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Actors are poised to go on strike against studios and streaming services

<i>SAG-AFTRA</i><br/>SAG-AFTRA members preparing picket signs last week in preparation for a possible strike.
SAG-AFTRA members preparing picket signs last week in preparation for a possible strike.

By Chris Isidore, CNN

New York (CNN) — Some very famous faces are once again less than a day away from hitting the picket lines as the union representing about 160,000 actors prepares to possibly go on strike against major studios and streaming services.

The current contract for the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) expires at 11:59 pm PDT Wednesday. The union faced a previous strike deadline on July 1, only to announce an 11th-hour contract extension. But nearly two weeks that followed haven’t produced any kind of breakthrough to avoid a strike.

The final day of talks will include a federal mediator, which studio management and streaming services’ executives requested late Monday. The actors union agreed but made clear that it was not willing to grant another extension and that if the final day of talks does not produce a last-minute deal, it will go on strike.

“We are committed to the negotiating process and will explore and exhaust every possible opportunity to make a deal, however we are not confident that the employers have any intention of bargaining toward an agreement,” said the union statement.

The Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers (AMPTP), which is negotiating on behalf of the studios, includes Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), CBS (VIAC), Disney (DIS), NBC Universal, Netflix (NFLX), Paramount Global, Sony (SNE) and CNN parent company Warner Bros. Discovery. It did not have a comment about the 11th hour request for mediation or what it hoped would be accomplished.

Union anger at mediation request

The union was clearly angered by the last-minute request for mediation. It said there were published reports in trade publications about the AMPTP’s desire to have mediation even before the request was made to union negotiators at the bargaining table.

“The AMPTP has abused our trust and damaged the respect we have for them in this process. We will not be manipulated by this cynical ploy to engineer an extension when the companies have had more than enough time to make a fair deal.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is a government agency set up to try to prevent strikes by bringing two sides together. Its site says its mediators can become involved when both labor and management request help. But the federal mediators have no power to force one side or the other to accept the other side’s bargaining position, or to even order another contract extension.

But mediators are typically brought in long before the final day before a contract expires and strike is due to start.

“I think it’s too little, too late. It’s going to take an outside party several weeks to get his or her arms around these issues,” said Tom Nunan, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, as well as a film producer and writer.

Another expert said the union likely only accepted the offer of mediation to remove a management talking point that the union wasn’t interested in reaching a deal.

“The optics look better if the union agrees to their last-minute request, as opposed to refusing to meet with a mediator,” said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment lawyer, writer and author of a book on the 2007-08 writers strike, “Hollywood on Strike!: An Industry at War in the Internet Age.”

He said the request for mediation does not seem like a genuine attempt to reach a deal and avoid a strike.

“They could have brought a mediator weeks ago, or months ago,” said Handel. “This is a ploy. This is noise to try to squeeze another extension out of the union and the union isn’t biting on it.”

Sides still far apart on major issues

Handel said while it’s likely that some agreements have been reached in the two weeks since the original strike deadline, it’s apparent the two sides remain far apart on some difficult-to-settle issues, including how to pay residuals, or additional payments to actors, when shows appear on streaming services. The concerns also include the use of artificial intelligence in productions and economic issues such as pensions and health care contributions.

“All the fingers are pointing in one direction, and it’s not towards a settlement,” he said.

If they do strike, the actors could join more than 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America, who have already been on strike for two months.

Production of many movies and television shows have already been shut down by the current writers strike. An actors strike would bring most remaining productions to a halt, other than on some independent films not associated with studios. There has been no visible progress in ending the writers strike since it started. Now, there are concerns that if the actors join the writers on strike, the shutdowns could stretch through the summer, maybe even through the end of the year.

This would be the first actors strike against television shows and movie productions since 1980. The industry has obviously changed radically since then, when most shows were on just three broadcast networks and movies were only shown first in theaters. Video rental giant Blockbuster hadn’t started yet, let alone been forced out of business by streaming.

AI impact a concern

The difficulty of coming up with new contract language to cover the age of streaming services and artificial intelligence is what makes many people doubtful a contract can be reached without a strike.

“This is a sea-change negotiation,” said David Mumpower, a media expert, chief content officer of Mickeyblog, which tracks news about Disney, and co-host of the “Streaming into the Void” podcast. “And if they get it wrong now, they’re going to have it wrong for decades.”

There is some belief that the use of AI could pose as great or even a greater threat to acting jobs than it poses to writing jobs in the industry. There is a belief that the contract will set guidelines for compensation for the use of AI, not an outright ban on the technology.

“We all agree AI is going to be used. We don’t know yet how it will be used,” said Nunan.

The talks also come at a time when the major media companies and tech companies that have jumped into the world of streaming services are focused on cost cutting and profitability, rather than just subscriber growth as they were a few years ago. Many of those companies have seen drops in their stock price in the last year, prompting deep cost cutting, including layoffs.

Just before the last deadline, it seemed as if an actors strike could be avoided. Fran Drescher, the star of the 1990s sitcom “The Nanny” and the current president of SAG-AFTRA, recorded a video message to members saying that the union was having “extremely productive negotiations” with AMPTP.

Stars sign on

But soon after that came a letter signed by many high profile actors and actresses — including Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Jennifer Lawrence, Bob Odenkirk, Mark Ruffalo, Quinta Brunson and Rami Malek, among others — urging the union to take a hard line. The letter said they were prepared to go on strike for the contract that members need going forward.

“A strike brings incredible hardships to so many, and no one wants it,” said the letter. “But we are prepared to strike if it comes to that. And we are concerned by the idea that SAG-AFTRA members may be ready to make sacrifices that leadership is not. 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.”

More than 300 actors signed the letter initially, and the signature count has now climbed to more than 1,000, according to trade publication Deadline. Among those who have signed on are Charlize Theron, Joaquin Phoenix, Jamie Lee Curtis, Cobie Smulders and Pedro Pascal.

Interestingly, Drescher herself has signed the letter. When the extension was announced, Drescher seemed to be addressing those calling for a tough line in talks when she said in an email to membership, “No one should mistake this extension for weakness. We see you. We hear you. We are you.”

But Drescher has since faced criticism on social media for attending a Dolce & Gabbana’s Alta Moda festivities in Southern Italy this past weekend. The union issued a statement saying that the appearance was part of commitment to serve as a “brand ambassador,” and that she had been continuing to participate in negotiations remotely. But members took to social media to criticize the optics of her appearing there with a strike deadline looming.

Any potential split within the union could signal that even if a deal is reached at the 11th hour, it might be difficult to win ratification by rank-and-file members. Ratification is a process that would take several weeks, meaning that actors would keep working during the vote process. But if a majority of union members vote no on a deal, it could still lead to a strike later in the month.

– CNN’s Vanessa Yurkevich contributed to this report

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