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Out Of Order: Hollywood Goes Dark As Stars Turn Out The Lights

“What happens here is important because what’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labour, when employers make wall street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run.”

  • Fran Drescher, SAG-AFTRA union president, declares Hollywood’s actor’s strike. 

It was a typical premiere day in London. It was the thirteenth of July. Leicester Square was awash with a thematic black carpet and the barrier around the Odeon heaved with excited fans eager to catch a glimpse of the star-studded cast of Christopher Nolan’s latest epic Oppenheimer. Nolan, in the good company of Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt and the rest of his motley crew, earnestly greeted the hankering press and fans, proudly talking on their electrifying experience bringing to life this motion picture maverick. Those with tickets ushered inside the infamous art deco screen, sold out to its capacity of nearly nine hundred, when Christopher Nolan stepped out to introduce the film alone. 

Within minutes, the theatre was bustling with murmurs – speculations which had shadowed the evening like the dull British rain itself were soon recognised to have become true and Nolan confirmed it himself: “You’ve seen [the cast] here earlier on the red carpet. […] They’re off to write their picket signs for what we believe to be an imminent strike by the SAG, joining one of my guilds, the Writers Guide, in the struggle for fair wages for working members of the unions. And we support them.”

The unification of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) with the WGA (Writers Guild of America) in strike action had felt, up until a few days prior, remote. There had been murmurs of the potentiality of a dual strike across the pond but over in the UK, swept up in the Summer film premieres and with most productions on Equity contracts as opposed to SAG-AFTRA, the political breakdowns were pretty much a detached entity to us. By the time the Oppenheimer cast had departed Leicester Square, however, Fran Drescher’s explosive speech ignited a fierce call for total shutdown that, still now some three weeks later, has left a haze of uncertainty over both American and British filmmaking. 

Ridley Scott’s colossal sequel to his 2000 best picture winner, Gladiator, shut down operation in Malta with stars Denzel Washington and Pedro Pascal flying home to Los Angeles. Disney’s Deadpool 3 and Warner Brothers’ Beetlejuice 2 also came to a halt. Press circuits were cut short as actors are bound by strike rules not to engage in promotional content during this time, putting a full-stop ending to the summer of Barbenheimer madness. Fall film festivals found themselves in free fall, with many much anticipated releases from struck studios removed from programmes until the cast are able to walk the red carpet again — Amazon’s Luca Guadagino directed Challengers starring Zendaya was to be the opening film of the 80th Venice Film Festival yet was pulled from the festival and postponed; meanwhile, Warner Bros. is balancing on a knife edge as it debates pushing the highly-anticipated Dune 2 from it’s November release to the following March, of which would incur a potential terminal fee due to their exclusivity contract with IMAX. 

The entertainment industry in the United States was already at a crossroads, reeling from the Writer’s Strike that began on May 2nd which limited the production of television and film. No new material can be produced and writers rooms closed development of new seasons of their hits — Yellowjackets Season 3 saw one day of development before the strike while the likes of Abbott Elementary Season 3 and Grey’s Anatomy Season 20 were put on hold indefinitely. Films that were in production either sacrificed the screenwriter on set (of which their role is integral to the continuity and amendments made during production) or paused too. 

The largest point of contention for these strikes? Secure payment against declining residuals. As the television broadcast framework has shifted to SVOD (streaming video on demand), the original pay structures agreed in regard to residual payments have been stripped down to below minimum; where once creators could depend on a residual cheque from a syndicated film or show to get them through periods between jobs, these residuals now barely cover the price of a phone bill. One writer from Hulu’s The Bear went to the Emmys, nominated for his work on the show, with minus figures in his bank account. Leading actors from Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black receive an annual pay out of less than $30. And in some instances, whole television shows are removed from streaming platforms entirely as tax write offs, such as HBO’s Westworld and Disney’s Willow, eradicating the possibility of any residual payment for those involved in the productions. Meanwhile, streaming CEOs are earning five hundred times that of the lowest paid employee. Reed Hastings of Netflix had an income of over £209 million over the last five years while Disney’s Bob Iger received over £192 million; David Zaslav of Warner Bros. received £498 million. 

