Actors Strike 2023: why will SAG-AFTRA go on strike – and what might happen across film and TV next?

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The Screen Actors Guild recommended its members vote to authorise a strike, with a fall in streaming residuals and the rise of AI amongst the key issues in upcoming contract negotiations

Hollywood’s writers might not be the only entertainment industry workers on strike for much longer. 

The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (a labour union representing actors across film, television, and radio) will soon begin negotiating a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (a trade association that represents film studios, broadcast television networks, and streaming services). The contract will determine, amongst other things, how actors are paid by studios for their work.

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Ahead of the negotiations beginning in earnest in June, the SAG-AFTRA National Board unanimously recommended that its members vote to authorise a strike. In and of itself, that didn’t guarantee a strike, but instead empowered the SAG-AFTRA negotiators to later call a strike should negotiations with the AMPTPs eventually necessitate it. 

The result of the ballot – returned on Monday 5 June 2023 – saw SAG-AFTRA members overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action, with 97.91% voting to authorise a strike. SAG-AFTRA’s contract with the AMPTP concluded at the end of June, followed by a further two weeks of extended negotiations; on Wednesday 12 July, these negotiations came to an end, with no deal reached. SAG-AFTRA’s National Board will vote on the morning of Thursday 13 July as to whether they will enact the strike recommended by the negotiating committee.

Why might SAG-AFTRA strike?

A rally held by actors in June 2008 ahead of contract negotiations between the SAG and the AMPTP (Credit: David McNew/Getty Images)A rally held by actors in June 2008 ahead of contract negotiations between the SAG and the AMPTP (Credit: David McNew/Getty Images)
A rally held by actors in June 2008 ahead of contract negotiations between the SAG and the AMPTP (Credit: David McNew/Getty Images)

As with the writers strike, a potential strike by actors and performers is motivated largely by the question of residual payments. Historically, actors have always been able to rely on payments made in acknowledgement of television repeats, and maintaining that has been a reason for industrial action in the past – in 1980, for example, SAG members went on strike to ensure actors would receive residual payments from home video sales. 

In recent years, that ecosystem has been disrupted by the rise of streaming services, where compensation isn’t at the same level – an actor who guest starred in an episode of Friends, for example, would receive more money if that episode were repeated on Comedy Central than if someone were to stream it on Netflix, even if the viewership of the latter far outstripped that of the former. (This is complicated further by how opaque streaming services tend to be with their data, often refusing to actually share the viewership information that would inform residual payments.)

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Having said that, it’s worth noting that residual payments are just one aspect of a broader platform of concerns around actors’ livelihoods. In a statement on their website outlining their key negotiating points, SAG-AFTRA’s National Board said that “outdated contract terms, coupled with the evolution of the media business, including shorter season orders and longer hiatuses between seasons makes it increasingly difficult for our members to achieve and maintain a middle-class lifestyle working as a performer.” 

There was some controversy recently regarding the choice by CBS, when renewing comedy Bob Hearts Abishola, to downgrade all but two of its actors from regular cast to recurring cast – therefore reducing the number of episodes they were contracted for, and in turn reducing their pay for the series. At the time, that sudden cutback was met with a lot of criticism, and it’s that sort of decision by networks that will have set the tone going into the strike. 

What’s the significance of AI?

Another issue highlighted by SAG-AFTRA is the looming spectre of generative Artificial Intelligence technology – if a studio can use or manipulate an actor’s likeness or voice without a real human being present, what is there to stop an executive trying to cut corners and remove the original performer altogether?

Use of AI in place of real performers has already started in a faltering sort of way – see the generated version of a young Mark Hamill in Disney’s recent Star Wars series, for example, or the use of AI audiobook narrators – and concerns are growing that such practices will become more widespread. For example, it was reported in the New York Times recently that a Netflix contract would, if signed, allow the company free use of a generated version of an actor’s voice “by all technologies and processes now known or hereafter developed, throughout the universe and in perpetuity.”

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In a statement on their website, SAG-AFTRA detailed their intention to “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.” 

What are self-tapes?

The final issue highlighted by SAG-AFTRA ahead of negotiations with the AMPTP is that of self-tapes. It’s essentially exactly what it sounds like: an audition reel recorded by an actor themselves, usually on a mobile phone at home, in place of the more tradition in-person audition at a studio office. It’s something that became increasingly commonplace through the pandemic, when in-person auditions were undesirable for obvious reasons, but they’ve persisted even past the point when a return to traditional auditions have become viable.

The argument against self-tapes is that, rather than being convenient, they’re effectively pushing the cost of auditions onto the performer when they were previously shouldered by studios. Explaining the key issues ahead of contract negotiations, SAG-AFTRA explained that “self-taped auditions are unregulated and out of control: too many pages, too little time and unreasonable requirements have made self-taping auditions a massive, daily, uncompensated burden on the lives of performers. Reasonable rules and limitations, and access to other casting formats, are sorely needed to ensure fair access to work opportunities and protect performers against exploitation.”

What was the result of the strike authorisation vote? 

SAG-AFTRA members voted 97.91% in favour of a strike. This doesn’t mean a strike is guaranteed, but does mean that SAG-AFTRA negotiators are empowered to call for industrial action if negotiations with the AMPTP break down and their demands aren’t met. Ultimately, 65,000 members of SAG-AFTRA responded to the ballot (around 48% of all eligible members). 

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“I could not be more pleased with this response from the membership. This overwhelming yes vote is a clear statement that it’s time for an evolution in this contract,” said SAG-AFTRA Chief Negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland in a statement on the guild’s website. “As we enter what may be one of the most consequential negotiations in the union’s history, inflation, dwindling residuals due to streaming, and generative AI all threaten actors’ ability to earn a livelihood if our contracts are not adapted to reflect the new realities. This strike authorization means we enter our negotiations from a position of strength, so that we can deliver the deal our members want and deserve.”

The result of the vote comes as the writers’ strike enters its second month and the directors guild (always, despite the occasional wobble, perceived as the least likely union to strike) announced a new deal with the AMPTP.

What would happen if SAG-AFTRA strike?

The impact will be immediately obvious. US television networks have recently been detailing their upcoming schedules at what are called upfronts presentations, where an executive explains what the channel is going to air for the benefit of advertisers. With the writers’ strike in mind, a lot of these schedules have been very heavily built around non-scripted programming – things like Dancing with the Stars or Shark Tank – and described as “strike proof”. Often, though, the presenters of these shows are members of SAG-AFTRA, so these shows perhaps aren’t as “strike proof” as they seemed just a few days ago.

What’s notable – or, if you like, what’s striking – is that this would be the first time this century both writers unions and actors unions are on strike in unison. (To put that into perspective, the last time both groups were on strike at the same time, Eisenhower was President and Ronald Reagan was leader of the Screen Actors Guild union.)

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