The longest work stoppage for film and television actors is all but over, as the Sag-Aftra union announced a tentative deal with studios to end a months-long strike on Wednesday night. The deal, which will end the 118-day strike that ground Hollywood to a halt and caused considerable financial pain for the nearly 2 million Americans who work in jobs directly or indirectly related to production, was hailed by union leadership as well as the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) as a historic breakthrough, with notable agreements on minimum pay, streaming-based bonuses and consent and compensation guarantees for the use of AI likenesses.
Overall, the actors union, like the writers union a month before it, secured major concessions from studios – a “capitulation by Hollywood’s biggest companies”, as the New York Times reported, and a stark reversal for studio heads who assumed the unions would be “relatively compliant” in reaching a deal.
For both actors and writers, the negotiations represented a once in a blue moon opportunity to address what were seen as existential threats to their careers. Namely, the future of AI in Hollywood and the brutal economics of the floundering streaming economy, which could deliver massive audience hits – such as Netflix’s Orange is the New Black or Suits, the old USA Network series that broke streaming records on Netflix this summer – with little compensation for creatives.
There are still i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed before Hollywood is fully up and running again – union leadership will vote to ratify the deal on Friday and it still needs likely approval by its 160,000-strong membership – but the future of a post-strike Hollywood is becoming clear. Here’s what we know so far:
What’s the deal with AI?
As it was for the writers, AI emerged as one of the toughest sticking points for actors, particularly after Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, Sag-Aftra’s chief negotiator, said this summer that studios proposed a day’s pay to use extras’ digital likenesses in perpetuity, without consent and compensation. Disagreements over AI rights was the primary hurdle to the studios’ “last, best and final offer” presented on Sunday to Sag-Aftra; the union pushed back on a clause that would have allowed studios to pay to use high-earning performers’ likenesses after their death without consent by their estates or Sag-Aftra, according to union sources speaking to the Hollywood Reporter.
Studios ultimately capitulated on this demand, which seems to have been the tipping point in negotiations. It is still unclear exactly what AI protections the actors union secured, though Crabtree-Ireland, in an interview with Rolling Stone, confirmed that the deal requires studios to obtain consent from actors for specific use of their AI likenesses. “There’s a really robust set of protections for performers that I think will not only protect them during the trial of this contract, but for many years thereafter,” he said. Fran Drescher, the union’s president, told CNN: “Now [studios] have to ask for permission for everything.”
The writers union secured similarly groundbreaking protections with their contract in September, which allows writers to use AI with permission, but establishes guardrails to prevent AI from replacing human jobs or labor. Both contracts will shape Hollywood’s already burgeoning relationship with generative AI for years to come.
What’s in the rest of the deal?
On compensation, the new contract, which is reportedly worth $1bn over three years, secured “above pattern” minimum wage increases. The guild initially asked for an 11% increase in the first year; Crabtree-Ireland did not reveal the exact number but told Rolling Stone the union “achieved a number that is significantly above” the standard 5%.
The union was unsuccessful, however, in securing a share of revenue from each streaming platform. Drescher had made this a top priority, arguing that it was essential to “get into the pocket” of streaming revenue in order for actors to sustain a livelihood in the streaming era. The studios vowed the union’s proposal – 2% of revenue, later cut to 1% or about $500m a year – would not happen, and it did not.
Instead, the union settled for a streaming bonus arrangement modeled on terms secured by the writers guild. Under the new deal, actors on a “successful” streaming show will receive 100% of their existing residual as a bonus. “Successful” means a show which attracts views equivalent to 20% of a company’s subscriber base within 90 days. However, actors will only receive a portion of that money. The rest will go to a fund jointly administered by employers and the union for distribution to actors on a range of streaming shows, not just the most popular ones.
The “hybrid” model is supposed to work similarly to the potential revenue-sharing proposal, though with much less money to distribute. Union leadership has expressed disappointment over the concession, but Crabtree-Ireland told Variety “the net result will be a wider distribution of money to more members”.
Sag-Aftra leadership will first need to approve the deal in a meeting on Friday – all but guaranteed, given that the negotiating committee unanimously recommended its passage. More information about the contract will be available after that vote. Union members will then have several weeks to vote to ratify the deal, which again seems all but guaranteed given the strain and frustration after nearly four months out of work. Drescher and Crabtree-Ireland were under mounting pressure to reach a deal from agents, crew members and even union members, including such high-profile names as George Clooney and Ben Affleck.
What does this mean for viewers?
In the near future, not that much in terms of theatrical content, as studios have already pushed a number of completed big-name titles – Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers – to 2024. Production should be able to resume quickly for a number of tentpole films whose release dates in 2024 and beyond were in flux, including the two-part Wicked film adaptation, Deadpool 3 and Venom 3, as well as fan-favorite TV shows such as Abbott Elementary, Yellowjackets and The White Lotus.
But the strike’s end does mean your favorite celebrities will be back on the promotional trail and just in time for awards season. Good news for Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, in which he both directs and stars as Leonard Bernstein, as well as the cast of Oppenheimer and Barbie, the summer blockbusters seeking awards clout. Late-night shows will be able to book actors to speak directly about their projects; Timothée Chalamet, already scheduled to host Saturday Night Live this weekend through a network code agreement, will now be free to actually mention that he’s starring in Wonka, which is still slated for a Christmas season theatrical release.
Red carpets and press junkets, down for four months with the exception of individual films given union waivers (Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, The Hunger Games: A Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes), will return for holiday season releases. And the dates for next year’s major award shows, starting with the Golden Globes on 7 January 2024, will go on as planned. The 2023 Emmys, which were originally scheduled for mid-September but delayed by the joint strikes, will take place on 15 January 2024.