Lights camera industrial action: Hollywood’s biggest strike in 60 years

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Hollywood has not seen anything like it in more than 60 years: thousands of striking actors and writers picketing together outside movie and TV studios, where production has ground to a halt.  Demetri Belardinelli, who has acted in TV shows such as Silicon Valley, was among hundreds of picketers outside Walt Disney’s Burbank studios in sweltering heat on Friday. He and 160,000 other members of the SAG-AFTRA union had voted to strike a day before, after talks with the studios collapsed.  Belardinelli and the other actors took their places on the picket lines alongside members of the Writers Guild of America, who have been on strike since May 2, escalating pressure on the Hollywood studios.

Lights camera industrial action

“This is a much-needed surge of energy and people,” Belardinelli said as passing cars honked their horns in solidarity. “None of us want to continue this strike. But the [studios] have to meet our demands.”  The Screen Actors Guild has not gone on strike in 43 years, and it has been even longer since the actors and writers have picketed at the same time.

Their last joint industrial action was in 1960, when Ronald Reagan was the head of the Screen Actors Guild.  The level of anger and mistrust between the unions and the studios — which are represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — is high, veterans of previous Hollywood labour negotiations say. Many in the industry are girding for a lengthy strike at a moment when the major studios are in retrenchment mode.

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Disney, Warner Bros and Paramount are slashing costs following multibillion-dollar investments in streaming and sharp declines in the linear TV business. Their share prices are also under pressure.  Now work on new films and TV shows has stopped, which will disrupt future releases just as the industry has started to recover from the production disruptions caused by Covid-19. “If the WGA writers strike was an annoyance for Hollywood production, the SAG-AFTRA actors strike is much more disruptive,” said Tim Nollen, an analyst at Macquarie, in a research note.

Key sticking points for both the writers and actors include royalties — which have declined significantly in the streaming era — and establishing rules over the use of artificial intelligence. Writers fear being paid far less to adapt basic scripts generated by AI programmes, while actors are concerned that their digital likenesses will be used without compensation. “Both the writers and the actors have noticed a substantial change in the way we are paid and in the way we are treated by big streamers and legacy companies alike,” said Emily Cheever-Mallonee, a writer who was serving as a strike captain outside Disney.

“It is worth fighting for residuals at a time when you have some of the biggest hits on streamers paying us less money than ever.” The strikes come as cinema owners are enjoying their first full summer movie slate since 2019. SAG rules prevent actors from promoting new movies, including the release of the highly anticipated Barbie and Oppenheimer on July 21. Such promotion is vital to raising awareness of films, studio executives and analysts say. Universal, which is distributing Oppenheimer, said the film’s New York premiere has been cancelled. Bob Iger, Disney’s chief executive, told CNBC on Thursday that it was the “worst time in the world” for work stoppages, given the industry’s nascent recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. “There’s a level of expectation that they have that is just not realistic.”

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Iger made the comments while he was at the Allen & Co conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, which has been dubbed “billionaires’ summer camp”. Earlier in the week, Disney had announced that Iger’s tenure would be extended by two years and that his annual bonus scheme had been increased by five times.  Members of both unions were enraged by his comments, and picketers outside Disney have started carrying signs mocking them. “Bob Iger’s Salary Isn’t ‘Realistic,’” read one. Fran Drescher, the actress who is serving as president of SAG, said she found Iger’s remarks to be “terribly repugnant and out of touch, positively tone-deaf”.

Iger has long been considered Hollywood’s de facto leader, and many in the industry had hoped he might be able to use his clout to broker some kind of settlement between the studios and the unions. But the hostile reaction to his comments only emphasised the angry divide between the two sides. “It’s funny that he was saying that at a billionaire’s ranch, coming after [Disney] announced how much money he was going to be making in the next few years,” said Cheever-Mallonee. “I think that the public sees through the B.S. when a multimillionaire is saying something like that.” Given the distance between the studios and the unions, she predicted that relations will become “a little nastier” before a resolution is found.  Last month, more than 300 leading Hollywood stars, including Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep, wrote to SAG-AFTRA leadership supporting possible strike action. “This is no time to meet in the middle,” they wrote, signalling that they wanted the union to take a tough line.  One Hollywood executive argued that the unions had walked away from a strong pay offer from the studios, especially given the rocky state of the film and TV business. “With an industry crawling its way out of the near-death experience of three years of the pandemic, this is the essential moment to meet in the middle,” the executive said.

“We can argue what the middle is, but let’s compromise.”  The strike will also have an impact on the California economy. The last writers strike, which lasted 100 days in 2007-08, cost the state an estimated $2bn — but it did not shut down production as extensively as this one is likely to do. It will also have knock-on effects to other small businesses that struggled through the pandemic, from cinemas to florists, caterers, hairdressers and others.  “We definitely understand that this strike is disrupting not just our work, but the workers that are not unionised and that cannot really stand here with us,” said Cheever-Mallonee. “We’re essentially fighting for the continuation of all of our jobs. We don’t strike lightly and we don’t strike for fun, right?”

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