Βarbenheimer has given the box office its biggest summer weekend since 2019, but arguably the biggest drama in Hollywood right now is happening off-screen, as actors and writers down tools in protest over unfair pay, outdated regulations and the impending threat of AI.
This may conjure up images of Meryl Streep yelling outside studio offices in different Oscar-worthy accents and chants being mellifluously sung in a five-octave range, but jokes aside, thousands in the industry have taken this last resort against what they see as an existential threat to their art – one that will impact the quality of culture that we as viewers enjoy. So what’s actually going on? Grab your popcorn, as NME answers your burning questions.
Let’s start with an easy one – who exactly is on strike?
Simply put: the writers and actors who make your favourite movies and TV shows. The unions that represent them – SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild And American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) – have joined the picket lines together for the first dual Hollywood strike since 1960.
Actors are in a tug-of-war with studios over working conditions, who gets paid (and how much) in the era of streaming, and are raising concerns about the spectre of unregulated artificial intelligence. Currently both sides are at an impasse in negotiations.
So how did streaming complicate things?
Residuals – payments that actors and screenwriters receive when their films or TV shows are viewed – are a key battleground. In the traditional broadcast system, actors could receive a cut of the money whenever their episode was re-aired anywhere, meaning appearing in an episode of ‘90s sitcom Friends could be lucrative. This money was especially important as, in a precarious industry, it acted as a cushion between jobs. However, the arbitrary fixed-residual system employed by streamers (where there’s no repeats because the content is constantly available – and streamers don’t release audience figures) means that the money actors receive is not tied directly to the success of their shows.
So, as actor Emma Myles recently pointed out, she made a paltry $20 in residuals from Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, which she worked on for six years, compared to around $600 from a guest spot on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Basically, the argument is: if you’re part of a massive hit for a streamer that brings in thousands of subscribers, like Orange Is The New Black, you should share some of that profit – since you’re the reason the platform is booming.
And what does AI have to do with it? Is this Black Mirror’s Joan Is Awful IRL?
Kind of. One of the demands of striking actors and writers is explicit AI regulations to protect the works they create. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode Joan Is Awful depicts a woman who discovers her life has been turned into a negative daily biopic, where she’s played by an AI-generated likeness of Salma Hayek (who at one point has a bout of explosive diarrhoea in a church with a penis scrawled on her head) commissioned by unethical streaming executives.
Surely no one’s proposing anything like that?!
You might think this sounds far-fetched, but SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland highlighted a proposal from Hollywood studios to employ “groundbreaking AI” to scan background performers, only paying them for a day’s work, while companies can then continue to use their digital form for any project they want. Similarly, screenwriters fret their jobs could be at risk if AI is enlisted to generate a rough first draft of a script. Then, they fear, human writers could be hired afterwards to punch up the copy at a lower pay rate.
What does the actors strike have to do with the writers strike?
As the old saying goes: ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage’. The WGA have undertaken industrial action since May, which immediately shuttered late-night comedy shows that are written on the day. Again, it’s chiefly about unfair residuals, compounded by the fact that the number of weeks a writer works is now fewer compared to a traditional network show because they produce fewer episodes (a comedy-drama like CBS’ mid-noughties favourite Desperate Housewives would entail 24 episodes per season; compared to around 10 episodes of The Bear on Disney+). So that money is more essential than ever as a buffer to get writers through tricky periods between jobs.
What aren’t actors allowed to do on strike?
It’s not just performing that’s outlawed: actors are explicitly not allowed to promote projects they’ve already made – starkly illustrated by the July 13 London premiere of Christoper Nolan’s Oppenheimer being moved forward by an hour, so that its cast could walk the red carpet before the 8pm strike deadline. Nolan told the audience: “Unfortunately, they’re off to write their picket signs for what we believe to be an imminent strike by SAG, joining one of my guilds, the Writers Guild, in the struggle for fair wages for working members of their unions.” Apart from chat show appearances and print interviews being pulled, the strikes also cast doubt on film festivals and awards shows – this year’s Emmys, due to take place in September, have been postponed.
Is it only Americans who are on strike?
