SAG-AFTRA writers strike

The odds of an actors’ strike: SAG negotiations, explained

The strike remains a hot conversation, but the subject has changed. The writers are a given and the directors made a deal; today it’s all about the actors.

Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) Begins Contract Negotiations June 7; his contract expires on 30 June. If SAG-AFTRA joins the writers on strike, it would mean a near-total shutdown of the industry.

SAG took the rare step of calling for a strike authorization vote and is negotiating with 97.91% of its members willing to strike if a fair deal is not reached.

“We really are at an inflection point in the industry,” SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland told IndieWire. “There are some issues that are really urgent and of crucial importance, perhaps in ways that are not always the case. It’s an important time for the labor movement in this country’s entertainment industry and broader economy. Our members are full of energy and feeling empowered like never before. This is partly due to the amazing solidarity we’ve seen with other unions in the industry, writers and directors of course, but also Teamsters, grassroots crafts and others.

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As the writers hit before it, we thought you might have some questions.

When was the last time SAG went on strike?

The last (and only) time actors went on strike against major studios was for three months and three days in 1980, from July to mid-October. The work stoppage against television networks and studios included NBC, CBS and ABC and the movie studios Paramount, 20th Century Fox and Universal. Actors also boycotted the Emmys; only one of 52 acting nominees, Powers Boothe, appeared. Film and television production was stopped, with the exception of some game shows, soap operas, educational programs such as “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” by Carl Sagan. Hollywood lost millions every week.

One of the key problems of the 1980s was the residuals associated with the VHS releases. (Only two percent of households even had a VCR.) The actors wanted 12 percent of the gross on home releases; studies gave 4.5%, but with overall pay increases of 32.5%.

On top of that, the guild struck out at global advertising firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty in 2018; which lasted 10 months. The longest strike in the guild’s history was 11 months between 2016 and 2017 in a fight with 11 major video game publishers.

When SAG and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) were separate unions in 2000, the two joined forces and struck over a new commercial deal. The advertising companies wanted to reverse the residual payments for commercials on network television to match the flat-rate payments to actors for cable ads. The actors landed a significant pay raise and a few wins in still fledgling internet advertising space, but failed to get the residuals on cable. That six-month long union action is considered one of the largest and costliest strikes in American history.

Negotiations that begin this week will cover SAG’s entire membership of more than 160,000 individuals and the guild will wrestle with studies on issues it believes speak to economic inequality and workers’ rights.

(Original caption) John Spencer, Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Brad Whitford and Dule Hill, cast members of
‘The West Wing’ cast members John Spencer, Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Brad Whitford and Dule Hill join SAG/AFTRA during the 2000 publicity strike. (Photo by Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images)

Why do things look different this time?

SAG members joined the writers in the pickets to show their solidarity. While the DGA deal may prompt the studies’ thinking, the negotiators are unlikely to feel bound by their terms. The Actors Guild has also made it clear, as has the WGA, that the DGA’s provisional agreement will have no impact on their negotiating agenda.

The lack of clarity on the SAG negotiations means that independent film productions are struggling to get the insurance needed to start productions, IndieWire recently reported. Others have preemptively pushed back their start dates until the fall and are planning for the worst and hoping for the best.

How aligned are the guilds?

Despite some Comment on faux pas by SAG chairman Fran DrescherDGA, SAG and WGA have a lot in common on a few key issues: higher minimums, streaming residuals, artificial intelligence and data transparency.

As writers and directors, actors believe that residuals should provide a “significant share of the economic value” of their performances. All guilds believe that the formula for calculating streaming residuals, especially for how these shows are viewed globally, needs to be improved.

Like writers (and directors), actors want data transparency so they can benefit from streaming hits. Also, like the writers, the actors find themselves in a position where fewer TV episodes and longer breaks between seasons mean they’re relying on residuals to sustain them during long breaks.

