It’s strike season in Hollywood. After the Writers Guild of America strike began on May 1, the Screen Actors Guild took note and went on strike itself. The strike was announced on July 13 by SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher, who delivered a fiery speech calling out the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for its perceived greed and unwillingness to negotiate with the guild. While the most recent WGA strike, which lasted for 100 days in 2007, still lingers in recent memory, the last strike of noncommercial actors happened way back in 1980. Given that the last strike was so long ago, we thought it would be helpful to call on an expert. Jonathan Handel, writer of Hollywood on Strike!: An Industry at War in the Internet Age, is an entertainment lawyer and journalist who has been on both strike beats, and he answered all our most pressing SAG-AFTRA strike questions.
There are so many groups of people who fall under SAG-AFTRA. Can you give a baseline explanation of it as an organization?
The SAG part stands for Screen Actors Guild, and AFTRA stands for American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. It’s a union that was formed by the merger of SAG and AFTRA in 2012. Those predecessor unions go back to the 1930s. This is the union that represents actors of various sorts, including stunt performers, puppeteers, and background actors. But the primary constituents are the actors you see onscreen, whether the famous ones, like Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise, or the faces that we don’t recognize, who were in that movie with Tom Cruise. The union also represents singers and radio and television newscasters, but those groups are not involved in this. The union has various contracts, and the TV theatrical master agreements expired a day ago. And the union is now on strike over it.
So, this will not affect people who are involved in SAG, but are not in television or movies?
Correct. If you’re an actor who only works in commercials, for example, the commercials contract is not struck. It doesn’t expire for a year or two.
Nice. So we’ll still see Flo from Progressive.
We’ll still see Flo from Progressive.
Exactly, thank God for that.
The 2007 WGA strike is in recent memory, so when they went on strike, there was a better understanding of how they got there. Can you help me understand the precedent for a SAG strike?
The last time we had an actor strike was in 2000, and it was a commercial strike. It was against the advertising administration. The last time we had an actual strike against Hollywood was 1980, 43 years ago. And the last time, finally, that we had dual strikes in Hollywood was 1960. That’s what we’re looking at here in terms of precedent. All Hollywood strikes have been about technological change. Changing technologies that, in most cases, resulted in disagreement on what sort of residuals should be paid and how they should be calculated. This strike is about five major issues: residuals, inflation, streaming, AI, and self-tape auditions. The common theme here is that actors are finding that the compensation increasingly does not keep up with inflation, and that the profession is increasingly precarious in terms of job security of any sort.
With all the changes due to technology, was the strike an inevitability?
Well, no. No strike is truly inevitable and AMPTP management has more control over the situation than they like to let on. It’s always, We’ve made an unprecedented historic offer, and the union’s been unreasonably refusing, and it’s the union’s responsibility that there’s a strike.
In the 1960 dual strike, did the solidarity between the SAG and WGA help with negotiations?
Yes, the combined effect of the dual strikes brought an enormous victory for labor. There had been a 12-year fight over whether movies played on TV would generate residuals. The strike not only brought an agreement that any movie made in 1960 or afterwards would generate residuals — cementing the concept of residuals into the system — but it also brought the achievement of a pension plan and the achievement of a health plan. And it brought that for the writers, for the actors, a year later for the directors when they negotiated, and also for the crew union, IATSE. In some ways, the largest victory that labor in Hollywood ever won was achieved with a dual strike.
Do you feel like the solidarity between the two branches is affecting the tenor of these strikes overall?
There are two aspects of solidarity that are helping to drive this. One is that, within the WGA membership and within the SAG gap for membership, there is enormous solidarity. The unions are each very unified to a degree that has not been seen recently and has taken the CEOs by surprise. Secondly, there is enormous solidarity between these unions and the directors, even though they did make a deal, and the teamsters who shut down productions that the writers were picketing, the IATSE crew union, and other, smaller entertainment unions and non-entertainment unions.
What are you sensing about how the studios are thinking of this situation?
I don’t know that they’re in panic mode yet, so much as a cold, steely resolve to resist the unions. The IATSE and Teamsters’ contracts are up next year. IATSE is already concerned about AI and has made some announcements about work that they’re going to do to ensure that AI is a useful tool for workers, not a replacement for them. So the studio execs are looking ahead to that as well, and saying, If we give an inch to the writers, we’re gonna have to give at least an inch to the actors, and likewise next year. The view is existential by the studios in terms of the reset in labor-management relations that the unions are seeking. It’s also viewed as existential in terms of where the business is at. The box office is down versus 2019 and is never gonna recover. The linear-television broadcast and cable is dying and audiences are shrinking. In terms of streaming, it’s become evident to the legacy companies that if you wanna compete with Netflix, you have to do what Netflix did, which is build a worldwide scripted television channel. But Netflix had the advantage of being treated like a tech company and had access to that sort of capital. Now, of course, money is not so cheap because of economic circumstances, and because Wall Street wants to see profits, not growth, at this point. So it’s existential for the companies in their view, and it’s existential for labor. That’s creating two butting heads that suggests that it is going to be a long time before it’s resolved.
