Pop Culture

An Actors Strike Could Devastate Studios—Plus, the Chanting Would Be Cooler

Actors are claiming the spotlight as they begin contract negotiations with Hollywood’s biggest studios, and the outcome could be devastating for an industry already roiled by the writers strike. In just 38 days, movie and TV scribes have managed to cause massive disarray. Filming in Los Angeles and New York has plummeted, and it’s not just the late-night hosts who’ve had to suspend their shows. Early rising picketers have shut down production on multiple projects, including Showtime’s Billions and Apple TV+’s Loot. “If your movie or TV show is still shooting and we haven’t shut it down yet, sit tight,” Eric Haywood, a writer on Manifest and Law & Order: Organized Crime, tweeted recently. “We’ll get around to you.” Little has been this disruptive to Hollywood’s 100-year-old pipelines, except maybe the last writers strike 15 years ago and the pandemic. If the actors join the writers with a work stoppage of their own—which seems increasingly likely—they could completely shut down production. 

On Monday evening, SAG-AFTRA—the guild representing 160,000 actors and other performers—announced that nearly 98% of its members had voted in favor of authorizing a strike if they are not able to negotiate a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers by the end of the month. Actors haven’t gone on strike in more than 40 years, but watching writers take on important issues like the rise of streaming and the looming threat of artificial intelligence has clearly galvanized the group. “I go out to the picket lines as often as I can,” says SAG-AFTRA member Mehdi Barakchian. “I think it’s important for all members of any union to show up in support because this is a fundamental shift right now. What happens in these next few months is going to affect the entire industry in perpetuity.” 

Arrow co-creator Marc Guggenheim calls a possible actors strike “incredibly important, because without actors you definitely have no production. And once you shut down production all across the board, it really does change the game. It’s a lot of money to be hemorrhaging on a daily basis for the studios.” 

The arrival of another influential union into Hollywood’s labor dispute—particularly after the Directors Guild of America backed away from the fight over the weekend by tentatively agreeing to a new three-year contract with the studios—has writers cheering. Anything could happen during SAG’s own negotiations with the AMPTP, but a coalition of the two unions, which are already aligned on many negotiating points, could prove powerful. 

Though SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher, who’s also a WGA member, took some heat for saying from the picket lines that she was “very hopeful that maybe we won’t get to this point,” she has urged solidarity. “Unions gain strength by supporting each other and the WGA fight is a righteous one,” she wrote to members in May. And actors have shown unprecedented support for the writers since the WGA strike began on May 2, taking to the picket lines with their own “SAG-AFTRA Supports WGA” signs and black T-shirts. “SAG-AFTRA has been fantastic,” says Bonnie Datt, a strike captain for the East Coast branch of the WGA. “One of the big differences between this strike and the last one is that writers don’t chant a lot, but actors really get into leading chants, so our picket lines are a lot noisier than they used to be years ago.” 

Just as streaming upended how writers get paid, it’s shaken up the fortunes for work-a-day actors. Shorter television seasons, longer hiatuses between seasons, and stagnating rates amid record inflation have made it harder for performers to support themselves in Los Angeles and New York. “There’s this perception that as actors, we’re all rich Hollywood celebrities, but the majority of SAG does not make insane salaries,” says Lauren Adams, who played former cult member Gretchen Chalker on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. “A lot of us are making contract minimums, which in this day and age makes it really hard to have a career.” 

Like their peers in the WGA, the actors are asking studios to increase minimums and residual payments, particularly on streaming projects that have historically handed out smaller checks than broadcast and cable. Streaming is “where the bulk of the jobs are,” says another actor, who asked to remain anonymous. “So the minimums just have to come up. It’s not sustainable for them to be where they are.” Actors are also aligned with the writers on their fears about AI. “We must get agreement around acceptable uses, bargain protections against misuse, and ensure consent and fair compensation for the use of your work to train AI systems and create new performances,” reads an FAQ about the negotiations on the SAG-AFTRA website. 

Some issues, of course, are unique to the actors, particularly their concerns about studios’ contributions to their union’s health and pension plans and their desire to regulate the rules for self-tape auditions. “It really comes down to respect,” says Barakchian. “If you’re going to make that kind of money and you’re going to put us out there—because we’re putting ourselves out there for you—you have to show that you value us and respect what we’re doing.”

There could be enough differences for the SAG-AFTRA negotiations to play out differently than the WGA’s did. Chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland acknowledged as much in a June 4 memo to members. “As we have done throughout this process, we will remain in close communication with our sister unions, especially the WGA and the DGA, and we will seek to capitalize on the insights we have gained from their bargaining process and progress they have made on common issues,” he wrote, but added, “Our bargaining strategy has never relied upon nor been dependent on the outcome or status of any other union’s negotiations, nor do we subscribe to the philosophy that the terms of deals made with other unions bind us.”

While the talk of solidarity is strong on the pickets, privately some WGA members have expressed skepticism about whether actors will really strike. “I have a difficult time wrapping my brain around the idea of SAG striking,” says one showrunner. “They’re such a big, diverse group that they’re kind of unmanageable. And the state of their health and pension plans makes them vulnerable. If the AMPTP comes in with good language on AI and a life raft to their health and pension, it could be really hard to get as diverse and big a group as SAG to go out on strike.”

But the actors Vanity Fair has spoken to seem invigorated—if not necessarily enthusiastic—about the prospect of a strike, especially since many already aren’t working thanks to shutdowns precipitated by the WGA work stoppage. “It’s hard to say I’m excited about a strike because we’re already suffering,” says Adams. “But I’m excited about what this could mean for labor in our industry—just that workers have a little bit more power.”

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