Yes. Although Equity, the UK actors union, is not striking (partly due to secondary striking being banned in this country) it has said it stands in “unwavering solidarity” with SAG-AFTRA – and its members have been marching in support too. Also, the Hollywood strikes have ramifications here in the UK, with co-productions on hold, as well as major US projects filming here – Deadpool 3, the Ariana Grande-helmed Wicked, and Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice 2 – paused, which affects the network of UK-based freelance crew.
Can’t actors film anything during the strike?
Well, SAG-AFTRA have granted several production waivers, or interim agreements, that will allow “truly independent” films to continue because they are unaffiliated with – more acronyms incoming! – the AMPTP (The Alliance Of Motion Picture & Television Producers), meaning they have no connection with the studios or streaming services from which SAG-AFTRA is striking. Among the full list of projects are Mother Mary, starring Anne Hathaway and Michaela Coel, and Jenna Ortega’s Death Of A Unicorn.
On a similar note, Game Of Thrones spin-off House Of The Dragon remains the highest-profile show in production – although a WGA member, showrunner Ryan Condal is on set in a non-writing capacity (meaning he can’t touch even a comma on the page), with all of the season’s scripts having been completed before the strike. The cast, meanwhile, are bound by contracts dictated by Equity – even those who are also SAG-AFTRA members. SAG-AFTRA view these interim agreements as crucial to weathering the strike.
Hang on… aren’t actors supposed to be rich? What are they moaning for?
Compared to more immediately sympathy-generating strikes like those by, say, nurses, you might look at George Clooney – reportedly worth $500million – claiming that “actors and writers in large numbers have lost their ability to make a living”, roll your eyes and snark: “It’s all a bit Power to the Beautiful People! My heart bleeds, moneybags!” But although A-listers can command huge sums of dosh, SAG-AFTRA estimates that only 13 per cent of its 160,000 members (including stunt performers and background artists) make the required $26,000 (£19,860) a year to qualify for US healthcare coverage.
What have the movie studios said?
The Alliance Of Motion Picture And Television Producers (AMPTP), who represent the major Hollywood studios, claim that they put a deal involving better pay and AI safeguards on the table – accusing SAG-AFTRA of walking away from talks. In a statement, it said: “We are deeply disappointed that SAG-AFTRA has decided to walk away from negotiations. This is the union’s choice, not ours. In doing so, it has dismissed our offer of historic pay and residual increases, substantially higher caps on pension and health contributions, audition protections, shortened series option periods, a groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses, and more.” Then there’s (cue portentous organ music and villainous lighting strikes) Bob Iger…
Who the hell is Bob Iger?
He’s the CEO of Disney – who’s been met with a reception colder than Olaf The Snowman, drawing the ire of picketers with signs reading: “Can’t we replace Bob Iger with AI?” It’s all due to his remarks in an interview back in July, where he denounced the demands of unions as “not realistic”, adding that they would have a “very, very damaging effect on the whole [film and TV] business.” In response, striking director Zach Morrison quipped that maybe Disney could “imagineer” their way to conceiving a living wage.
What about the actors, who’s speaking up?
The list is endless: Amy Schumer, Colin Farrell, Pete Davidson, Matt Damon, Sarah Paulson (if this was American Horror Story, she’d probably be playing at least six different strikers), and Natasha Lyonne have all been on the picket line, while musicians like Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello and Imagine Dragons have been playing acoustic sets in support. Others with even deeper pockets, like Family Guy‘s Seth MacFarlane and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, have donated vast sums to help tide struggling strikers over.
Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston called out Iger – him again! – in a fiery speech at a SAG-AFTRA rally in Times Square, New York: “We’ve got a message for Mr. Iger: I know, sir, that you look at things through a different lens. We don’t expect you to understand who we are. But we ask you to hear us, and beyond that to listen to us when we tell you we will not be having our jobs taken away and given to robots. We will not have you take away our right to work and earn a decent living. And lastly, and most importantly, we will not allow you to take away our dignity!”
Director and actress Olivia Wilde also joined the rally, and addressed the studios on her social media: “You share the wealth because you cannot exist without us.”
The White Lotus woman-of-the-moment Jennifer Coolidge used her MTV Movie & TV Awards acceptance speech to demonstrate her support: “As a proud member of SAG, I stand with you here tonight side by side with my sisters and brothers from the WGA, that are fighting right now, fighting for the rights of artists everywhere.”
