Apocalypse Postponed: Actors and Studios Extend Contract Negotiations

Hollywood has at least another week and a half to live. SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents some 160,000 actors and performers, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers have not yet agreed on a new deal, but they’re optimistic enough to have extended their contract negotiations until July 12, forestalling the possibility of a strike that would likely be even more debilitating that the ongoing one by Hollywood’s writers.

The pressure has been mounting for the actors, whose contract with Hollywood’s biggest studios was originally set to expire at midnight on Friday, June 30. The writers, who’ve been picketing for two months, hope the actors will join them in the fight, increasing the pressure on the studios to accept their demands for increases in streaming residuals and protections against an AI incursion. In a video shared with members last week, SAG-AFTRA national president Fran Drescher and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland promised that they would achieve “a seminal deal.” But more than 1,000 stars, among them Meryl Streep, Ben Stiller, and Quinta Brunson, signed a letter addressed to leadership that made clear that they’d rather strike than accept a paltry deal. “This is not a moment to meet in the middle, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the eyes of history are on all of us,” the letter reads. “We ask that you push for all the change we need and protections we deserve and make history doing it.”

Extending negotiations will give SAG-AFTRA leadership a little more time, regardless of the outcome. It also pushes the deadline beyond the Fourth of July holiday, when Hollywood becomes a ghost town. In a joint statement, SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP said that the guild’s television and theatrical contracts will be extended until July 12 at 11:59 p.m. PT. “The parties will continue to negotiate under a mutually agreed upon media blackout,” they wrote.

The actors have a history of pushing contract negotiations past their deadline. They did so in both 2014 and 2017, and many industry observers predicted a similar outcome this year given that they only had three-and-a-half weeks to hammer out a deal. SAG-AFTRA didn’t start talks with the AMPTP until June 7, after the group that represents studios and producers had already conducted negotiations with the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America. (The directors did not follow the writers to the picket lines, instead ratifying a new contract one week before its previous contract was set to expire.) In a separate letter to members, Drescher and Crabtree-Ireland noted the tight negotiating schedule, explaining that the decision to extend the contract was made “in order to exhaust every opportunity to achieve the righteous contract we all demand and deserve.” But, they added, “no one should mistake this extension for weakness.”

It’s been more than 40 years since actors last went on strike against the Hollywood studios, and more than 60 since both writers and actors staged work stoppages at the same time. But the current contract negotiations arrive at a flashpoint for the entertainment industry, which has undergone a seismic shift in recent years as streaming services have flooded the market. Though streaming gigs are the most prevalent today, they don’t pay as well as broadcast and cable TV shows, making it harder for working actors to cobble together a sustainable income. “There’s this perception that as actors, we’re all rich Hollywood celebrities, but the majority of SAG does not make insane salaries,” Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt actor Lauren Adams told Vanity Fair earlier this month. “A lot of us are making contract minimums, which in this day and age makes it really hard to have a career.”

Like the writers, the actors are asking for raises and increased streaming residuals. They are also worried about how AI could threaten their livelihoods, and want there to be more guardrails around self-tape auditions, which proliferated during the pandemic.

Writers have been effective at causing chaos for Hollywood since their strike began. The late night shows immediately went on pause, and many other television productions were forced to shut down because they didn’t have completed scripts. Some writers are showing up to picket before dawn, a tactic that allows Teamsters (who’ve said they won’t cross picket lines) to drive away without delivering production equipment. The addition of thousands of actors on the picket lines would further juice both guilds’ fights with the studios. Not only will they not show up for work (what’s left of it anyway), they also likely won’t promote upcoming projects. “That’s massive, and it will impact the box office,” actor Matt Bush previously told VF. “There’s a whole ecosystem built around that as well, so there’s a trickle-down effect.”

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