A walkout will bring Hollywood to a standstill
PARCHITECTURE the premiere of “Oppenheimer” in London, Christopher Nolan’s thriller about the father of the atomic bomb, the stars of the film were conspicuously absent. “We saw them earlier on the red carpet,” Mr Nolan told his audience. “Unfortunately they are off to write their picket signs.” On July 14 the 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, better known as SAG-AFTRAhe went on strike.
The union represents all types of actors, from actors such as “Oppenheimer” star Cillian Murphy, to broadcast journalists and voice-over artists. The contract is between SAG-AFTRA and the Federation of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the negotiating body for the studios, ended on June 30, but the sides decided to extend the talks until July 12. No agreement was reached.
On the first morning of the strike, picket lines in Los Angeles and New York went up with actors. Cars honking their horns in support of builders could be heard from Netflix’s corporate offices in Hollywood, even over the din of the 101 freeway. Hundreds of builders marched around the block, bearing signs for SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America (WGA), screenwriters’ union, launched their own strike back in May. This is the first time both unions have gone on strike at the same time since 1960. “Is Blockbuster bankrupt for this?” one record mocked him, referring to a defunct video rental giant.
Both strikes are due to the ways in which streaming television and film have been spent. In fact, the writers’ strike is called the “Netflix strike.” Actors and writers alike claim they can’t make a living on residuals, or the money they get every time something they’ve worked on is rebroadcast. (How can they even define “rebroadcasting”, in an era when viewers can binge on their favorite shows and movies endlessly?) They complain that the streamers keep viewer data secret, making it impossible to understand why a show was canceled, if there is a series. it went viral, and should artists want more money for hits. “This is a strike by the working class actor,” said Vanessa Chester, who has been acting since the age of three. “And we’re going to be fired.”
Generational rise AI actors are also concerned about becoming symbols of themselves instead. (“CatGPT suck my D” is another memorable picket sign.) The union alleges that the studios offered to pay actors for one day’s work to scan their image and likeness, which could then use them forever. In a press conference announcing the strike, Fran Drescher, star of the 1990s sitcom “The Nanny” and SAG-AFTRApresident, he was almost shaking with anger. “If we don’t stand tall now, we’re all going to be in trouble. We are all going to be at risk of being replaced by machines. ”
How will the strike affect Hollywood? In addition to closing television and film production in America, SAG-AFTRA warns members not to promote their projects at film festivals, fan expos, talk shows, premieres and more. If the hiatus stretches into September, the red carpet for the Emmys will be a difficult one. Cities that rely on film and TV production will also be affected. When the writers union went on strike for 100 days in 2007 and 2008 the state of California lost $2.1bn. The WGA believe their current strike is costing the state $30m a day. But LAeconomy is diverse, and perhaps very resilient. Harvard University’s Growth Lab found that the motion picture and sound recording industry in Los Angeles in 2021 employed nearly five times more people than comparable global cities. But these workers make up less than 2% of the city’s workforce.
Nationwide union membership fell to its lowest point in 2022: just 10.1% of Americans are card-carrying members. But the Hollywood strikes come as labor unrest grows in California, and beyond. In the past year alone, Los Angeles school workers (although they were not teachers) and hotel workers walked off the job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 23 layoffs of 1,000 or more workers in 2022, the second highest number since 2002. If United Parcel Service (UPS) workers will walk out starting August 1, as they threaten to do, a ten-day work stoppage could be one of the costliest strikes in American memory alive
Joe Biden is the most pro-labor president in generations, and his ambitious business policy would like to boost the ranks of America’s trade unions. When screenwriters went on strike in May, many worried that Americans would have little sympathy for the Hollywood rejects, but they found solidarity among other unions. For example the Teamsters, the trucking union, refused to cross the WGAand picket lines to deliver to studios.
When your correspondent reached Netflix, builders were still alive about an appearance from Ms. Drescher that morning, who came to fill in the failed negotiations. Ms. Drescher seems quite at home antagonizing studio executives. In one way, she has been working for the position of president of the union for decades. In an episode of “The Nanny” her character, Fran Fine, warns her co-star that he should “never, ever, cross a picket line”. ■