Representatives of SAG-AFTRA and the major Hollywood studios returned to the bargaining table Monday for the first time in 2½ months to resolve thorny issues that prompted the actors’ walkout in mid-July.
The session marked the first time that top media executives — Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger, Netflix Co-Chief Executive Ted Sarandos, Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav and NBCUniversal Studio Group Chairman Donna Langley — sat down with the leaders of the 160,000-member performers union, which has been on strike against the entertainment companies since July 13.
The four executives came in as “closers” to help resolve the 148-day Writers Guild of America strike, which ended last week. Now, they are hoping to quickly bring labor peace and get the entertainment industry back to work.
The twin strikes — the first joint work stoppage by actors and the WGA since 1960 — have crippled scripted television and film production nationwide. The labor action has also caused a deep fatigue and financial strain for tens of thousands of Hollywood workers.
“We’re just tired,” actor Parvesh Cheena (“The Mandalorian,” “Sometimes I Think About Dying”) said Monday while picketing outside Amazon Studios in downtown Culver City. “We’ve been here every day since Day 1 of the writers’ strike in May and every day since the actors’ strike began on July 13. … But we’d rather be going back to work like everyone else.”
In a joint statement Monday evening, SAG-AFTRA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates on behalf of the major studios, said that after “concluding a full day bargaining session,” they would meet again on Wednesday.
Monday’s meeting came less than a week after the WGA ended its strike after reaching a tentative deal with the studio alliance on a new three-year film and TV contract. WGA leaders hailed their agreement as a big win because it included numerous gains, such as increases in minimum pay, a bonus for successful streaming shows and limits around the use of artificial intelligence.
WGA members began voting Monday and will continue through Oct. 9 on whether to ratify the deal.
Studio executives have suggested the proposed WGA contract could provide a framework to address many of the issues that prompted actors to join writers on picket lines.
But SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher, most famous for her role as “The Nanny,” has sought to temper expectations that the union would rush to accept all of the provisions of the WGA contract, telling CNN last week that “one size doesn’t fit all.”
Chelsea Schwartz, a SAG-AFTRA strike captain who was helping coordinate Monday’s protest outside Amazon Studios, agreed.
“The WGA and SAG-AFTRA are fighting for different things,” Schwartz said. “The WGA has some great points in their deal that will really help our negotiations, but we have a lot of other things that the companies haven’t even talked to us about in 81 days.”
Like the WGA, the union has argued that outdated contract terms, coupled with shorter seasons and longer hiatuses between seasons make it increasingly hard for many actors to maintain a middle-class lifestyle.
SAG-AFTRA, which represents background actors as well as dancers and recording artists, has a more diverse membership than the WGA. And the union also has distinct demands, such as ending the practice of having actors pay for their own self-recorded auditions.
Schwartz said that actors need better regulations around these self-recorded auditions, including longer turn-around times when they are required to memorize dozens of pages of a script.
The use of artificial intelligence to create background scenes and background actors is expected to be another major sticking point. Actors are worried that studios will reuse digital replicas to simulate background actors, squeezing out performers who have long filled background roles as a route to become working actors.
“The AI terms need to be way more robust” than what the WGA got, Schwartz said. “This is about our bodies, our faces and our voices.”
Expectations were high for Monday’s session.
“I’m feeling hopeful — cautiously optimistic,” actor Sarah Jane Morris (“Brothers & Sisters,” “The Night Shift), said on the Amazon strike line. “I hope we continue to stand strong and fight for the things we need but I’m nervous that we’re going to have to cave on some stuff.”
The tone of the talks could be telling.
When the negotiations between the AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA broke down on July 12, a top alliance negotiator scolded SAG-AFTRA’s bargaining group, saying the companies would not return to the table until actors began acting “civilized,” according to SAG-AFTRA Chief Negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland and others in the room that night.
SAG-AFTRA negotiators were furious.
The following morning, Disney’s Iger appeared on business network CNBC from the Allen & Co. investors conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he told viewers that writers’ and actors’ demands were ill-timed and “not realistic.”
Iger’s appearance galvanized writers and actors on the picket lines, who portrayed the CEOs as privileged and out of touch. Actors said they could barely afford to live in expensive film hubs like Los Angeles and New York.
Hours after Iger’s appearance on CNBC, Drescher tore into company executives in a fiery speech, in which she accused companies of “disgusting” behavior and said actors were “being victimized by a very greedy entity.”
Drescher seemed to single out Iger.
“How do you deal with someone like that who’s so tone deaf?” Drescher asked in follow-up interviews. “Are you an ignoramus?”
Now, Iger and Drescher must forge a path together.
Monday’s pickets were billed as solidarity marches. WGA members circled perimeters of the various studio complexes around Los Angeles, along with striking actors and members of the Teamsters, including casting directors.
“Everyone acts like ‘it’s back,’ but we are still on strike,” Morris said. “Nothing is going back until our deal is settled.” “
Morris and other actors at the Amazon picket said they were solidly behind Drescher and Crabtree-Ireland.
“It’s wonderful that the AMPTP has decided to come back to the table,” said Travina Springer (Disney+’s “Ms. Marvel”). “I’m hopeful we will get a favorable resolution in the near future but I’m also very tired. And it feels a bit disrespectful that we even have to be here and that we are not getting our fair share in the first place.”