Hollywood television production is starting to ramp back up following the resolution of the 148-day Writers’ Guild of America strike. Late-night programming is set to return this week and writing is slated to resume on hits like HBO’s “The Last of Us” Season 2.
But production of scripted series like ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” NBC’s “Law & Order,” HBO’s “Euphoria” and others still hinges on SAG-AFTRA striking its own deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to get actors back to work and promoting upcoming shows.
After a “full day bargaining session” on Monday between the guild’s negotiating committee and the studios, talks are slated to resume on Wednesday to resolve the actors strike, which began on July 14.
Here is a look at five of the top issues at stake for TV actors in the talks between the AMPTP and the union.
As in the writers’ strike, one of the key issues in SAG-AFTRA negotiations involves the use of AI, as striking actors seek protections from their image being used by studios in future TV shows or movies without proper compensation.
“The issue of AI is significant for our future, for the future of our industry, and actually, this is a global problem — this will affect workers all around the world,” “1923” star Sebastian Roché told TheWrap on the picket line outside of Fox Studios in Los Angeles on the first day of the SAG-AFTRA strike in July. “It will apply to actors if we don’t fight to copyright our images — we can’t have our images being used in perpetuity without getting paid for it.”
The guild aims to protect its members by carving out control for actors to prevent studios from using their likeness and performances for future productions without consent and fair compensation.
Whereas the WGA and DGA took more oppositional stances to AI — with DGA contract language stating that “generative AI cannot replace the duties performed by members” — SAG-AFTRA national executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland has said that AI could be used in a way that increases opportunities for actors.
“We definitely recognize that there are real risks to jobs, but past history has shown that resisting technology or pretending it doesn’t exist or hoping things don’t change doesn’t work,” Crabtree-Ireland told TheWrap in a March interview. “We need to be ahead of the curve and have a say in how this technology will be used. And in doing so, we can help our members learn how they can benefit from AI.”
In July, the AMPTP said it offered a “groundbreaking AI proposal which protects performers’ digital likenesses, including a requirement for performer’s consent for the creation and use of digital replicas or for digital alterations of a performance,” though it didn’t elaborate on specific details.
Compensation tied to streaming viewership and residuals
When it comes to streaming residuals — which were a major part of the WGA strike negotiations — the actors’ guild has proposed receiving a percentage of streaming revenue based on the viewership for each individual TV show or movie on the streamer. This proposal would look similar to how broadcast residuals work, where those involved in a hit TV show would benefit from the series’ success.
“When we were working for the networks, we would get between 22 and 24 episodes a year. People who are getting paid, let’s say, $5,000 or even $10,000 an episode,” SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee member Shari Belafonte told TheWrap in July. “Now, in the era of streaming, typical episode counts have decreased to eight to 10 episodes a season and residuals have largely evaporated for streamers.”
Belafonte also broke down the problem of advance pay.
“A lot of people get these contracts, and they don’t realize that when their agents negotiate, you’re getting $10,000. You think you’re getting $10,000 and that you’re going to get your residuals afterwards,” she said. Instead, Belafonte explained, studios now include actors’ residuals, say $3,000, as part of that upfront fee, limiting what they can make if their shows becomes a success.
“Some people like the advance pay,” Belafonte said. But she also noted that as three-season shows have become more common in the streaming age, it has impacted how much many performers are making. It’s become increasingly common for studios to end a series after three seasons, right before they would have to renegotiate contracts.
“Ultimately, the actors are cut loose and the writers are cut loose, and nobody gets the kind of dollars they used to be able to get to take care of themselves anymore,” Belafonte said.
The WGA’s tentative deal with the AMPTP notably made gains in compensation tied to streaming, with the studios set to provide confidential viewership data on their shows based on hours viewed. The guild can then share an aggregated form of the data with its members.
Starting in 2024, streaming titles with budgets of more than $30 million that are viewed by 20% or more of the service’s domestic subscribers in the first 90 days of release get a bonus equal to 50% of the fixed domestic and foreign residual. To calculate total views, streamers tally the number of hours streamed domestically of a movie or show’s season divided by its runtime. For example, projects written under the new agreement on the largest streaming platforms would receive a bonus of $9,031 for a half-hour episode, $16,415 for a single-hour episode, or $40,500 for a streaming feature.
For globally available services, streaming residuals will be based on the streaming platform’s number of foreign subscribers. That will amount to a 76% increase (including a 2.5% base increase) to the foreign residual for the services with the largest global subscriber bases over three years. The formula is the same as the foreign residual structure negotiated by the Directors Guild of America this past summer. When combined with the foreign residual improvements, this should result in a three-year residual of $216,000 for projects on the largest streaming platforms. That would represent a 49% increase from the $144,993 under the 2020 mutual bargaining agreement.
