“We’re going to shut this town down.”
As the Hollywood writers strike stretched into Day 73 on Thursday, a renewed sense of vigor was evident in the ranks of marching picketers outside of Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank. The number of picketers multiplied this week thanks to a unanimous strike vote by the national board of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), which was unable to reach a contract agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) before a Wednesday night deadline.
As SAG-AFTRA, which has about 160,000 members, joins roughly 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America on the picket line, the strike has effectively shut down production at studios in Hollywood and across the country.
With reinforcements en route, Emmy-nominated writer and WGA strike captain Brittani Nichols told Knock LA that Hollywood’s creatives will tap into a “new level of resolve” amid reported studio plans to avoid the bargaining table in the coming months in an effort to bleed writers dry.
“We’ve entered into a situation in which our profession could die,” Nichols said. “The ability for the normal television writer to be a middle class citizen in Los Angeles that can pay their rent has significantly decreased.”
The rise of streaming, and more recently, generative artificial intelligence (AI), has coincided with a devaluation of written content and the shrinkage or disappearance of residuals, which Nichols said writers have long relied on to survive between shows and assignments.
Writing on a hit show, as Nichols has for breakout mockumentary sitcom Abbott Elementary, no longer pays the bills. As the studios and streamers continued to rake in revenue throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and a high inflationary period, the writers — and now actors — feel they are increasingly left out of the picture.
“These studios are profitable,” Nichols said. “They continue to put more and more money into streaming. It doesn’t make sense for them to pay us less while claiming that [streaming] is an unsure future.”
Even before SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher blasted “very greedy” studio executives Thursday in a fiery, defiant speech announcing the strike at the union’s headquarters, picketers outside Warner Brothers Studio looked ahead to the first concurrent strike by actors and writers since 1960.
“This is not a rehearsal for us,” SAG-AFTRA strike captain Dereck Andrade said. “This is the real deal.”
Andrade has been a consistent presence on the WGA picket line, according to Nichols, as SAG-AFTRA members have frequently lent their support and voices to the strike.
The stakes are tremendously high for Andrade — and thousands of actors who make their mark with roles as character actors and background actors — in particular after AMPTP negotiators offered SAG-AFTRA a “groundbreaking” AI proposal in a final contract package, which union leaders promptly blasted as “disgusting.”
The proposal would have offered background performers one day of pay in exchange for their digital likeness rights “for the rest of eternity,” according to SAG-AFTRA’s national executive director and chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland.
Andrade said actors are fed up with studios and streamers, who he called “soulless” for their reported intention to starve out union support as writers and actors go without their incomes.
“They have no character whatsoever, and they are vile, vile people,” Andrade said. “I hope they hear this and I hope their kids hear this and the friends of their kids hear this. And I hope they don’t emulate these people at Disney, Amazon, and Netflix. I could go right down the list because they’re all the same. The money that we’re making for them, they don’t want to give it back to us.”
Drescher, who starred in 1990s sitcom The Nanny, said the streaming revolution and the increasing prevalence of AI has “disemboweled the industry we once knew.”
“What was [historic about the AI offer] was that we were really so marginalized, so dishonored and so disrespected that it was really egregious and disgusting,” Drescher said.
In a lengthy statement responding to the strike vote, the AMPTP blames the actors guild for having “regrettably chosen a path that will lead to financial hardship for countless thousands of people who depend on the industry.”
The AMPTP announced that its package included the highest percentage increase to minimum pay in 35 years, a 76% increase in foreign streaming video-on-demand residuals for high-budget projects, increases to pension and health contribution caps, limitations on self-tape casting requests, and double-digit pay increases for background actors, stand-ins, and photo doubles.
“A strike is certainly not the outcome we hoped for,” the statement continues, “as studios cannot operate without the performers that bring our TV shows and films to life.”
The essentiality of such performers, and the writers who supply their lines, was not lost on Andrade.
“If you love watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, and The Partridge Family, you’re going to love this strike, because we’re going to shut this town down,” Andrade continued. “We’re going to shut it down. Nothing is going in, nothing is going out.”
The strike directly includes only guild members who are covered by the 2020 television and theatrical contract.
Actress, writer, and director Sarah Ramos derided the AI proposal specifically as an “egregious example” of executives’ disrespect for creatives.
Ramos starred as Patty Pryor in the 2000s drama American Dreams and recently appeared in the second season of Hulu hit The Bear, but her focus in recent months has been on demanding economic fairness from studios so actors can survive and do their jobs with dignity.
She explained that when the pandemic hit, actors wanted to help the industry stay afloat, so they took on the burden as the film and television industry “pivoted completely to self-taping” for casting.
“Actors took on the burden of casting and did that in our own homes,” Ramos said. “We worked our asses off and made sacrifices. We showed up, and in response, the studios have saved hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet, when we’re telling them what we need, they are dismissive, disrespectful, and stingy.”
Ramos also critiqued AMPTP’s claim that its most recent offer was “historic” in any meaningful way. She said the proposed health and pension contribution cap increases would do little to impact struggling guild members and that executives have been “getting a billion-dollar-plus free ride on our pension and health for 40 years.”
“Anything is historic,” she said, “if you were offering nothing in the past or less than nothing in the past.”
WGA strike captain Aaron Fullerton said the drag-it-out strategy of studios and statements from Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger — who characterized the writers’ strike as “very disturbing” and occurring at the “worst time” — has simply fired up the guilds.
“I think the more the studios make public statements, it feels like the bigger hole they continue to dig, in terms of showing exactly their true colors in terms of how much they expect us to sacrifice and how little they themselves are willing to,” Fullerton said.
After Abbott Elementary earned a host of Emmy Award nominations this week, Nichols announced that she would not campaign on behalf of the show, in keeping with the strike’s spirit.
She hopes that people outside the entertainment industry continue to show support as writers and actors demand better treatment.
Studios and streaming “inadvertently trained us for this moment,” Nichols said. “With the shortened writers’ rooms, with the shortened episode orders, writers have been trying to figure out how to make ends meet for months and months of no work for years at this point. So a lot of us, unfortunately, are prepared to not make money for a long period of time.”
Andrade closed with a stern message to the power players and executives who continue to deny the guilds’ demands.
“They think that we’re expendable,” Andrade said. “Well, we’re not. There are 160,000 of us. And I’ll tell you, when they see us come out, they are going to know that we are SAG-AFTRA.”