Actors Join Writers on Picket Lines to Fight the Studio Oligarchy

Actors Join Writers on Picket Lines to Fight the Studio Oligarchy

Actors Join Writers on Picket Lines to Fight the Studio Oligarchy

The two major Hollywood unions are joining forces for the first time in 63 years. 

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We are being victimized by a very greedy entity,” said Fran Drescher, national president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), after contract negotiations with the streamers and studios fell apart. “They plead poverty, that they’re losing money left and right, when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting.”

Drescher’s press conference followed a CNBC interview that morning with Disney CEO Bob Iger, after Disney announced the previous day that it had renewed his contract for two more years. Iger’s prior annual salaries have hit $27 million—and there’s no reason to think this deal won’t also be in that range. Disney timed the announcement for Iger’s appearance at Allen and Co.’s Sun Valley Conference, but the company also managed to time it for the last day that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) was conducting contract talks with SAG.

That timing, like the talks themselves, bespoke a stunning tone deafness on the part of the entertainment industry’s bosses. At the literal and figurative summit of American media capitalism, Disney made Iger the belle of the billionaires’ ball, touting his track record to such labor-soaking peers as WB Discovery’s David Zaslav, Paramount Global CEO Bob Bakish, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, among others.

Meanwhile, in the trenches of contract negotiation, things fell apart. As the AMPTP’s talks with the actors ground to a halt, the angry and apparently fractious producers sent out mixed messages. Some made a public play for a federal mediator, hoping this gambit would help them look like the reasonable party in the negotiations. But other members could not contain themselves. “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” a studio executive told Deadline. Acknowledging the cold-as-ice approach, several other sources reiterated the statement. One insider called it “a cruel but necessary evil.”

On Thursday morning, Iger responded to the AMPTP’s failed negotiation with SAG with an equally breathtaking inability to read the room. “There’s a level of expectation that they have, that is just not realistic,” said the man who just personally pocketed over $40 million from one of the largest media companies on the planet. “And they are adding to the set of the challenges that this business is already facing that is, quite frankly, very disruptive.”

Of course, one reason it’s difficult for the unions to have “realistic” expectations is that streaming platforms like Disney’s refuse to release their viewer numbers so that the unions can negotiate a fair residual rate. Those fundamental evasions, together with the studio bosses’ obvious eagerness to use artificial intelligence to replace the creative work of human beings, are the key sticking points in almost all of this labor unrest. Without clear revenue figures from the streamers, no one knows what the audience for their work may be. And that means that no one knows if the CEOs are guarding Scrooge McDuck’s money bin or Al Capone’s vault.

Disney’s announcement of Iger’s massive contract renewal, as the company and its industry partners were simultaneously dismissing their contract with SAG, was an incendiary provocation. “You people are crazy!” Drescher told the AMPTP. “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?”

In a new political dispensation organized around the idea that cruelty is the point, that question is entirely apt, after 70-plus days of a Writers Guild of America strike, and now SAG walking. The issues haven’t changed since day one. The unions want control over AI and they want to know the ratings of streamed TV series and movies to determine residuals, in the same way they do for theatrical movies and television.

Just how crazy are the demands of the AMPTP? According to SAG’s chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, one of the central AMPTP demands, which the producers generously describe as “groundbreaking,” is completely unhinged. “This groundbreaking AI proposal that they gave us yesterday? In that groundbreaking AI proposal, they proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for 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, in any project they want, with no consent, and no compensation.”

In short, the AMPTP wants to turn background actors into laugh tracks: recorded once and used forever. “Crazy” is, on balance, a generous description of that proposal; “cruel” and “oligarchic” are probably closer to the heart of things.

The last time the actors and writers walked out together was 1960, and it was over these same issues: new technology and residuals. “Among the striking actors are millionaires, such as Bing Crosby and Marilyn Monroe,” reported the Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin at the time. “The union stresses, however, that about 70 percent of its membership earns less than $4,000 a year from film acting.” Television was still uncharted financial territory in 1960; there was no agreed-upon system of sharing the profits when an old movie aired on TV.

The revolution TV wrought was roughly akin to what streaming has done to upend old business models in Hollywood today. Television opened up incredible numbers of new viewers for movies at all hours of the day. People stayed up until 1 am to see Boris Karloff on the late show or had their breakfast watching Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray plot to kill her husband in Double Indemnity on a mid-morning weekend. Old movies found whole new audiences, presented in ways no one had imagined in the 1930s and ’40s, and the actors, writers, and directors deserved to be paid for their work. Disputes over fair pay led to a strike, then and now.

Until then, those films had mainly sat unseen on studio shelves, collecting dust. “Why are the actors contemplating this action?” the producers asked in paid ads in the trades. “The answer is very simple: They want to be paid twice for doing one job. They want to be paid again if theatrical films made since August 1, 1948, and to be made in the future are exhibited on television.”

In other words, the bosses’ response to a major shift in the delivery of their product is very much the same today as it was then. Paying talent once, and never again, was the issue of 1960 just as producers now want to own the image of even background actors forever—or to pay talent once, and then give them nickel-and-dime proceeds from unspecified streaming revenues afterward.

The producers want to turn the clock back 63 years. That’s just not humanly possible—or, as Bob Iger might put it, there’s a level of expectation here that is just not realistic. The people who create this work simply have to be able to make a living. “You cannot change the business model as much as it has changed,” Drescher said yesterday, “and not expect the contract to change, too. We’re not going to keep doing incremental changes on a contract that no longer honors what is happening right now with this business model that was foisted upon us. What are we doing, moving around furniture on the Titanic?”

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