The DGA in its interim agreement has made progress on this front; in theory, WGA and SAG can build on it. However, even the DGA deal doesn’t match the inflation rates, especially for the many SAG-AFTRA members working on a large scale.

What about artificial intelligence?

The DGA won major language stating that AI cannot be considered a “person” or substitute for the work done by members. For actors, companies are already using sophisticated digital models of actors, replicating their likenesses and voices for projects. Other guilds don’t address how AI deepfakes can be a potential abuse of artists.

SAG will focus on ensuring that actors must give informed consent to the use of their likeness and are paid appropriately for doing so. It will also ask questions about the formation of artificial intelligence datasets on actor performances; no one wants to be replaced with a fully synthesized performance. SAG-AFTRA already has contract language for AI when dealing with commercial artists or for low-budget productions.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 26: (L-R) Actress Fran Drescher and Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator of SAG-AFTRA attend the Grammys On The Hill: Awards Dinner at The Hamilton on April 26, 2023 in Washington, A.D.  (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)
SAG-AFTRA Chairman Fran Drescher and Chief Negotiator Duncan Crabtree-IrelandPaul Morigi/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

As Crabtree-Ireland wrote in a guest blog for Variety on AISAG-AFTRA’s position is that companies must go through the union to negotiate terms to use an actor’s likeness in any way.

“What’s important to understand is that SAG-AFTRA is not fighting to ban the use of artificial intelligence,” he wrote. “Whether it’s on the screen, in music or video games, or any other area we cover, technology opens up new creative possibilities, but it can’t come at the expense of people.”

The new battle: Self-Tape

Actors have a unique concern in self-recorded auditions, aka self-tapes. The guild says self-recorded auditions, which have become commonplace during the pandemic, are “unregulated and out of control” and place a costly burden on actors in the audition process.

No one wants to do away with self-registration altogether, which has been great for accessibility. They expand opportunities for underrepresented groups and individuals around the world who might not otherwise have the opportunity to audition in person. So the guild isn’t trying to put the genie back in the bottle and ban it.

For actors, self-registration means they don’t get real-time feedback, but beyond that, requests can get out of control. They are asked to film themselves from multiple angles, driving or climbing furniture. In some cases, auditions risk becoming full-blown productions that may require you to purchase cameras, lights, and an editor.

At least in one case, a casting office he was royally called for offering to help actors with their self-tapes by charging them a fee to film in his studio. Other companies have sprung up around this trend and SAG wants to pick it up.

Now what?

Not everyone is thrilled that the DGA made their deal while the writers are on strike, but getting the AMPTP on record on AI, residuals, and setting higher minimum pay allows other guilds to focus more on other issues.

If the negotiations do not go well for SAG, virtually all production will be halted. TV seasons and movie release dates will roll back. If nobody knows when production might start, the market will be sluggish. The Emmys will almost certainly be in jeopardy, and streamers and networks will start to feel the pinch for the lack of content.

No one wants it, but there’s also a feeling it might be worth it. “There’s a feeling that workers are stepping up now and saying, ‘Hey, we’re not going to let these big companies step on us,'” Crabtree-Ireland told IndieWire. “We will stand up for ourselves and people in this country will support us in doing so because that’s how everyone feels. There’s a problem with economic inequality in this country in general that people are recognizing, there’s a problem with excessive corporate power that people are recognizing. And I think we’re at a time where we can actually do something about it, and we intend to.

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: U.S. actor Billy Baldwin (C) speaks in support of the Actors Unions (Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) seven-week strike against the advertising industry as other actors listen at the SAG/AFTRA headquarters in Los Angeles, June 13, 2000. Unions strike against the decision of commercial companies to pay them a lump sum fee and suspend the residual payments they receive every time a commercial is aired.  (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Lucy NICHOLSON (Photo credit should go to LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Billy Baldwin at a SAG/AFTRA rally during the 2000 commercial strike. (LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP via Getty Images)AFP via Getty Images