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Hollywood’s historic double strike, explained

SAG-AFTRA now joins the WGA on the picket line. What does that mean for viewers?

A protester holding a sign that read, “SAG-AFTRA unions stand together.”
SAG-AFTRA members are about to join the WGA on the picket line after talks with the AMPTP broke down.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

For the first time in 63 years, Hollywood has a double strike on its hands.

The contract between SAG-AFTRA (the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, two guilds that merged in 2012) and AMPTP (American Motion Picture and Television Producers), which represents Hollywood’s studios and production companies, expired at midnight on Wednesday, July 12. SAG-AFTRA’s national board unanimously voted today to order a strike; membership had previously authorized the strike, with nearly 98 percent of voters in favor. Meanwhile, the WGA (Writers Guild of America) has been on strike since May 2.

Like the WGA strike, a SAG-AFTRA strike comes with profound economic consequences. The WGA’s picket lines have already managed to shut down most productions in New York and Los Angeles and across the country as crew members refuse to cross. Since SAG-AFTRA represents 160,000 members — “actors, announcers, broadcast journalists, dancers, DJs, news writers, news editors, program hosts, puppeteers, recording artists, singers, stunt performers, voiceover artists, and other media professionals,” as their website puts it — a strike would have profound effects on many industries. (By contrast, the WGA, which has just entered day 73 of its strike, has around 20,000 members.)

To be clear, a strike doesn’t mean people can’t act at all; it means they cannot perform work for struck companies (which is to say, members of the AMPTP, like Disney and Netflix). Unless specific concessions are made, they can’t promote work for struck companies either. (Yes, their publicists are reportedly panicking.) Major studios, for instance, have been dropping out of Comic-Con rather than have a poor showing with the few actors who might cross the picket line. You likely wouldn’t see actors promoting new movies (like Barbie or Oppenheimer) or walking the red carpet at film festivals; WGA members have already stayed away. And of course, they won’t be on set.

Strikes and labor disputes are complex, messy, and heated, and this year’s contract negotiation season has already been especially contentious. Here are four questions, and attempts to answer them succinctly, to sort it all out.

What does SAG-AFTRA want?

In many ways, what SAG-AFTRA wants is similar to what the WGA wants, all of which is driven by technology.

In a streaming-forward world, the typical TV season length has shrunk drastically, from the traditional broadcast model (up to 26 episodes per season) down to maybe eight or 10 episodes. That means actors are working far less on each job and tend to have larger gaps between jobs, which means it’s harder to make a steady living. But compensation hasn’t kept pace with the shift, and SAG-AFTRA is asking for a raise. (The specific terms are still scarce as negotiations continue.) Additionally, residuals — which are sort of like royalties, paid to actors when their work continues to earn money for the studio in the form of reruns or streaming content libraries — are at a level that the guild sees as unsustainable for its members.

Like the WGA, SAG-AFTRA is also enormously concerned about the potential for rapidly developing AI to replace its members. And it should be: AI can be trained on actors’ likenesses or voices, which can then be used to generate new performances both on-screen and in voice-over or other capacities.

In a bulletin to members addressing their concerns, SAG-AFTRA leadership cited creating guidelines around acceptable uses of AI, bargain protections against misuse, and consent and fair compensation when members’ work (such as their likeness or voice) is used to train AI systems and create new performances. “In their public statements and policy work, the companies have not shown a desire to take our members’ basic rights to our own voices and likenesses seriously,” SAG-AFTRA leadership noted.

At the press conference announcing the strike, National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said that the AMPTP’s proposal for AI “proposed that our background actors should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay, and their company should own that scan, their image, their likeness and to be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want with no consent and no compensation.”

A picketer in a baseball cap carries a sign that reads “SAG-AFTRA supports WGA.”
Striking Hollywood writers have been joined on the picket line by SAG-AFTRA members since their strike began.
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

There’s also one actor-specific demand: The guild wants to put limits on the use of “self-tape” auditions — where an actor performs a scene on their own time and sends a video of it to producers — which they call “a massive, daily, uncompensated burden on the lives of performers.”

Generally, you can think of it this way: SAG-AFTRA believes that studios are trying to find ways around paying members enough to maintain what they term a “middle-class” existence, and they want to fix that now and protect against the threat in the future, largely so that acting doesn’t become work only available to the very wealthy or privileged. When you think of actors, you might think of movie stars, but the people who stand to lose the most are those you might never notice: background actors, voiceover artists, and other people who will never be millionaires.

Why isn’t AMPTP budging?

When asked, the studios tend to cite tough economics as the reason they can’t raise minimums or residuals. (They don’t talk a lot about AI, which in itself is probably worth noting.) Like the WGA, SAG-AFTRA takes issue with that math. In their bulletin, they note that “in sharp contrast to the diminishing compensation paid to our members, the studios are posting immense profits with a bullish outlook as demonstrated by lavish corporate executive compensation.”

