By MALLORY GRUBEN
As if at the flip of a switch, actors and production crews returned to work Nov. 9. Celebrities took to TikTok to promote their TV shows and movies. Makeup artists and camera operators celebrated the promise of their first steady paychecks in months.
The night before, SAG-AFTRA, which represents screen actors, had reached a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), ending a historic 118-day strike that halted most TV and movie production for months.
If ratified, the three-year agreement will provide more than $1 billion in new wages and benefit plan funding over the life of the contract. That includes an estimated $180 million boost to contributions to the union’s pension plan, as well as an immediate pay raise of 11% for background actors and 7% for general wages.
The agreement also would create new rules for using artificial intelligence, such as requiring AMPTP companies to get an actor’s informed consent any time it creates or uses a digital replica of them.
Under the agreement, the AMPTP would also have to pay any actor whenever their digital replicas are used in a production, in most cases for the same amount that actors would have received if they performed in the production in person. At a Nov. 10 press conference about the settlement, SAG-AFTRA Lead Negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said the AI protections are especially important for background actors who have worried about losing work and wages if producers use digital replicas in their place.
SAG-AFTRA’s executive board voted by 86% to send the agreement to members for a ratification vote. Over the next month, members will vote digitally or by mail.
Union actors started their strike July 14 after the AMPTP offered a meager 5% raise and refused actors’ proposals to pay residual bonuses for streaming and set rules for using AI. The AMPTP represents hundreds of production companies, including eight giants that dominate bargaining: Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Discovery-Warner, NBC Universal, Paramount, and Sony.
The actors strike overlapped with a movie and TV writers strike against AMPTP that started May 2 and ended Sept. 27. Actors continued bargaining — and striking — after members of the Writers Guild of America reached their agreement because SAG-AFTRA’s concerns had not yet been resolved, said Portland SAG-AFTRA Vice President Scott Rogers.
In July, SAG-AFTRA announced it would offer “interim agreements” to any studios willing to work under the terms of the last offer the union made to the AMPTP before the strike. Interim agreement productions could have no link to the AMPTP, so every one was rigorously vetted by the union. Roughly 1,200 productions had been approved by the time the strike ended, though union leaders interviewed for this story only knew of two that were being filmed in the Pacific Northwest.
“Unfortunately the productions that have the money to travel are AMPTP projects, so many of the things we would normally be getting in Portland, we still aren’t getting,” Rogers told the Labor Press on Nov. 8. “It’s not creating a lot of work, but it’s giving our members options.”
The interim agreements were a two-pronged strategy: Create work for financially strapped actors who had gone without it for months, and demonstrate that SAG-AFTRA’s contract proposals were reasonable.
“These small, oftentimes independent production companies are able to afford what we were asking and paying,” Rogers said. “Clearly it’s not that difficult. It’s not that heavy of a lift.”
The interim agreements also helped crew members represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Those workers include camera operators, makeup artists, hair stylists, costume creators, and others who rely on TV and movie productions for their full time work but had no say in the strike, said Bruce Lawson, president of IATSE Local 488. Local 488 represents almost 750 workers in Washington, Oregon, Northern Idaho and Montana.
Lawson works as a key grip (rigging technician), and his wife, Anne Sellery, is a makeup artist. They had planned to celebrate the holidays in a new home this year, but the same month they prepared to sign for a mortgage, SAG-AFTRA started its strike, leaving both unemployed. Until the Spokane-based horror mystery production “213 Bones” started production under an interim agreement on Oct. 22, Lawson estimated he worked a total of 12 days during the strike. He and his wife made ends meet through the summer by painting houses and staining decks for friends or working on live productions, like concerts and theater performances, covered under the IATSE Local 28 contract. But he knows not every Local 488 found side gigs, he said.
“213 Bones” created jobs with union benefits for about 80 crew members.
When the SAG-AFTRA strike ended, some productions restarted right away. Rogers said his brother wrote a movie starring Bryan Cranston and Allison Janney that finished filming days before actors struck. Producers on that movie still needed to bring Cranston, Janney, and other actors back in for “looping,” or fixing dialogue audio in post-production, but that was put on pause during the strike. The actors were called in to work to finish looping the week of Nov. 13, Rogers said.
But with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years coming up, Lawson expects a slow start for new productions.
SAG-AFTRA’s tentative agreement includes some wins for crew members, too, he said. For example, the AI rules make it harder for producers to make movies and TV shows only using digital replicas, preserving jobs for crew members.
“When you’re dealing with AI, you don’t need hair and makeup. You don’t need transportation. You don’t need set building. It’s all created digitally,” Lawson said. “So I see (those protections) as a win for us as well.”
IATSE contract negotiations with the AMPTP are set to open in June 2024.
“We need to get unified. We need to be ready for that time when it comes and show the solidarity that was so present with the writers and with SAG-AFTRA,” Lawson said.
SAG-AFTRA leaders thanked crew members for supporting actors during their strike, and pledged to return the favor.
“It was really good to hear them acknowledge the crews and say that the energy that they have from their negotiations and their strike will carry forward into 2024, when IATSE and the Teamsters have their negotiations, and that they will be there for us like we were for them,” Lawson said.
Celebrity union heroes
They’re not just outstanding actors. They’re exemplary union members. In the early days of the strike, some of Hollywood’s best-loved stars contributed $1 million or more to the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Emergency Financial Assistance Program, the hardship fund for striking actors who aren’t household names. The list of million-plus donors included Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Hugh Jackman, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Roberts, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meryl Streep, and Oprah Winfrey.