With Hollywood on Edge, Actors and Studios Brace for Word on SAG-AFTRA Contract Talks

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With a deadline looming, the actors’ union could announce a deal with the AMPTP, extend the talks — or join the WGA on the picket lines this Friday night

FEBRUARY 26: SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher speaks onstage during the 29th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards (Getty Collection)
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SAG-AFTRA stood just a day away from the expiration of its current contract with Hollywood studios, and the entertainment industry waited nervously Thursday to see whether the actors guild’s talks on a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers would lead to a tentative agreement or an order to join writers on the picket lines.

Union spokespeople declined to comment, citing a customary media blackout during contract negotiations. But two individuals with knowledge of the talks told TheWrap that there’s a good chance that the guild would announce an extension to with the AMPTP that would last beyond the Fourth of July weekend.

Such an extension would not be unusual, as the parties agreed to similar ones during negotiations in 2014 and 2017. Prior to the start of talks, SAG-AFTRA leaders told TheWrap that their contract negotiations with AMPTP traditionally involve detailed discussions on terms for various types of performers, including stuntmen and background actors among others. If an extension is called, it may simply be to give negotiators time to iron out details.

Last weekend, the guild released a video from president Fran Drescher and national executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland expressing optimism about the progress made with AMPTP towards a deal.

“I just want to assure you that we are having an extremely productive negotiations that are laser-focused on all of the crucial issues you told us are most important to you,” Drescher said. “And we’re standing strong and we’re going to achieve a seminal deal.”

But the final stages of talks are happening under an atmosphere of intense labor militancy and union solidarity that has not been seen in Hollywood in decades. Earlier this week, a letter shared and signed by hundreds of SAG-AFTRA members, including A-listers like Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence, was published urging the guild’s negotiating committee to not settle for unsatisfactory compromises on key issues like consent and compensation for AI recreations of performers.

“We hope you’ve heard the message from us: This is an unprecedented inflection point in our industry, and what might be considered a good deal in any other years is simply not enough,” read the letter.

“We feel that our wages, our craft, our creative freedom and the power of our union have all been undermined in the last decade. We need to reverse those trajectories,” the letter continued. “We believe that, if we settle for a less than transformative deal, the future of our union and our craft will be undermined, and SAG-AFTRA will enter the next negotiation with drastically reduced leverage.”

Along with AI, SAG-AFTRA members are looking for stricter regulations regarding the use of audition tapes, which guild insiders say have become too burdensome on actors. Among the abuses the guild is looking to curtail are demands on actors to perform significant portions of the script with less than two to three days to memorize the script, provide their own costuming and sets or rent out performance space.

But the biggest potential sticking point may be the battle over viewership data, as SAG-AFTRA members, like their WGA counterparts, are demanding that streamers divulge closely guarded numbers about the performance of their shows and movies and compensate creatives based on that performance.

The recently ratified contract between the Directors Guild and the AMPTP didn’t have any terms regarding viewership data, increasing the possibility of the AMPTP using that as precedent to not include such terms in a potential agreement with the WGA or SAG-AFTRA, both of which have publicly said that they supported DGA in its agreement but would not be beholden to that guild’s terms during their negotiations.

As the industry waits for a resolution, studios have been forced to significantly alter their marketing plans for summer blockbusters to account for a potential strike that would see actors pull out of press junkets, movie premieres, and major fan events and conventions.

Warner Bros., for example, just held a lavish press junket and photo call in Beverly Hills for its July 21 release of “Barbie,” holding interviews with its stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling ahead of the contract deadline. Multiple studios, including Marvel, have also pulled out of hosting panels and sneak preview events at next month’s San Diego Comic-Con, which usually hosts stars for the biggest tentpole blockbusters in its famous Hall H.

If talks between SAG-AFTRA and AMPTP fall through even with a contract extension, Hollywood would face a simultaneous strike from two of its unions for the first time since 1960, when the WGA and the Screen Actors Guild both withheld their labor over compensation for reruns and airings of feature films, forming the foundation for the residual system that decades later is facing significant changes to reflect a streaming-first industry.

A deal, on the other hand, would likely lead to debates within the SAG-AFTRA membership over whether the tentative agreement’s negotiated gains are enough to make it worthy of ratification or should be rejected to push for better terms. In 2020, that debate largely took place between members of the guild’s Unite for Strength caucus, of when then-president Gabrielle Carteris was a member, and the opposing Membership First caucus, which controlled SAG-AFTRA’s Los Angeles local.

But earlier this week, the two caucuses signaled that such a debate between them might not happen this time. In a show of solidarity against the studios, Unite for Strength and Membership First announced that they would campaign together in the guild’s upcoming elections to re-elect UFS member Fran Drescher as president and MF member Joely Fisher as secretary-treasurer, along with a unified slate of candidates to the local and national board.

“This comes at a time when the membership truly needs the full weight of their union fighting for their creative and economic ideals, not against each other. This most important and historic contract negotiation takes center stage,” Fisher said in a statement.