We did it.” So spoke Fran Drescher, actor, comedian and president of the American actors union Sag-Aftra. On Thursday morning, the industrial action that brought Hollywood grinding to a halt finally came to an end after 118 days. The writers union (WGA) had called off its own 146-day strike in late September, having also struck a deal with the studios. The combined effect of the two labour stoppages has reverberated throughout popular culture. Film and TV productions have shut down – not just Stateside, but in the UK and internationally – while performers and crew members have been left in professional limbo.
The end of the strike was always inevitable; there is no way of producing quality scripted shows without the involvement of actors or writers. The surprise was that it went on for as long as it did, that the studios were content to lose so much money before capitulating. The deal ultimately reached between Sag-Aftra and the studio bosses has been described as an agreement worth $1bn; the strikes themselves are estimated to have cost California’s economy more than $5bn. Even those already-shot films that did make it to screen on time were hamstrung by strike rules – with actors unable to promote them in interviews.
Many of the shockwaves, though, are yet to be truly felt by those outside the industry. While production was halted on series such as Stranger Things and films like Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two, there was still a backlog of already-filmed material that has been making its way to cinemas. Over the next year, as productions start to get underway again, the backlog will begin to dry up.
Often, there is a tendency among people to disparage the work of actors. To some, the acting profession will always be a cabal of luvvies – vain, rich egotists caught up in a neverending video singalong of “Imagine”. But this is of course not the case. Sag-Aftra comprises some 160,000 performers. For every Leonardo DiCaprio, there are a hundred jobbing actors barely eking out a living. To an outside observer, the union’s demands also seemed perfectly reasonable. Their arguments orbited several factors, including regulation around the use of AI technology, and residuals received from streaming releases.
AI may be the buzzier of these issues, but it is from the industry-wide pivot to streaming that most of the contractual problems have arisen. The refusal of companies like Netflix to give their films full theatrical releases – sometimes films with nine-figure budgets – has cut off cinema’s time-tested revenue stream. Streaming is not as profitable as traditional release models; it is likely that companies will start relying on more traditional methods of generating revenue (theatrical releases for films; interstitial advertising for TV) going forward, in combination with streaming strategies.
In an interview with Variety this week, Christopher Nolan – whose $1bn-grossing biopic Oppenheimer was a rallying call for traditional release methods – claimed: “Part of the craziness with the labour negotiations this summer has been the studios sitting there and going, ‘Well, we can’t pay you because we don’t have enough money,’ To which the answer is ‘Well, you don’t have enough money because you’re not managing your business correctly. You’re not getting the same amount of money for your product that you were before.’” The director, who parted ways with Warner Bros for, among other things, his insistence on a theatrical release over streaming, said that Hollywood’s “shift to streaming” has “disrupted the entire industry and created problems for everybody”.
While Sag-Aftra is an American union, Hollywood’s spidery influence over global pop culture means that the ramifications for many in the UK were brutal. Our country relies heavily on US investment when it comes to filmmaking – and the strikes saw work dry up for many over here, and not just those British actors in Sag. “This strike has highlighted the need for us to further strengthen our own homegrown industry and get some government support,” says Blair Barnette, the chair of the British Film Designers Guild. “We really need to invest into the UK infrastructure and not rely so heavily on Hollywood. Because we have no control over what the unions do. Obviously we’re behind the message that they were sending and what they were fighting for, but ultimately we made these great sacrifices for things that we have no say in.”
And of course, the work stoppages don’t only throw actors’ livelihoods into precarity, but creatives and technicians from across the entertainment sphere. Barnette tells me: “You see in the media everybody talking about what’s happening in America, on this other soil. But only recently are people even acknowledging that British people were suffering. And there was no recourse. None of us could ask for help.”
Today is a day of optimism
Christopher Ross, president of the cinematographers union
According to Barnette, 83 per cent of the Guild’s membership have been out of work since the strikes, with the majority of designers – along with other technical craftspeople – being freelancers. “The hardships have been there,” says Christopher Ross, the president of the cinematographers union. “Crew members have had to remortgage their houses, big loans have been taken out, pension savings have been utilised to see people through this period of time.”
It was also a matter of bad timing. When strikes were called, the nation’s entertainment industry was still recovering from the decimation wrought by Covid. But not just this: in the UK, Summer is traditionally the time of fertile work for those in the industry, with production slowing in the wintertime. The fact that the strikes came in spring, when these mostly freelance workers were gearing up for what they thought would be their busy season, has exacerbated the strain.
The question of what happens now differs vastly from project to project. Some productions, such as the high-budget musical adaptation Wicked, were a few weeks from the end of filming when the strikes were initiated; they are expected to resume filming at the earliest opportunity. The problem arises with films and series that haven’t yet been “greenlit” – that is, given the go-ahead by the studios. With companies unable to greenlight new projects during the writers’ strike, it’s not simply going to be a matter of someone calling “action” and the industry will be back up and running again. Big projects take months of pre-production – scouting, casting, etc – before filming begins, meaning that some trades are likely to recover sooner than others.
“The bleak outlook, or possibly the realest outlook, is that the [post-strike production boom] will come in early spring, at the earliest,” says Ross. “But obviously today is a day of optimism.”
A more optimistic estimate for when productions will start resuming again in earnest would be before Christmas – a suggestion echoed by Adrian Wootton, the head of the British Film Commission. “We’re expecting a very busy period,” he tells me, noting that some projects have already been rushed into pre-production as soon as the writers’ strike finished. “Because there’s a lot of productions that were suspended, and other productions planning to come in. It’s great for the casts, crews and it’s great for the UK because that revenue will start flowing back.”
It would be oversimplifying things to suggest that the strike has “solved” things. AI regulation; streaming services; these are not going to simply go away any time soon. But for the actors’ union, this week constituted a big win. And a win for them seems to be a win for everybody.