Hollywood was caught precariously hanging by a thread as the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) — who act on behalf of the studios to negotiate industry-wide guild and union contracts — refused to return to the table further discussions with the Writers Guild, and they stepped into contract negotiations for the remaining production guilds. Six weeks into the WGA strike, the AMPTP was able to ratify a new labour contract with Directors Guild of American, weakening the protest of the writers and throwing out the potential of a fully unified strike. The WGA did not let this weaken them though and congratulated the DGA on their contractual agreement. They also used this moment to say: 

“[The AMPTP] pretended they couldn’t negotiate with the WGA in May because of negotiations with the DGA. That’s a lie. It’s a choice they made in hope of breathing life into the divide and conquer strategy. The essence of the strategy is to make deals with some unions and tell the rest that’s all there is. It’s gaslighting, and it only works if all unions are divided.”

Not much can be said on the closed-door discussions surrounding the Directors Guild agreement, however, it must be noted that many high-profile directors were urging their peers to consider voting against the agreement, Matrix director Lilly Wachowski publicly tweeted against the contract and the language surrounding the use of AI. Although an 87% majority of the DGA voted in favour of this new contract, it must be stipulated that this is of a 41% voter turnout or 6,728 out of 16,321 guild members. 

With the DGA on their side, the AMPTP’s position against the Writers Guild was significantly strengthened. The lack of income combined with the oppressive heat of Los Angeles in Summer had Writers struggling on the picket every day. One anonymous source wrote for The Hollywood Reporter: “By day 72 our souls were cracking. The distant horizon of the strike loomed long and large. But then the AMPTP fucked up.”

An anonymous studio executive fed to entertainment source Deadline that the AMPTP had no intention of returning to negotiations with the Writers Guild, that they had “agreed for months” on their so-called “cruel but necessary evil” strategy: Let the writers starve. Drag this out until the writers are “losing their homes”. 

This brazen, thoughtless confession ignited rage across the industry, with support ushering in from around the globe as the AMPTP tight themselves into a noose on their Antoinette balcony, trying to rationalise, defame, and deny ever having said this. It shone an unflinching light on the cruelty behind the veneered smiles of your favourite studios, the Mickey Mouse ears and melodic duh-dum, couldn’t hide the flagrant disregard for those who’s labour fuels their inflated incomes. After all, by it’s very definition ‘cruel’ is unnecessary, there cannot be a ‘cruel but necessary evil’ approach to these workers rights.

It seemed only fitting then, that on 14th July (Bastille Day), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) joined the Writers Guild on the picket lines as contract negotiations broke down without conclusion the day earlier. Just like the French Revolution with two sides of the artistic proletariat coming together on the pavement to rebel against the out-of-touch monarchy of studio execs; Bob Iger, the Disney CEO set to make as much as $27 million in total compensation this year alone, denounced the strike while at Allen & Co.’s annual media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho — an event coined ‘summer camp for billionaires’. Fittingly, SAG-AFTRA union president Fran Drescher’s response was: “Eventually the people break down the gates of Versailles.”

With the strike, or revolution, in motion, actors were quick to voice their grievances on the picket line. Sons of Anarchy’s Ron Perlman posted a now viral video message to his Instagram, enraged at the anonymous comments from studio executives: “The motherfucker who said we’re going to keep this thing going until people start losing their houses and their apartments…You wish that families starve while you’re making 27 fucking million dollars a year for creating nothing? Be careful, motherfucker. Be really careful.”

What’s important to note here is that, while the most recognisable faces may be getting the most coverage during this strike, they’re not only striking for their own fair remuneration from SVOD, moreover, they’re fighting for the working actors within the industry who struggle to survive between jobs. 

