previously held for certainly the last 50 years, if not the last 100 years,” he said. “Everything was basically in balance under the hegemony of five major studios, and then, oh, my God, along come the tech companies in Netflix, Amazon and Apple and the fast, transformative things that came out of Covid. The result of which is you have a business that’s just completely upended.”

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.

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