Hollywood has ground to a halt.
Despite a deadline extension and the last-minute arrival of a federal mediator, late-night negotiations on Wednesday between actors and producers broke down without a new deal. On Thursday morning, leaders of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists huddled and cast the inevitable, unanimous vote for a strike to begin at 12:01 a.m. on Friday. The official word came shortly after noon via a press conference streamed on YouTube.
"Union members should withhold their labor until a fair contract can be achieved," stated chief SAG-AFTRA negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, adding the studios and streamers "have left us with no alternative."
That means the thicket of picket lines will get an influx of famous faces on Friday morning (or even sooner for Bob Odenkirk), with actors joining writers in a massive work stoppage. It is the first time since 1960 that Tinseltown's actors and writers are on strike at the same time.
Colfax gate 2 day - runnin’ hot! WGA and SAG 4-ever! Stay strong- just getting started! pic.twitter.com/2qE5YndMoe
— Mr. Bob Odenkirk (@mrbobodenkirk) July 13, 2023
What they're saying
Fran Drescher, the former Nanny star who is now president of SAG-AFTRA representing 160,000 performers across media formats, called the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers "a greedy entity" during the press conference. In a statement earlier Thursday, she blasted the AMPTP offer as "insulting and disrespectful."
"SAG-AFTRA negotiated in good faith and was eager to reach a deal that sufficiently addressed performer needs, but the AMPTP's responses to the union's most important proposals have been insulting and disrespectful of our massive contributions to this industry," Drescher said. "The companies have refused to meaningfully engage on some topics and on others completely stonewalled us. Until they do negotiate in good faith, we cannot begin to reach a deal."
WATCH: SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher slams studios when announcing actors' strike
Meanwhile, AMPTP tried to cast blame on the actors. "We are deeply disappointed that SAG-AFTRA has decided to walk away from negotiations," said the group, which includes movie studios, broadcast TV networks and streamers. "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. Rather than continuing to negotiate, SAG-AFTRA has put us on a course that will deepen the financial hardship for thousands who depend on the industry for their livelihoods."
Hours after a strike was declared, the AMPTP reiterated that statement and said it had offered "the highest percentage increase in minimums in 35 years," "a requirement for performer's consent for the creation and use of digital replicas or for digital alterations of a performance" and more.
How we got here
SAG-AFTRA and AMPTP have been trying to reach an agreement on a new contract. The current one had initially been set to expire June 30, with the deadline then extended until July 12 at 11:59 p.m. PT. "The parties will continue to negotiate under a mutually agreed upon media blackout," they groups said in a statement obtained by Yahoo. "Neither organization will comment to the media about the negotiations during the extension."
On Wednesday, a federal mediator was dispatched in a Hail Mary attempt to find mutually agreeable terms as the midnight deadline loomed closer.
As recently as June 24, Drescher told members that union representatives were having "extremely productive negotiations that are laser focused on all of the crucial issues you told us are most important to you. And we're standing strong and we're going to achieve a seminal deal." She sounded less hopeful later that week on Good Morning America, acknowledging that there was no progress in some areas. (Drescher came under fire from her peers last weekend when she flew to Italy for a Dolce & Gabbana fashion event with the Kardashians amid the contentious negotiations.)
In perhaps one of the most sobering signs that a strike was highly likely, leaders from SAG-AFTRA held a conference call with top Hollywood publicity agencies on Monday, bracing them for a work stoppage. "It would be a miracle at this point" to reach a deal by Wednesday night, one producer told Variety.
Also per Variety, there were "major differences" on a number of issues, including the use of artificial intelligence, since last month. Negotiations between the sides began May 31.
What do the actors want from the studios and networks?
The actors want better overall salaries and job protection, including the regulation of AI and increased residuals from streaming, the way many of their performances are now delivered to consumers.
On June 27, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Quinta Brunson, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Rami Malek, Elliot Page and nearly 2,000 more members sent an internal letter to Drescher and union leaders demanding that they press for a "seismic realignment" of working conditions, including minimum pay rates, exclusivity clauses, residuals when their work is streamed or used to train AI, as well as regulation of the practice of self-taped auditions.
"We want you to know that we would rather go on strike than compromise on these fundamental points, and we believe that, if we settle for a less than transformative deal, the future of our union and our craft will be undermined, and SAG-AFTRA will enter the next negotiation with drastically reduced leverage," they wrote.
Days before the letter was sent, members had voted overwhelmingly in favor of striking — a whopping 98 percent of the 65,000 members who voted — if a deal wasn't reached by the deadline. The idea of a strike exploded in popularity after the star-studded declaration, and, by Wednesday, more than 1,000 members, including Pedro Pascal, Charlize Theron and Drescher herself, had signed on.
The studios, meanwhile, are looking to stay profitable. Officials at Netflix, for example, announced in June that the company would lay off 300 employees amid slower revenue growth.
How is this related to the the writers strike?
