Hollywood braced for 'double strike' as actors' deadline looms

It would be the first time that all actors and writers have been on strike simultaneously since 1960

Workers and supporters of the Writers Guild of America protest outside Universal Studios Hollywood. Reuters
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Hollywood's summer of discontent could dramatically escalate this weekend, with actors ready to join writers in a massive “double strike” that would bring nearly all US film and television productions to a halt.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) is locked in last-minute negotiations with the likes of Netflix and Disney, with the deadline fast approaching at midnight Friday (Saturday morning GST).

The labour union's 160,000 actors and performers – from A-listers to extras – have preapproved industrial action if a deal is not struck in time.

Should negotiators walk out, it will be the first time that all Hollywood actors and writers have been on strike simultaneously since 1960, when actor (and future US president) Ronald Reagan led a showdown that eventually forced major concessions from the studios.

Like the writers, who have already spent nine weeks on the picket lines, actors are demanding higher pay to counteract inflation, and guarantees for their future livelihoods.

Rebecca Metz, who has starred in FX's Better Things and Showtime's Shameless, said it is “massively harder” for actors – even established ones – to earn a living in Hollywood these days.

“People who aren't in this industry, and even some who are, vastly overestimate how much money actors make – you just assume that if you see someone on TV, they must be rich,” Metz said.

“But it has been extremely not the case in the last few years.

“I know lots of people at my same level who are taking second jobs, trying to come up with ways to keep themselves afloat until hopefully things come back.”

“Tiny fraction”

In addition to salaries when they are actively working, actors earn payments called “residuals” every time a film or show they starred in is aired on network or cable – particularly helpful when performers are between projects.

But today, streamers like Netflix and Disney+ do not disclose viewing figures for their shows, and offer the same paltry flat rate for everything on their platforms, regardless of its popularity.

“I have watched my residuals decline over the last 10 to 15 years” to a tiny fraction of what they once were, says Metz.

“When we're not working for a good stretch, all of a sudden we're worried about qualifying for our health insurance.”

It is currently anyone's guess whether a strike will go ahead. A media blackout on the talks has been imposed by both sides.

Last Friday, SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher released a video message telling members about “extremely productive negotiations” and promising a “seminal deal.”

But union chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland warned there is a “very narrow window” to achieve a deal, fuelling speculation that both sides could agree to a temporary extension of talks.

While the writers' strike has already dramatically reduced the number of movies and shows in production, an actors' walkout would shutter almost everything.

Some reality TV, animation and talk shows could continue, but even high-profile events like television's Emmy Awards, set for September 18, would be at risk.

Popular series set to return to television as soon as this autumn would be delayed. And further down the line, blockbuster films could be postponed too.

AI and auditions

Muddying the waters further is the issue of artificial intelligence. Actors want guarantees to regulate its future use.

“There's currently no protections around a producer taking our voice, our likeness, asking us do things that we wouldn't consent to do,” said Metz.

“Inputting our previous performances and building a performance off of it that we don't have to get paid for – these things sound wild and fantastical, but they're very real.”

Another grievance for actors is the rise of “self-taped auditions,” which SAG-AFTRA is attempting to regulate.

Used before the pandemic on occasions when in-person auditions were not possible, the practice has become ubiquitous in Hollywood.

It places logistical and technological burdens on actors, and robs them of feedback from casting directors.

Perhaps most importantly, performers do not even know if their audition has been watched.

“Acting is a collaborative craft, at the end of the day,” said Metz.

“Talking into a camera in your house, and knowing you're never going to get any response, is several steps further removed from what acting really is.”

Updated: July 26, 2023, 8:36 AM