As Academy Winner Jessica Chastain explained: “I’m aware that my career provides me with a good living… There are many members of SAG who are fighting to make a living wage. 87% of my union doesn’t make 26k a year in order to receive health insurance. It is our responsibility to stand alongside them.” 

Michael Chiklis added:  “There’s a perception we’re a bunch of spoiled brats that make an inordinate amount of money… That’s categorically false. […] “The [majority] of this industry work 85 hours per week… they still can’t meet their bills, can’t pay for basics.”

Hollywood legends Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin also voiced their support for strike whilst on the picket lines in Los Angeles: “What we’re fighting for here is really for all the workers in all the sectors. We have to stand together and we have to make Unions stronger. […] Income inequality has never been greater since the Gilded Age in the ‘20s. […] Those in the executive suites are getting bigger and bigger salaries than ever but actors are getting less and less, just like the writers.”

Fonda and Tomlin fronted one of Netflix’s longest running originals Grace and Frankie from 2015-2022 and have both spent their careers fighting injustices and inequality in America. Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays, a climate activism demonstration started during the Trump administration, have seen her and Tomlin, now in their eighties, arrested by the LAPD; yet they continue to campaign. Though they haven’t disclosed their residual amount from their work on Grace and Frankie, Fonda alluded to a low cut in her speech: What about those residuals for those of us working in streaming? What residuals you’re right!”

With Hollywood productions ground to a halt across the world, Equity, the performing arts and entertainment trade union of the United Kingdom, hosted a solidarity demonstration one week later in the same square that the Oppenheimer premiere had signalled the start of the strike. Legally unable to strike themselves, the Equity members didn’t let that stop them from loudly voicing their own discontentment with the studio system both in the US and the UK. Equity president Lynda Rooke stated: “There is no line drawn down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that says the problem stops there, because it doesn’t.”

Actress Imelda Staunton remarked her displeasure on U.K strike laws, calling them “draconian” and that they “need changing”. She also added that the SAG-AFTRA strike “isn’t an American problem, or an English problem [but a] global problem.”

“The streaming services seem to be paying themselves and not the creatives. […] We need to talk about how it’s going to affect people’s financial circumstances. Most actors and most writers seem to be at the bottom of the pile when the pay packet is issued, so I think that needs sorting out as soon as possible.”

Catastrophe’s Rob Delaney was hopeful: “I work on SAG contracts and Equity contracts depending on the job,” The American comedian remarked. “I’m a member of both unions, so there’s bad things about globalisation but there’s also good things which is that it’s easier and faster to adopt successful tactics from other countries’ labour disputes. I pray and hope and will work for Equity benefitting from what SAG gets.”

The last time that both SAG and WGA went on strike was in 1960, SAG came to an agreement in six weeks, while the WGA took 148 days. The 2000 SAG strike, the longest in history, went on for six months. With the WGA passing 90 days already, and the AMPTP’s refusal to meet with either union, it’s unclear exactly how long this strike will go on for. One thing is for certain though, that those striking are doing so against personal greed and ego, sacrificing work and security to ensure a better future for the next generations who will join this battered system. 

As Simon Pegg put it: “I believe wholeheartedly in what we’re standing for. It’s been a long time coming. The streamers have been around a long time and there’s been no overhaul of the pay structures that compensate actors. It used to be that they would get residuals. It doesn’t apply anymore. […] There’s been this unchecked corporate opportunism that has just spiralled out of control and I think that goes across every facet of the industry right now. The CEOs, the shareholders, they’re all just reaping the benefits of all these people that are getting no compensation for their work. It’s tempting to say ‘oh actors, why are they complaining’ but we’re the same as any other workforce.”

“We need to set a future where [young people coming through] will be compensated fairly, where it’s an industry they can enter and make a living. […] The next generation of young writers, actors, directors, every facet of creativity, we need to have an industry that gives them some incentive to enter into or where are we gonna be? There’ll be no entertainment.”

Keep up to date with WGA/SAG-AFTRA @sagaftra @wgawest 

Help and support for those on and off the picket lines