Rob Delaney, who’s recently been cast in Deadpool 3, denounced the AMPTP as like “toddlers,” bragging about subscriber and blockbuster numbers, then pleading poverty when creatives ask for “a nickel”. At an Equity-organised rally in support of the SAG-AFTRA strike in London’s Leicester Square, he said: “We’re gonna win… we’re gonna withhold our labour and we’re gonna get our tiny little slice of the pie. The pie that we made up the friggin’ recipe for and wrote the cookbook for and posed for funny pictures beside the pie for.”
Addressing the same rally, Succession’s Brian Cox said he grasped how “scary” AI was after he was “given a list of things” on a recent program that an “artificial intelligence Brian Cox” was going to say. “The artificial intelligence Brian Cox was gonna do animal impersonations. I’ve never done a fucking animal impersonation and I wouldn’t know where to begin!… This is gonna happen to everybody. Nobody’s exempt.”
Pictured holding a sign reading “try filming blank pages” at the same protest, It’s A Sin creator Russell T Davies was quoted by Variety as saying: “This is a fight to the death for drama. We’re looking at processes and software and attitudes and hostility that could drive these people [writers and actors] into other jobs. These could be teachers and clerks and shop assistants in a few years’ time because our jobs are being erased. Absolutely erased with a happy smile on the accountants’ faces.”
The X-Files‘ David Duchovny lambasted the lack of transparency from streamers: if they won’t share their analytics, then they can continue to offer arbitrary fixed-rate residuals. “We always worked in a business that rewarded success and didn’t want failure. Now, we have these opaque streamers who kind of tell us what’s a success and what’s a failure and I wouldn’t trust an employer to tell me how well I’m doing.”
How will this affect my favourite films and TV shows?
With production halted on the likes of Stranger Things, The White Lotus and Yellowjackets, you’ll be waiting longer for new seasons of your most-cherished shows, and there’ll probably be fewer episodes when filming can resume. Even films that are completed are moving their premieres back in light of an inability to host lavish press tours crucial for publicity – for example, Challengers, filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s hotly anticipated romantic drama starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist, has kicked its premiere back to 2024.
What has already been delayed?
Everything. TV shows that have fallen prey to the strike include Andor, Big Mouth, The Last Of Us, Severance, Uncoupled, Hacks and You, while myriad films in the Avatar and Star Wars franchises, Marvel films including Captain America: Brave New World, Blade, and the next two Avengers films have all been delayed. As has Spider-Man: Beyond The Spider-Verse and the upcoming Ghostbusters: Afterlife sequel. At this rate, the kids of Stranger Things might have three divorces behind them and hair transplants before they can resume work on season five. For the foreseeable, it looks like actors’ best performances are going to involve brandishing protest signs, and the 2024 Emmys will include the category: ‘Outstanding writing… on a placard’.
How can I help support the strikes?
Some may rashly assume that cancelling your streaming service subscription or not going to the cinema might demonstrate kinship with strikers, but neither WGA nor SAG-AFTRA is calling for a boycott. Instead, you can show support on social media or donate to the Entertainment Community Fund which provides aid to performing arts workers who are unable to pay their basic living expenses.
Have there been strikes before?
You betcha! What’s happening in LA is not unprecedented. The WGA has gone on strike eight times in the past, while the actor’s guild has also voted for collective action twice before. Most have involved residuals changes to reflect technological advancements such as home video and DVDs. The last time SAG and WGA went on strike together was 63 years ago, while the previous WGA strike started in 2007 and lasted 99 days into 2008, costing the US economy $2 billion. The longest ever writers’ strike, so far, lasted 22 weeks, from March 7 to August 8 1988. As one picket-sign read: “We know how much you love reboots, so we’re rebooting the 2007 writers strike”.
When will the strike end?
It doesn’t look good for a swift resolution. Although SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Island recently said that the strike could last until the early months of 2024, on Tuesday (August 1), SAG president Fran Drescher – formerly of the Cardi B-approved ‘90s sitcom The Nanny, now lauded as the Mick Lynch of this fight – commented they were in it for the long haul. “We have financially prepared ourselves for the next six months,” she said. “And we’re really in it to win it.”