Hollywood actors join screenwriters in historic industry-stopping strike as contract talks collapse

Actors will join screenwriters in a combined strike that will have huge consequences for Hollywood

Updated - July 14, 2023 12:57 pm IST

Published - July 14, 2023 11:57 am IST

Actress Fran Drescher announces a strike by The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists at a press conference on Thursday in Los Angeles.

Actress Fran Drescher announces a strike by The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists at a press conference on Thursday in Los Angeles. | Photo Credit: AP

Leaders of Hollywood's actors' union voted on Thursday to join screenwriters in the first joint strike in more than six decades, shutting down production across the entertainment industry after talks for a new contract with studios and streaming services broke down.

It’s the first time two major Hollywood unions have been on strike at the same time since 1960, when Ronald Reagan was the actors’ guild president.

In an impassioned speech as the strike, which begins at midnight, was announced, actors’ union president and former The Nanny star Fran Drescher chastised industry executives.

“Employers make Wall Street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run,” Drescher said. “It is disgusting. Shame on them. They stand on the wrong side of history.”

Hours earlier, a three-year contract had expired and talks broke off between the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers representing employers including Disney, Netflix, Amazon and others.

Outside Netflix's Hollywood offices, picketing screenwriters chanted “Pay your actors!” immediately after the strike was declared. Actors will begin picketing alongside writers outside studio headquarters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.

“It looks like it’s time to take down the MASKS. And pick up the SIGNS,” Oscar-winner Jamie Lee Curtis said in an Instagram post with a photo of the tragic and comic masks that represent acting.

The premiere of Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer in London was moved up an hour so that the cast could walk the red carpet before the SAG board’s announcement. Stars including Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt and Matt Damon left the event once the strike was announced.

The strike — the first for film and television actors since 1980 — casts a shadow over the upcoming 75th Emmy Awards, whose nominations were announced a day earlier. Union rules prevent actors from doing any interviews or promotions around the awards, and they may not appear at the ceremony.

The strike rules also prevent actors from making personal appearances or promoting their work on podcasts or at premieres. And they are barred from doing any production work including auditions, readings, rehearsals or voiceovers along with actual shooting.

While international shoots technically can continue, the stoppage among US-based writers and performers is likely to have a drag on those too.

Disney chief Bob Iger warned the strike would have a “very damaging effect on the whole industry.” “This is the worst time in the world to add to that disruption,” Iger said on CNBC. “There’s a level of expectation that they have that is just not realistic.”

A nearly two-week extension of the actors union contract, and negotiations, only heightened the hostility between the two groups. Drescher said the extension made us “feel like we’d been duped, like maybe it was just to let studios promote their summer movies for another 12 days.”

Before the talks began June 7, the 65,000 actors who cast ballots voted overwhelmingly for union leaders to send them into a strike, as the Writers Guild of America did when their deal expired more than two months ago.

When the initial deadline approached in late June, more than 1,000 members of the union, including Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence and Bob Odenkirk, added their names to a letter signalling to leaders their willingness to strike.

While famous names predominate, the strike also includes tens of thousands of little-known actors who scramble for small parts at sometimes meager pay. The union says modest-but-essential income streams including long-term residuals for shows they appear in have dried up.

Stakes in the negotiations included that kind of pay, which actors say has been undercut by inflation and the streaming ecosystem, benefits, the growing tendency to make performers create video auditions at their own expense, and the threat of unregulated use of artificial intelligence.

“At a moment when streaming and AI and digital was so prevalent, it has disemboweled the industry that we once knew,” Drescher said, drawing applause from her fellow union leaders. “When I did The Nanny everybody was part of the gravy train. Now it’s a vacuum.”

The AMPTP said it presented a generous deal that included the biggest bump in minimum pay in 35 years, higher caps on pension and health contributions, and “a groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses.”

“A strike is certainly not the outcome we hoped for as studios cannot operate without the performers that bring our TV shows and films to life,” the group said in a statement. “The Union has regrettably chosen a path that will lead to financial hardship for countless thousands of people who depend on the industry.”

Also read:‘Stranger Things’ final season shoot delayed due to Writers Guild of America strike

SAG-AFTRA represents more than 160,000 screen actors, broadcast journalists, announcers, hosts and stunt performers. The walkout affects only the union’s actors from television and film productions, who voted overwhelmingly to authorize their leaders to call a strike before talks began on June 7. Broadway actors said in a statement that they stand “in solidarity” with SAG-AFTRA workers.

The 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America have been on strike since their own talks collapsed and their contract expired on May 2. The stoppage has showed no signs of a solution, with no negotiations even planned.

That strike brought the immediate shutdown of late-night talk shows and Saturday Night Live, and several scripted shows, including Stranger Things on Netflix, Hacks on Max, and Family Guy on Fox, which have either had their writers’ rooms or their production paused. Many more are sure to follow them now that performers have been pulled too.

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