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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Hollywood’s focus turns to actors after writers agree to deal

Striking members of SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, picket outside Universal Studios in Los Angeles on Aug. 4, 2023. Actors have been on strike since July, with many of the same demands as the writers.

By John Koblin, Nicole Sperling and Brooks Barnes

Hollywood’s actors are back in the spotlight.

With screenwriters reaching a tentative agreement with the major entertainment studios on a new labor deal on Sunday night, one big obstacle stands in the way of the film and TV industry roaring back to life: ending the strike with tens of thousands of actors.

The two sides have not spoken in more than two months, and no talks are scheduled.

Leaders of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the actors union, have indicated a willingness to negotiate, but the studios made a strategic decision in early August to focus on reaching a detente with the writers first. A big reason was the rhetoric of Fran Drescher, the president of the actors union, who made one fiery speech after another following the strike, including one in which she denounced studio executives as “land barons of a medieval time.”

“Eventually, the people break down the gates of Versailles,” Drescher said after the actors strike was called in July. “And then it’s over. We’re at that moment right now.”

Drescher has been less vocal in recent weeks, however. Only a resolution with the actors will determine when tens of thousands of workers — including camera operators, makeup artists, prop makers, set dressers, lighting technicians, hairstylists, cinematographers — return to work.

The actors union offered congratulations to the Writers Guild of America, which represents more than 11,000 screenwriters, in a statement Sunday night, adding that it was eager to review the tentative agreement with the studios. Still, it said it remained “committed to achieving the necessary terms for our members.”

With a tentative deal in hand, the Writers Guild suspended picketing. But protests by actors will begin again on Tuesday, after a break for Yom Kippur on Monday. “We need everyone on the line Tuesday-Friday,” actress Frances Fisher, a member of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee, said on Sunday on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Show us your #Solidarity!”

Dozens of Writers Guild members vowed to support the actors. “I know there’s a huge sign of relief reverberating through the town right now, but it’s not over for any of us until SAG-AFTRA gets their deal,” Amy Berg, a Writers Guild strike captain, wrote on X.

Their support will go only so far, however. Writers Guild negotiators were unsuccessful in receiving the contractual right to honor other unions’ picket lines; writers will be required to return to work, perhaps before a ratification vote is final.

It has been 74 days since the actors union and representatives of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of the studios, have talked. That will probably soon change given the high stakes of salvaging the 2024 theatrical box office, which will be in considerable jeopardy should Hollywood not be able to restart production within the next month. The TV production window for the remainder of the year is also closing, given the coming holidays.

Restarting talks with the actors’ union is a bit more complicated than it sounds. For a start, SAG-AFTRA officials will need time to scrutinize the deal points achieved by the Writers Guild; those wins and compromises will inform a new bargaining strategy for the actors. Also, talks between studios and writers restarted only after leaders on both sides spent time back-channeling about the thorniest issues and seeing if there was a willingness to negotiate. Studios are likely to try the same strategy with the actors.

The soonest that negotiations between actors and the studios could restart is next week, according to a person directly involved in the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the strike.

Neither SAG-AFTRA nor the studio alliance commented on Monday.

“There’s tremendous pressure on both sides to get this done,” said Bobby Schwartz, a partner at Quinn Emanuel and a longtime entertainment lawyer who has represented several of the major studios. “The deal that the Writers Guild and the studios struck economically could have been worked out in May, June. It didn’t need to go this long. I think the membership of SAG-AFTRA is going to say we’ve been out of work for months, we want to go back to work, we don’t want to be the ones that are keeping everybody else on the sidelines.”

The dual strikes by the writers and the actors — the first time that has happened since 1960 — have effectively shut down TV and film production for months. The fallout has been significant, both inside and outside the industry. California’s economy alone has lost more than $5 billion, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Warner Bros. Discovery said this month that the impact from the labor disputes would reduce its adjusted earnings for the year by $300 million to $500 million. Additionally, share prices for other major media companies such as Disney and Paramount have taken a hit in recent months.

The industry took a meaningful step toward stabilization Sunday night, though, with the tentative deal between the writers and studios all but ending a 146-day strike.

The deal still needs to be approved by union leadership and ratified by rank-and-file screenwriters. “I’m waiting impatiently to see what the exact language is around AI,” said Joseph Vinciguerra, a Writers Guild member and a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

The approval vote by union leadership is expected on Tuesday.

Although the fine print of the terms has not been released, the agreement has much of what the writers had demanded, including increases in compensation for streaming content, concessions from studios on minimum staffing for television shows and guarantees that artificial intelligence technology will not encroach on writers’ credits and compensation.

“We can say, with great pride, that this deal is exceptional — with meaningful gains and protections for writers in every sector of the membership,” the Writers Guild’s negotiating committee said in an email to members.

On Monday, President Joe Biden released a statement applauding the deal, saying it would “allow writers to return to the important work of telling the stories of our nation, our world — and of all of us.”

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