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Actors Strike Is On, Throwing Hollywood Into Turmoil

160,000 actors, members of SAG-AFTRA, are shutting down all industry filming and voice-over production at midnight tonight. They are joining the 11,000 writers, members of the Writers Guild, who have been on strike since May 2.

Union rally held in Los Angeles recently as part of the Writers’ strike,Source: Jim Ruymen / UPI / Shutterstock // ScreenDaily

Hollywood’s actors and writers are now both on strike, a DEFCON 1 development and the first of its kind in more than 60 years. Despite the eleventh hour intervention of a federal mediator, SAG-AFTRA, the guild that represents about 160,000 performers, could not come to an agreement with AMPTP, which represents the major studios, networks, and streamers. The WGA, which reps writers, has been on strike since May 2.

The combined strikes will paralyze the TV and movie industries, shut down the few remaining scripted productions, and likely mean that movie release dates, as well as the Emmy broadcast (originally set for September 18), will be postponed.

SAG-AFTRA’s contract expired on Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. PT, at which time its negotiating committee voted unanimously to recommend a strike. Fran Drescher, the guild’s president, said in a statement, “SAG-AFTRA negotiated in good faith and was eager to reach a deal that sufficiently addressed performer needs, but the AMPTP’s responses to the union’s most important proposals have been insulting and disrespectful of our massive contributions to this industry.”

The AMPTP issued a competing statement declaring, “This is the Union’s choice, not ours. In doing so, it has dismissed our offer of historic pay and residual increases, substantially higher caps on pension and health contributions, audition protections, shortened series option periods, a groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses, and more.”  

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Hollywood has been in the middle of an unprecedented show of force as workers across the industry grow frustrated by the changes wrought by streaming. Like their writing peers, actors are fighting for overall raises and increases in streaming residual payments, as well as protection against the rise of AI.

None of this was undertaken lightly, of course. “I just want everybody to understand that this isn’t about making more millions of dollars,” Sheryl Lee Ralph, a member of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee, told Vanity Fair yesterday after her Emmy nomination for Abbott Elementary was announced. “Quiet as it’s kept, at least 80% of our union are plain, old, ordinary, hardworking people who haven’t gotten a cost of living raise in 40 years, who are depending upon the kindness of big corporations. You need people who can crunch numbers, but when it starts to crunch people, that’s not good.”

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Daniel Radcliffe, speaking before the strike about his Emmy nomination for Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, told VF: “Nobody wants these [strikes] to happen but I think they’re incredibly necessary for the way the industry is going. Technology has changed so much about the industry in the last 10 years—it feels like there will need to be a recalibration in order for everybody to work,” he said of discussions around the use of AI in film and television.

Disney CEO Bob Iger commented on the actors and writers strikes during an appearance on CNBC’s Squawk Box Thursday morning. Speaking from the Sun Valley Conference in Idaho, he said, “It’s very disturbing to me.” Pointing to the deal AMPTP made with the directors last month, he called the expectations of actors and writers “not realistic” and accused them of “adding to the set of the challenges that this business is already facing that is, quite frankly, very disruptive…. It’s a shame, it is really a shame.”

Although Emmy nominations were announced on Wednesday, campaigning will be virtually nonexistent if the actors’ strike extends past the end of July. Even before a SAG-AFTRA strike seemed likely, there was talk that Emmys organizers were considering pushing the event as late as January, due to the ongoing writers strike. (The Television Academy has not yet addressed whether the broadcast might move.)

All of this could give the AMPTP incentive to sit back down at the negotiating table with the actors—and eventually the writers—to hammer out new deals. Or it could be a long, hot summer for the studios and the picketers alike. Either way, insiders are freely flinging blame, much of it directed at studio heads. The Ankler’s Richard Rushfield may have captured the mood best with the lede of his Thursday newsletter: “Well, geniuses, you’ve done it again. If the goal here is to set some kind of leadership record for the most trainwrecks, meltdowns and catastrophes on one generation’s watch, then we’re on a good track.”

When the guild began negotiating new theatrical and television contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers at the beginning of June, president Fran Drescher and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland told members that they had “the intention of securing a strong deal for our members.” In a video update sent just days before SAG’s contract was set to expire on June 30, they boasted that they were having “extremely productive negotiations.” Many SAG-AFTRA members interpreted the message as a sign that their guild was preparing to take a deal, and an impressive cohort of prominent actors signed a letter urging the leadership to remain tough.

The clearest sign yet that SAG-AFTRA was preparing for a strike came last Thursday, when the guild emailed members asking “if and how you’d like to volunteer” during a possible work stoppage. The guild followed up the email with Instagram photos of members preparing picket signs. On Monday, it assembled Hollywood publicists and talent agents to explain what their clients would and would not be allowed to do if there was a strike. (Okay: Receiving a lifetime achievement award. Not okay: Attending a premiere, sitting for an interview, or otherwise promoting an upcoming project.)

Hollywood has already been at a nearly complete standstill since writers went on strike, but an actors strike will force all productions to immediately halt. Premieres will be canceled and the stars of upcoming summer blockbusters will be pulled off the press circuit. Studios will not have actors to promote upcoming movies and TV shows at Comic-Con, which is set to begin July 20 in San Diego.

Entertainment labor lawyer Jonathan Handel predicts that a double strike will prolong the impasses for both scribes and stars. “There’s no way you can get two strikes settled by the end of July,” he says, suggesting awards strategists better start planning for a delayed Emmys.

Whenever talks resume, the AMPTP will have to contend with separate but equally contentious negotiations. That makes it all the more likely that the broadcast networks will enter the fall TV season with lineups full of reruns and reality shows. As far as movies are concerned, this year’s films could conceivably be moved later because the stars won’t be available for promotions, and even next summer and fall’s tentpole films could be delayed because of production delays.

The role artificial intelligence may play in the industry has become a contentious issue with shocking speed. “AI is a gift and a threat,” Ralph said before the strike. “If anybody thinks that AI is a better performer than a human being and that everybody’s body should just be captured so you can bring it back whenever, I’m like, ‘No, no.’” The Oscar and Emmy nominee actor Aunjanue Ellis also weighed in with VF before the strike: “If you’re gonna replace the writers, you’re gonna replace the actors—let’s replace some directors. Let’s replace some producers. You know what I mean? If we have no value other than our image—who ultimately needs to be replaced?”

Ellis added that, for the guilds, Hollywood’s lopsided power structure is a big part of what has made this moment necessary. “It’s utterly frustrating. It really is the haves versus the have-nots,” she said. “There’s a lot of inequality that has to be addressed, and I just feel that there is just a lack of respect. There’s a lack of respect for writers. There’s a lack of respect for actors.”

With additional reporting by Rebecca Ford, David Canfield, and Katey Rich

[Natalie Jarvey is a Hollywood correspondent at Vanity Fair, writing about the business of entertainment. She previously worked at Insider and The Hollywood Reporter, where she covered digital media and streaming entertainment. Natalie lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. You can follow her on Twitter.

Joy Press is the television correspondent at Vanity Fair. A former editor and writer for the Los Angeles Times and The Village Voice, she is the author of the book Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television. She lives in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.]