One of the things that has been really notable about the SAG strike so far is that while the WGA strike is getting press, actors are very adept at publicity. There was Fran Drescher’s speech, and you had the big letter that went out that Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence signed. How much does publicity matter?
It matters a lot. Not so much in terms of putting pressure on the company, but because there’s a feedback effect, and it keeps up enthusiasm among the membership in both of the unions. I was at the press conference yesterday — Fran Drescher’s speech was fiery, the mood in the room was electric. The press almost had to sit on its hands to avoid applauding alongside the actors who did burst in applause.
Can you give me a rundown of the list of demands?
The first is basic wage increases. The actors want wage increases that reflect the levels of inflation for the last two, three years. The studios are not offering that. The writers are actually not looking for an inflationary adjustment. Their last ask was 6 percent, and the directors got 5 percent. Secondly, SAG wants a success metric for residuals for streaming residuals. There are residuals for programs that are made streaming, but the residual is no greater for a success than for a flop. Both SAG and the WGA are concerned with AI, but the issue works somewhat differently. The writers don’t want AI to replace them. The actors may be comfortable with some replacement as long as they’re compensated for it. But if they’re going to train AI on an actor’s performance, they want to get paid for that. And then if the AI version gets deployed, they wanna get paid for that.
When the WGA strike began, the AI issue wasn’t at the forefront, though it was there. But it’s been getting pushed to the forefront as the strike has gone on. Why is that?
We’re in a hype cycle over AI. Silicon Valley people are excited by the hype cycle, to some degree unrealistically excited. In Hollywood, people are scared, and in the case of the writers to some degree, unrealistically scared. The dog can dance, but it’s not gonna be performing in the New York Ballet next week. But nonetheless, these are three-year contracts, and the writers are afraid that if the contract’s language only reflected the current state of affairs, then that that language would get locked in and change to it would be resisted as the technology evolves.
What other issues are the actors concerned about?
The fourth issue for the actors is pension and health. The benefit plans are funded by the studios and streamers are funded by the producers, technically. Certain aspects of the mechanism, in the case of the actors’ benefit plans, have not changed since 1980. And that deprives the benefit plans of a degree of revenue that they might otherwise have received, which weakens the plans and forces the union, when it does get wage increases, to revert a half a percent from the wage increase and use that money instead to add to the benefit-plan funding. The studios are offering an increase, but a lesser increase.
And then, finally, you have self-tape auditions. Prior to COVID, the dominant form of audition was in person: You drive across town in L.A. or New York, where the auditions were held, there’d be 20 or 30 other people in the waiting room that you’re competing against, and you’d physically do a scene. That’s not how auditions work anymore. You’re expected to tape your own audition at home using your cell-phone camera, and then submit it. Suddenly, you’re killing hours getting it right. In a lot of cases, people are having to hire readers to read the opposite part, and there’s pressure to get the editing right, to have camera angles. A business has sprung up at $70 or so an hour helping actors create their self-tapes. Suddenly, you have hundreds of actors spending, in some cases, $100 or even $300 on an audition tape that is less likely to get them a job than when they were when they auditioned in person. Now, the union is not trying to ban self-tape auditions, but they want certain guidelines that would be somewhat protective. The studios have agreed in this negotiation to some guidelines, but they insist that the violations of the guidelines would not be enforceable.
So they would just be guidelines that don’t matter.
They’d be b.s. guidelines, exactly. It’d be toothless.
One phrasing from the AMPTP that I saw passed around online was that the SAG strike supporters are a “militant minority,” rather than the majority. Is that your sense around this or not?
That’s bull. When they voted for the strike authorization, first of all, the national board voted unanimously. The national board ordinarily can’t agree on the color of the sky, and it was unanimous. Then the vote that came back was 98 percent in favor of a strike authorization. And not only that, the turnout rate on the ballots was 48 percent, which is twice what they get in their own elections. It was jaw-dropping.
How will this strike affect the upcoming award and festival season?
For the Emmys, there’s a date later this month — it’s not clear exactly when — where they have to decide whether they’re gonna push the Emmys off the September 18 date. There was some talk of postponement to November, but the Emmys are on Fox and that would apparently interfere with some of the football scheduling. It seems more likely the Emmys will go to January, which is like the moon rising in the middle of the day, because that would be the middle of the Oscar season.
As for festivals, the Venice Film Festival is in September and is traditionally a venue where studios try to promote some big American prestige films. You won’t have actors doing that. The Toronto Film Festival’s coming up. You won’t have actors there. This will translate into an economic hit at the box office.