After Hollywood writers ratified a contract earlier this month, it seemed that striking actors might get a deal soon, too. But the studio bosses are still playing hardball, and actors continue to press for a better deal on residuals and the use of AI.

SAG-AFTRA and WGA members walk the picket line together outside Netflix offices on July 11, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

When the entertainment industry’s actors and writers last struck at the same time in 1980, the actors stayed out for ninety-five days. This year’s strike by members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) looks like it will pass that benchmark.

When the Writers Guild of America (WGA) voted to ratify their hard-won contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) on October 9, with 99 percent of ballots in favor of ratification, there was hope that the actors would get a deal quickly too, allowing the industry to resume operations in time for the fall schedule. That hope wasn’t only held by many of the 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA, but their fellow workers across the industry as well, the grips, electricians, truck drivers, costume designers, and production assistants, many of them members of the Teamsters and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), who have endured months of unemployment as their counterparts fight for strong contracts.

On October 2, for the first time since SAG-AFTRA walked out on July 14, the performers met with the entertainment bosses for negotiations. Studio executives including Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, Disney CEO Bob Iger, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, and NBCUniversal chief content officer Donna Langley attended the talks, which continued throughout the week.

But while rumors suggested the two sides were close to reaching a tentative agreement, the AMPTP broke off discussions late last Wednesday, October 11. With the studios walking away from the negotiating table, there is once again no end in sight to the 160,000-person strong strike. So much for a quick resolution.

Residuals and AI

Reports on the breakdown of negotiations say the key sticking points are the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and the creation of a new viewership-based residual payment that would rectify the lack of residuals performers receive from streaming services.

The former issue has been a priority for performers throughout the negotiations: at a press conference announcing the start of the strike, SAG-AFTRA national executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said the studios had proposed “that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get one day’s pay, and their companies should own that scan, their image, their likeness, and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation.” On the picket lines, actors have repeatedly emphasized the problem, arguing that if the union doesn’t get ahead of it now, with regulations in writing, there’s no telling how the studios will use it in the coming years.

AI isn’t only an issue for performers, even if they are the workers most immediately threatened by the technology. The WGA negotiated regulations over its use in script-writing, a priority for writers who loathe the idea of becoming punch-up artists for shoddily written algorithmic scripts. The industry’s other unions, too, have concerns regarding the technology’s use: if fewer performers are used in a production thanks to digital replicas, there will be less of a need for costume designers, for hair and makeup artists, and the myriad other jobs that presume the existence of real people on a set.

As for streaming residuals, SAG-AFTRA originally sought a sum that would reward performers for successful projects; in the face of studio stonewalling on the matter of sharing viewership data with workers — which they ludicrously claim is proprietary, leaving workers in the dark as to how many people are watching their shows — the union proposed using third-party sources to approximate such numbers. On the day the studio execs walked away from the bargaining table, the union had proposed yet another alternative: a flat rate bonus per subscriber. The studios once again balked. Shortly after, Netflix’s Sarandos characterized the proposal as a “levy,” a tax on streamers.

According to Crabtree-Ireland, the negotiating team thought last Wednesday’s talks had been productive and that while the session ended slightly earlier than usual, another one was scheduled for the following day. Only later did the AMPTP call him to say there would be no further discussions.

“I am very disappointed and frustrated at their walking away from negotiations because no matter how you feel about somebody else’s offers or counteroffers or proposals, the only way to move forward is to have a dialogue, to have communication,” Crabtree-Ireland told Rolling Stone.  

“The Gap Is Too Great”

Just as the AMPTP did when the Writers Guild failed to acquiesce to late-stage proposals, the studios quickly ran to the press to plead their case.

“After meaningful conversations, it is clear that the gap between the AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA is too great, and conversations are no longer moving us in a productive direction,” said the AMPTP. “SAG-AFTRA’s current offer included what it characterized as a viewership bonus that, by itself, would cost more than $800 million per year — which would create an untenable economic burden. SAG-AFTRA presented few, if any, moves on the numerous remaining open items.”

The union contests that characterization, stating that the proposed new residual would amount to fifty-seven cents per subscriber, “less than a postage stamp” as SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher put it.

Attempting to go over the heads of SAG-AFTRA’s elected leadership, the AMPTP touted its proposals in the industry’s trade publications, many of which have acted as an arm of the studios throughout the Hollywood strikes, a means of laundering executives’ rumors and talking points. According to the studios, the proposals include: a first-of-its-kind success-based residual for high-budget streaming video on demand (SVOD) productions; the highest percentage jump in minimums in thirty-five years; substantial increases in pension and health contribution caps; advance consent from the performer and background actor to create and use digital replicas with artificial intelligence (AI); and the requirement that a performer’s digital replica can only be used with their written consent and description of the intended use in the film.

SAG-AFTRA contests not only the AMPTP’s characterization of the cost of the union’s residual proposal, but the suite of proposals as a whole. In an October 12 statement, the union’s negotiating committee wrote that the studios’ most recent offer “was, shockingly, worth less than they proposed before the strike began.”

There are now no bargaining dates on the calendar for SAG-AFTRA. The studios’ acquiescence to the writers’ demands, resulting in a remarkably strong contract, has not yet translated to a willingness to meet the actors’ needs. The union has reiterated that it is ready to continue bargaining, but that would require that the AMPTP’s members agree to do so. In the meantime, performers are still on picket lines across the country, joined by their counterparts in the WGA, who, while they have a contract of their own, won’t stop picketing until the actors have one too.

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