It's separate, although the writers, who went on strike May 2 after contract talks collapsed between their union, the Writers Guild of America, and AMPTP, are asking for some of the same things as actors. They're mostly seeking higher pay, especially amid changes in how people consume content and how that content is created. A big issue for them is that streaming has prompted an industry shift. Traditional residuals — a writer's compensation when you watch their show — are drying up. Shows also now go into production in shorter spurts, which means that some writers struggle to cobble together a steady income. The writers also wanted guarantees that shows would employ a specific number of writers for a specific amount of time, rather than what's known as "mini rooms" for writers, and that their jobs would be protected from being taken over by AI.
So it's not directly related, but it illustrates the state of the entertainment industry, which, like the rest of the world, is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Gone are the days of a broadcast TV series that airs once a week for 20-plus weeks, now replaced by a streaming show that might have eight episodes that drop all at once, which, of course, affects the cast and crew.
And this has real-world consequences for the people who write those jaw-dropping episodes and movies. Take actress Rebecca Metz (TV's Shameless and Better Things), who told Agence France-Presse on June 28 that, in the last few years, she's seen her residuals shrink to a "tiny fraction" of what they used to be, because streamers often pay flat rates to performers, rather than rates based on a program's popularity. So, someone who plays a minor character in a show you've never heard of earns the same in these residuals as someone on, say, a hit like Hulu's Only Murders in the Building.
"When we're not working for a good stretch, all of a sudden we're worried about qualifying for our health insurance," Metz told the news outlet.
OK, so what does the actors strike mean for my favorite shows and upcoming movies?
It's definitely not good. If there's any upside it's that, since writers were already on strike, many productions had shut down anyway. Those include Saturday Night Live, which ended its season early, and scripted shows like Stranger Things, Hacks and Cobra Kai, as well as movies, such as Marvel's Blade, so there won't be too drastic of a change in the immediate future. However, there are shows and movies that had been written before the writers went on strike that will now be unable to film without actors.
Films in production, including Deadpool 3 with Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman, Ridley Scott's Gladiator 2 and the video game sequel Mortal Kombat 2, immediately halted.
In the short-term, a lot of shows have already been filmed and are in the can, but audiences would still see changes like a possible delay of the Emmy Awards, which are currently scheduled for Sept. 18, until November or perhaps even January. (Because what would TV's annual awards fete be without the casts of Succession, The Last of Us, Abbott Elementary and The Bear?) The annual fan fair that is Comic-Con International, remains scheduled for July 20-23 in San Diego, but is shaping up to be a bust, with no top stars planning to attend to hype their would-be blockbusters.
A strike also means actors will stop promoting their projects through these kinds of appearances, which will likely leave the entertainment news industry, as well as talk shows, at a loss. Several studios had tried to cram in as many press junkets as possible in the weeks leading up to the strike so outlets could bank interviews. Universal moved up the London premiere of Oppenheimer by an hour on Thursday so actors could attend before the strike was called (the cast, including Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt managed to walk the red carpet but exited before the screening started), while Disney had contingency plans to turn this weekend's premiere of Haunted Mansion from a star-studded event at Disneyland to a fan-focused celebration instead.
Meanwhile, organizers of the upcoming Venice and Toronto film festivals, typically glitzy affairs with A-list red carpets and movie premieres that set the stage for the awards season, are scrambling.
Also, an actors strike will likely affect our choices of movies and TV shows for years to come, as productions shut down and planned projects stack up.
Not everything will shut down
Because the labor action only involves actors working under the TV/streaming and theatrical contract there is one type of show that will still go on: unscripted programs — aka reality TV — which don't rely on SAG or WGA members, will be allowed to shoot, so Vanderpump Rules fans should be happy.
Other performers, including commercial actors, interactive entertainment and video games, and audiobook voice artists, will be unaffected.
Another exception is HBO's Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon. The show will continue to film as planned, because the mostly U.K. actors are members of another union, Equity, whose members "aren't legally allowed to strike in solidarity with the U.S. union." Members were reminded of this rule hours before the strike.
"A performer joining the strike (or refusing to cross a picket line) in the U.K. will have no protection against being dismissed or sued for breach of contract by the producer or the engager," Equity reminded members. "Likewise, if Equity encourages anyone to join the strike or not cross a picket line, Equity itself will be acting unlawfully and hence liable for damages or an injunction."
How long will this last?
In their press conference announcing the strike, leaders of SAG-AFTRA said the strike would last until a "fair contract can be achieved."
While no one knows exactly how long that will take, we can get an idea from the handful of previous times that actors have gone on strike. The most recent was in 1980, when a work stoppage lasted about four months as performers sought to be compensated for "Pay-TV, video disc and video cassettes," and in 2000. The Los Angeles Times reported then that actors wanted higher payments for commercials and to no longer be paid a flat fee for making ads that aired on cable. They wanted to be paid in residuals, just as they were with shows. "The actors also want to address the fledging issue of how they will be paid when ads run on the Internet," the newspaper noted.
The double strike makes the situation especially dire for pop culture disciples.
An earlier version of this story was published June 30, 2023.