The reality is that studios and production companies are increasingly embedded in larger corporations and tech companies that are beholden to shareholders, and the way they think and talk about profit and revenue is different from the way the people who take home a paycheck do. It’s hard to argue with some staggering statistics about CEO pay at entertainment companies; average pay for a top Hollywood executive was $28 million in 2021, a hike of 53 percent from 2018. Disney CEO Bob Iger, who called the actors’ demands “not realistic” on TV on the morning the strike was called, recently signed a contract to run the company through 2026 and makes about $27 million a year.

On top of that, the AMPTP didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory in a recent Deadline article, published the day before SAG-AFTRA’s contract was set to expire, in which an anonymous studio executive told the reporter that with the writers strike, “the endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” An “insider” quoted in the article called it “a cruel but necessary evil,” and the article suggested the AMPTP had no intention of returning to the bargaining table with the striking writers until October.

WGA members reacted with scorn on Twitter, noting that AMPTP members will be hurt by these same tactics and that the economics of being a writer in Hollywood have prepared them well for this moment. “‘Let writers go broke’ would be a more effective tactic for an endgame if it hadn’t been their pre-game, too,” noted Fleishman Is in Trouble writer and showrunner Taffy Brodesser-Akner. The AMPTP soon backtracked the statement.

Yet, given its timing, some speculated the article had the hallmarks of being planted by the studio as a negotiation (or maybe non-negotiation) tactic aimed at scaring SAG-AFTRA out of going on strike. Furthermore, on Tuesday, reports surfaced that AMPTP had requested the aid of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) in mediating the contract with SAG-AFTRA. The actors’ union agreed to work with the FMCS, but issued a blistering statement aimed at the AMPTP. “We condemn the tactic outlined in today’s inaccurate Variety piece naming the CEOs of several entertainment conglomerates as the force behind the request for mediation, information that was leaked to the press by the CEOs and their ‘anonymous sources’ before our negotiators were even told of the request for mediation,” the statement reads.

“The AMPTP has abused our trust and damaged the respect we have for them in this process,” it continues. “We will not be manipulated by this cynical ploy to engineer an extension when the companies have had more than enough time to make a fair deal.”

All of this suggests that AMPTP’s members believe that the unions will crack if divided and conquered. Others dispute that, framing this crisis as existential and noting the extraordinary solidarity from other unions in Hollywood, remarkable in contrast to the last strike in 2007. On Wednesday, the WGA, Teamsters, IATSE (which covers on-set tradespeople, such as electricians and greens people), and the Directors Guild (which ratified its own contract in June) issued a statement expressing solidarity with SAG-AFTRA. Whether the AMPTP’s tactics will ultimately prove to be effective remains to be seen.

A picket line with union members carrying signs that read “WGA on strike” and “SAG-AFTRA supports WGA.”
Members from various guilds have marched in solidarity.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Why is this strike so historically meaningful?

This is the first double strike since 1960, which alone is significant, but one of the stranger factoids is who led that strike.

The main issue on the table was once again residuals, once again driven by a relatively new technology — this time, television. Both guilds were pushing for a similar demand: When they wrote or acted in a movie, and that movie was sold to a TV network and broadcast, the network would earn money from ads. The guilds wanted their members to be paid residuals, just as they would for a TV show. The studios, of course, didn’t.

The WGA went on strike on January 16, 1960. On March 7, SAG joined them, led by seasoned SAG president Ronald Reagan. He’d previously served as the president of the union from 1947 to 1952, and was brought back in 1959 specifically to lead the guild through these negotiations. When the studios didn’t budge, the future US president called for a strike.

On April 18, the strike ended for SAG when they reached an agreement with the studios. (There’s tremendous disagreement over whether Reagan’s leadership was effective, given some of the concessions the actors came to.) The writers ended their strike on June 12, after 148 days.

What does this mean for TV shows, movies, and other entertainment?

We can see a little of the answer to this question right now: Fox, which has broadcast rights to the Emmys, has been quietly preparing to move them from their scheduled September 18 air date to a later date, maybe in November or even January of next year. You can’t have an Emmy Awards show without writers and presenters and actors who show up to receive awards. (If these strikes last a really long time, it’s also going to mess with the Oscar season.)

But in a more practical sense, here’s what you can expect. The TV networks have already filled their fall calendars with reality TV and unscripted programming, and much of that will still be able to go forward if the SAG-AFTRA strike continues. The rest will depend largely on how long these strikes last. If the AMPTP is serious about freezing people out till they lose their homes, they’ll have to face the fact that they won’t have many movies or new TV shows to entice people into buying tickets or subscriptions to streaming services. Meanwhile, the economic effect is enormous; in 2007, the writers strike alone cost California’s economy over $2 billion.

So yes, there’s a good chance that your favorite show is already delayed, and if it isn’t yet, it will be. Movies are going to get pushed forward again; things are going to be weird. The unions argue that this is the cost of making sure that we’ll still have an entertainment industry in the future. No matter who “wins,” the effects will be felt for a long, long time.

Update, July 13, 4 pm ET: This story has been updated with SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland’s statement on AI.

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