An all-out strike brings Hollywood to a halt

PART-WAY THROUGH the London premiere of “Oppenheimer”, Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster about the father of the atomic bomb, the film’s stars were conspicuously absent. “We’ve seen them earlier on the red carpet,” Mr Nolan told his audience. “Unfortunately they are off to write their picket signs.” On July 14th the 160,000 members of the ​​Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, better known as SAG-AFTRA, went on strike.

The union represents all kinds of performers, from actors such as Cillian Murphy, the star of “Oppenheimer”, to broadcast journalists and voiceover artists. The contract between SAG-AFTRA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the negotiating body for the studios, expired on June 30th, but the sides decided to extend negotiations until July 12th. No deal was reached.

On the first morning of the strike, picket lines in Los Angeles and New York swelled with performers. Cars honking their horns in support of picketers could be heard blocks from Netflix’s corporate offices in Hollywood, even above the din of the 101 freeway. Hundreds of picketers marched around the block, carrying signs for SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the union of screenwriters, who launched their own strike back in May. It is the first time both unions have been on strike at the same time since 1960. “Y’all bankrupt Blockbuster for this?” one placard taunted, referring to a defunct video-rental giant.

Both strikes are a result of the ways in which streaming has upended television and film. Indeed, the writers’ strike has come to be known as the “Netflix strike”. Actors and writers alike claim they can no longer make a living on residuals, or the money they get each time something they worked on is rebroadcast. (How to even define “rebroadcast”, in an era when viewers can binge on their favourite shows and films endlessly?) They complain that the streamers keep viewership data a secret, making it impossible to understand why a show got cancelled, if a series went viral, and whether artists should be asking for more money for hits. “This is a strike of the working-class actor,” says Vanessa Chester, who has been acting since the age of three. “And we’re about to be eradicated.”

The rise of generative AI also has actors worried about being replaced by simulations of themselves. (“ChatGPT suck my D” was another memorable picket sign.) The union alleges that the studios offered to pay actors for one day of work to scan their image and likeness, which they could then use in perpetuity. In a press conference announcing the strike, Fran Drescher, star of the 1990s sitcom “The Nanny” and SAG-AFTRA’s president, was almost quaking with rage. “If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble. We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines.”

How will the strike affect Hollywood? In addition to shutting down television and film production in America, SAG-AFTRA warns members against promoting their projects at film festivals, fan expos, talk shows, premieres and more. If the stoppage stretches into September, the red carpet for the Emmys will be a sorry affair. Cities that depend on film and TV production will also take a hit. When the writers’ guild went on strike for 100 days in 2007 and 2008 the state of California lost $2.1bn. The WGA reckons that their current strike is costing the state $30m a day. But LA’s economy is diverse, and probably quite resilient. Harvard University’s Growth Lab found that the motion-picture and sound-recording industry in Los Angeles in 2021 employed nearly five times more people than comparable global cities. Yet those workers make up less than 2% of the city’s workforce.

Union membership across the country fell to a record low in 2022: just 10.1% of Americans are card-carrying members. But the Hollywood strikes come as labour unrest grows in California, and beyond. In the past year alone, Los Angeles’s school employees (though not teachers) and hotel workers also walked off the job. The Bureau of Labour Statistics counted 23 work stoppages of 1,000 workers or more in 2022, the second-highest number since 2002. If United Parcel Service (UPS) workers walk out starting on August 1st, as they are threatening to do, a ten-day work stoppage could be one of America’s costliest strikes in living memory.

Joe Biden is the most pro-labour president in generations, and would like his ambitious industrial policy to swell the ranks of America’s trade unions. When screenwriters went on strike in May, many worried that Americans would have little sympathy for denizens of Hollywood, but they found solidarity among other unions. For example the Teamsters, the trucking union, refused to cross the WGA’s picket lines to make deliveries to studios.

When your correspondent arrived at Netflix, picketers were still buzzing about an appearance from Ms Drescher that morning, who had come to fill them in on the failed negotiations. Ms Drescher seems quite at home antagonising studio executives. In one sense, she’s been practising for the role of union president for decades. In one episode of “The Nanny” her character, Fran Fine, warns her co-star that he should “never, ever, ever cross a picket line”.