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Actors and studios make a deal to end Hollywood strikes

In mid-July, SAG-AFTRA members joined striking screenwriters on the picket lines outside Hollywood studios and streaming companies.
Mandalit del Barco
NPR News
In mid-July, SAG-AFTRA members joined striking screenwriters on the picket lines outside Hollywood studios and streaming companies.

Updated November 8, 2023 at 9:29 PM ET

The Hollywood strike drama is finally ending.

The heads of major studios have agreed to a tentative new three-year contract with SAG-AFTRA, the union representing Hollywood actors, stunt performers, voiceover actors and dancers. The workers have been on strike since July, when they joined screenwriters on their strike. Now, if the performers approve their new deal, Hollywood may soon come to life again.

"We are thrilled and proud to tell you that today your TV/Theatrical Negotiating Committee voted unanimously to approve a tentative agreement with the AMPTP. As of 12:01 a.m. PT on Nov. 9, our strike is officially suspended and all picket locations are closed," the union said in a statement.

"In a contract valued at over one billion dollars," it continued, "we have achieved a deal... that includes "above-pattern" minimum compensation increases, unprecedented provisions for consent and compensation that will protect members from the threat of AI, and for the first time establishes a streaming participation bonus." More details will be available in the coming days.

NOTE: Note: NPR News staffers are also members of SAG-AFTRA, but broadcast journalists are under a different contract and we are not on strike.

The contract still needs to be ratified by the union's 160,000 members. They've been on picket lines outside studios in Los Angeles, New York and other cities since initial contract negotiations broke down (several times) with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

The union had been asking for an 11 percent wage increase, higher residuals tied to the success of streaming shows, better healthcare and retirement benefits. It also wanted an end to the practice of having actors pay for their own self-recorded auditions.

Reportedly, one of the final sticking points was key for performers: protections from the use of artificial intelligence by the studios and streamers; Actors, for instance, want control over their likeness on screen, so they don't get replicated without their permission or compensation. Background actors have also complained that studios have asked to scan their bodies so they can be copied and pasted into big crowd scenes without having to pay them more or hire more actors.

Hours before the deal was finally made, Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav talked to investors about the negotiations.

"We made a last and final offer, which met virtually all of the union's goals and includes the highest wage increase in 40 years and believe it provides for a positive outcome for all involved," he said during the company's third quarter earnings call. "We recognize that we need our creative partners to feel valued and rewarded and look forward to both sides getting back to the business of telling great stories."

Many of the demands were similar to those made by members of the Writers Guild of America, which began its strike in May. Screenwriters declared victory whenthey finally got a deal with the studios and streamersnearly five months later. For the first time, Netflix and other streaming companies agreed to be transparent about their viewership data, allowing writers to get higher residuals when shows are successful. And the AMPTP agreed to language protecting writers from the use of AI in the writing process, giving them credit for their work and allowing writers to determine if their writing can be used to train AI.

WGA negotiators were so confident the writers would approve the deal, they ended their strike on September 27, and allowed writers to resume working before they ratified their contract. Many of them continued to support the actors on the picket lines.

Since 1984, I've been a working class actress and I've made a living doing this. I'm a single mom. I was able to make a living until the last couple of years, when the streamers kind of came into the picture.

"We're super grateful, especially to the WGA members who came out with us even after they got their deal," said actor Margarita Franco, on the picket line outside Fox Studios on Wednesday. "It's been a hard. A lot of people are struggling financially, especially the below the line people... Since 1984, I've been a working class actress and I've made a living doing this. I'm a single mom. I was able to make a living until the last couple of years, when the streamers kind of came into the picture. And then I had to get like two to three side hustles. This labor movement is starting because people are tired of not making enough to live, to survive."

Hollywood's double strikes shut down almost all productions (except some independent films and TV shows not affiliated with the AMPTP that agreed to higher pay and protections). Nearly everyone in front of and behind the cameras has been out of work for months, though other union members supported the strike. Without actors to promote their work, studios delayed many film and TV series premieres.

Negotiations proved to be contentious; studio executives at first appeared to be unwilling to compromise. Meanwhile, actors and writers complained about not being able to make livable wages and said they wanted to share in some of the profits. After Disney CEO Bob Iger went on TV saying the writers were "not being realistic" in their demands, SAG-AFTRA President Fran Dreschercalled him an "ignoramus."

"We are the victims here. We are being victimized by a very greedy entity. I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us," Drescher said during a memorable press conferenceannouncing the strike. Until then, she had been best known for her starring role in the 1990s TV series The Nanny. "I cannot believe it, quite frankly: How far apart we are on so many things. How they plead poverty, that they're losing money left and right, when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting. Shame on them."

Iger later softened his rhetoric, telling investors on an earnings call that "Nothing is more important to this company than its relationships with the creative community. That includes actors, writers, animators, directors and producers," Iger said. "I have deep respect and appreciation for all those who are vital to the extraordinary creative engine that drives this company and our industry. And it is my fervent hope that we quickly find solutions to the issues that have kept us apart these past few months. And I am personally committed to working to achieve this result."

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos also said the studios and streamers wanted to end the strike quickly. But he said they broke away from negotiations in October, because of a proposal by SAG-AFTRA that he deemed "a bridge too far." The union had asked streamers to redistribute the wealth by paying performers 57 cents per subscription every year.

"When you introduce an unprecedented business model like they did on all of my members with streaming, an unprecedented compensation structure must also go along with it," Drescher explained. "We have cracked the code on something. We have identified what the flaw is in this streaming model with regards to compensation. It may not be easy, it may not be what they want, but it is an elegant way to solve the problem. So we can all go back to work in what would become the new normal."

It's not clear yet if that proposal made it into the final deal. In the final weeks, actor George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Emma Stone, Tyler Perry and other A- listers got involved, hoping to end the strike. They suggested high paid actors give $150 million to the performers to pay for their benefits — an idea Drescher and the union lawyers quickly shot down. "It's apples and oranges," she said, adding that only employers can pay for workers benefits. Still, she said, the gesture was appreciated.

Picket signs outside SONY studios in Culver City
Mandalit del Barco / NPR News
NPR News
Picket signs outside SONY studios in Culver City

Now that writers are back in business, late night and daytime talk shows are back on the air, as is Saturday Night Live. Some showrunners have gotten back their overall deals, and many hope there will be new scripted TV shows next season. Once SAG-AFTRA members approve this new contract, production in TV and movies could resume, meaning all those other people in front of and behind the scenes will be working once again.

Hours before the deal was announced, actors were still on the picket lines.

"The studios, the CEOs, at the end of the day, they don't care one way or the other. If they cared, we would never have gone on strike," said SAG-AFTRA strike captain Kimberly Westbrook.

Another strike captain, Chelsea Schwartz, said she's looking forward to back to work, but she said "How do you go from being so angry at these people to being, like 'and we're best buds now, working together on set.' We forgive, but you don't forget."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
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