On Thursday afternoon at twelve o’clock California time, ‘picket lines’ by demonstrators in front of the studios in Los Angeles and New York will end. After 118 days – a record for actors – negotiators from actors’ union SAG-AFTRA reached a three-year agreement with the studio union AMPTP. If the union leadership agrees to this on Friday, the members will be allowed to vote.
These seem like formalities, because Hollywood is eager to get back to work. The strike by SAG-AFTRA (160,000 members) and writers’ union WGA (11,500 members, strike ended after 148 days on September 27) is estimated to have cost 45,000 jobs and caused losses to the California economy of $6.5 billion. Two million jobs in the entertainment sector – drivers, make-up artists, set builders – were at risk.
The film studios were under great pressure. Without an agreement this week, it became too late for many series to record episodes for the second half of the TV season. Hollywood will be relatively dry in the cinema next spring, but the movie summer – when the expensive ‘blockbusters’ are rolled out – is not yet lost. This is especially important in the US, where cinemas have barely recovered from their post-pandemic dip. With the prospect of an early agreement, film crews have already been hired to immediately complete half-finished summer spectacles: Gladiator 2, Deadpool 3, Mission Impossible 8. The union took it easy, hoping for concessions at the last minute.
AI threatens the role of the background actor in Hollywood
Highest increase in minimum wages
Actors are allowed to appear on red carpets again and promote their films: the Oscar season is getting underway. SAG-AFTRA was strict on this point: during Halloween, members were prohibited from dressing up as Barbenheimers or superheroes: that counted as a promotion. Only a generic type – a ghost, a zombie – was acceptable.
The details of the agreement will probably follow tomorrow, but studio association AMPTP is talking about a ‘new paradigm’ and the highest increase in minimum wages in forty years. There are concessions on health insurance and the reimbursement of expensive audition tapes for virtual auditions. However, SAG-AFTRA seems particularly pleased with the “unique new conditions and compensation for the use of AI”, the latest stumbling block between the parties. The union wanted to prohibit novice actors from forever relinquishing their digital likeness under pressure or otherwise. Any future use of their digital scan must be negotiated separately.
Streaming services agree to limited profit sharing (‘residuals’) for actors in successful series and films. That was the breaking point on October 11, when studio association AMPTP suspended negotiations. The streamers first offered a bonus for high viewing figures on top of the current, very low fixed fee: a pot of about 20 million dollars per year. SAG-AFTRA had other ideas: two, then one percent of total profits. When that failed, an annual payment of 57 cents per subscriber was proposed. Both proposals amounted to about half a billion dollars, which, according to Netflix director Ted Sarandos, was “a bridge too far.”
SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drechser will be relieved. Her strong rhetoric turned against her: in July she threatened the “people at the gates of Versailles” and said she was disgusted by studio bosses who would give each other hundreds of millions while there would be no money to provide employees with social security. A whisper and social media campaign then depicted Drescher as a champagne socialist who was lying at the backs of her crooked supporters. It made no difference: in the summer she was re-elected with more than 80 percent of the votes.
By mid-October, however, pressure from within his own circle increased and Drescher’s proud posts on TikTok and Instagram somewhat defensive. On October 17, George Clooney, on behalf of a handful of fellow superstars – Ben Affleck, Meryl Streep, Tyler Perry, Scarlett Johansson – encouraged her with a proposal: wealthy members would from now on pay an extra $150 million into the union coffers in order to to end the strike. That seemingly generous but impractical gesture undermined SAG-AFTRA’s position and illustrated the ambivalent position of ‘A-listers’ who are not only actors but also film producers. Thousands of less well-known SAG-AFTRA members subsequently urged in an open letter to keep their foot on the line.
Just because it seems to be over doesn’t mean golden days lie ahead. Even before the strike, Wall Street was demanding major cuts from Hollywood, given the enormous debt burden thanks to the Covid pandemic and the rigging of streaming services. In the hunt for subscribers, they incurred billions in losses. Even before the strike, this led to job cuts and less promising TV series and films. The increased labor costs are now on top of this. Hollywood will offer its employees better working conditions in 2024, but less work.