While the majority of streamers publicly disclose their subscriber figures on a quarterly basis, tech giants Apple and Amazon notably don’t. Instead, their streaming services are included in the Apple One and Prime bundles, respectively.
In July, the AMPTP said it offered the actors’ guild a 76% increase in high budget SVOD foreign residuals, fixed residuals for stunt coordinators on television and high budget SVOD programs for the first time ever, and limits on the amount of initial compensation that can be advanced or prepaid as residuals.
Minimum wage-rate increases
Another key sticking point in negotiations is scale wages. SAG-AFTRA is calling for an 11% boost in minimum rates for actors in the first year of the new contract and 4% increases in each of the following two years.
The guild says that such increases are necessary to allow its working-class members to keep up with inflation and the rising cost of living, particularly in Los Angeles. But the AMPTP has stuck firm for decades on using pattern bargaining on labor contract terms that apply across unions, and is only offering the annual minimum increases of 5%, 4% and 3.5% that were agreed upon with the Directors Guild of America earlier this summer.
According to SAG-AFTRA, 87% of union members currently don’t meet the $26,000 per-year threshold required to qualify for health insurance.
“We’re literally working paycheck to paycheck,” Michelle Hurd, the union’s Los Angeles chapter vice president, previously told TheWrap in July. She noted that a guest star receives a “top of show” rate, which generally could be anywhere between $5,000 to $8,000 an episode.
“Maybe that sounds great,” she added. “Say I cobble together two or three guest star [appearances] during this year, our audiences sees me on three or four different shows and they’re like, ‘Wow, that actress is working, she’s doing all this stuff.’ [But] by doing that, I have still not qualified for my health insurance.”
The AMPTP previously said it offered the “highest percentage increase in minimums in 35 years” and “substantial increases in pension and health contribution caps.” Additionally, it offered a 58% increase in salaries for major role (guest star) performers wages on high budget (starting at $1 million for a 23-30 minute and up from there) SVOD programs; an 11% pay increase in year one for background actors, stand-ins and photo doubles; an additional 17% increase for background actors required to do extensive self-styling; and an additional 62% increase for stand-ins required to deliver lines during a run-through and photo doubles required to memorize and deliver lines on camera.
Better working conditions
An unacceptably low minimum rate isn’t the only way the modern film and TV system has hurt actors. Working conditions on these projects is also a major point of contention in the SAG-AFTRA strike, especially when it comes to lesser-understood roles.
One example are background actors, who make up a majority of SAG-AFTRA. Max Goldbaum, a New York-based actor, said in a strike roundtable in July that there’s a “lack of respect” toward those in this line of work. During his time as a background actor, he and his peers have had to contend with drastically uncomfortable costuming, such as wearing “almost no clothing” while it’s freezing and “tons of layers” in intense heat. He’s also witnessed multiple background actors go to the hospital because of heat stroke and said he has been served questionable food while on set.
“I remember one time everybody got food poisoning on one day because they gave us rotten hamburgers,” Goldbaum said. “They didn’t give that to the rest of the crew because they knew that they were giving us the worst food. They do that to cut costs. But I also feel like it’s a lack of respect.”
SAG-AFTRA performers such as singers, recording artists, dancers and stunt people also have their own workplace concerns. That includes the ability to obtain insurance as well as the need for consistent work, an aspect that used to be taken for granted and that’s now being threatened by AI.
Similarly, California, which is where the majority of production happens in the U.S., still doesn’t offer unemployment insurance. That safety net exists in New York and New Jersey for anyone who is on strike for more than two weeks. California legislators introduced a bill to remedy that in September, which Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed. While not specifically a guild issue, it does add extra strain for those on the picket lines.
The potential for abuses around self-taped auditions is another major issue specific to actors.
Labor insiders previously told TheWrap that a significant number of SAG-AFTRA members have raised complaints that studios, producers and casting agents were making unreasonable demands, such as requiring them to furnish their own sets or wardrobe for an audition reel, or submit a tape of them performing 12 pages of dialogue with just one day’s notice. Some actors even complained that they were asked to engage in dangerous activities like performing while driving.
“The idea that actors need to spend hundreds of dollars to rent what amounts to a studio facility so that they can self-tape an audition is the sort of abuse that we are looking to curtail,” SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said in June.
The AMPTP previously said it offered a limitation on self-tape requests, including page, time and tech requirements, and the option for virtual or in-person auditions.
Jeremy Fuster contributed to this report.
For all of TheWrap’s strike coverage, click here.