Hollywood Shutdown Begins as Striking Actors Join Writers on Picket Lines

REUTERS/Mike Blake
SAG-AFTRA union President Fran Drescher (C) and Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator (L), demonstrate as SAG-AFTRA actors join the Writers Guild of America (WGA) in a strike against the Hollywood studios, on the picket like outside of Netflix offices in Los Angeles, California, U.S., July 14, 2023.

A historic Hollywood shutdown arrived Friday with fiery chants, sweltering weather and an underwhelming show of A-list stars as TV and film actors hit the picket lines in Los Angeles and New York, joining their writing counterparts in a massive mobilization against major production studios following the breakdown of contract negotiations earlier this week.

From the Paramount offices in Times Square to the Netflix grounds on Sunset Boulevard, droves of strikers poured into the streets waving protest signs and reciting chants in solidarity with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), which represents 160,000 members. High-profile actors were largely absent during the first day of double strikes, with many opting to voice their grievances and support on social media. Among some of the Hollywood names spotted on the picket lines were Susan Sarandon, Jason Sudeikis, Mandy Moore, Sanaa Lathan, Anthony Rapp, Uzo Aduba, Kendrick Sampson and Merritt Wever.

Outside the Netflix office in Los Angeles, picketing reached a fever pitch as SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher arrived with other union leaders. Crowds began chanting “That’s our president,” “SAG-AFTRA strong,” and “The jig is up” – a reference to searing remarks “The Nanny” star directed at the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the bargaining group representing major studios.

The striking actors join 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), who walked off sets at the beginning of May, in a Hollywood standoff that dramatically escalates a labor crisis in the industry and likely shuts down nearly all remaining film projects that had been in production. It marks the first time Hollywood’s writers and actors have simultaneously withheld their work in 63 years.

From the picket lines at 888 Broadway in New York, Sarandon told The Washington Post that they had “no other choice” but to strike. The AMPTP “isn’t even addressing our main concerns,” Sarandon said.

The AMPTP has placed the blame on the actors union for not reaching a deal. SAG-AFTRA “dismissed our offer of historic pay and residual increases, substantially higher caps on pension and health contributions, audition protections, shortened series option periods, a groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses and more,” AMPTP spokesman Scott Rowe said Thursday.

SAG-AFTRA has many of the same grievances as the WGA, which revolve around technological advancements that have dramatically altered the industry, namely the rise of streaming services and the emergence of artificial intelligence. They are demanding a regulated use of the technology, higher pay, and better health, retirement and pension benefits.

In Times Square, the area’s infamous Naked Cowboy marched with about a hundred protesters. His SAG card was taped to his guitar, and he strummed along with chants that “New York is a union town.”

“I’ve been in three movies, and I’m going to be a movie star. So it’s important for me to be out here.” He expressed gratitude for his signature ensemble in the heat.

As members of the general public merged with high-profile stars at the site of protests, a few star-struck moments inevitably arose: Screaming teenagers (and some dads) captured video of Sudeikis from inside the FAO Schwarz at Rockefeller Center, while the “Ted Lasso” actor picketed outside with actor Corey Stoll and comedian Alex Edelman.

Rapp, the actor best known for originating the role of Mark in “Rent,” picketed with his husband and their 7-month-old son, Rai, outside the Broadway offices of Warner Bros. Discovery and Netflix, where strikers faced muggy 88-degree weather and occasional rain showers. His frustration with studios was palpable. “They didn’t even sit across the table from us” as the final days to negotiate ticked down, he said. “They canceled the meeting. Wouldn’t even have a sidebar. Wouldn’t engage to work on a deal.”

Studios “talk to the shareholders about record profits,” Rapp added. “We’re not talking about wanting all of it. We want a share of it that is fair, to be distributed among the people who did the labor.”

Other strikers echoed similar concerns about pay on Friday.

From the picket line in New York, “Better Call Saul” actress Julie Ann Emery cited the ways that technology has contributed to lower pay, saying her wages have dropped “with each iteration of technology.”

Experts say streaming shows have come with structural changes, including shorter seasons, that leave both writers and actors with less pay. That has also spurred lower residuals – the financial compensation entertainers receive based on how much their work is viewed – while “the studios are posting immense profits with a bullish outlook as demonstrated by lavish corporate executive compensation,” according to SAG-AFTRA’s website.

Lathan and Aduba picketed together outside Warner Bros. in Burbank, where temperatures climbed to 98 degrees.

“At least when you worked back in the day you saw residuals and you could pay your bills. I think I got my SAG card doing a Secret deodorant commercial,” said Lathan, known for starring roles in “Love & Basketball” and “The Best Man.” She added, “I was able to pay my rent back then for a whole year, while I was still a struggling actor going out for auditions. That would never happen today.”

Aduba, who is pregnant, carried a sign that read “Picketing for 2.”

“It should not be the standard or the status quo that someone has a job, is working and still is unable to make their rent,” she said.

The strikes arrive as studio executives eye a strong box-office summer with next Friday’s dual release of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” widely anticipated to be the biggest movie weekend of the year. Stars of Christopher Nolan’s nuclear weapon drama, including Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh and Robert Downey, Jr. walked out of the film’s red carpet premiere in London after the actors strike was announced. And its New York premiere, set for Monday, has been canceled, pointing to more ripple effects from the industry’s work stoppage.

SAG-AFTRA strikers must leave the sets of their movies and TV shows, and are also prohibited from promoting their work, which could have a major impact on film festivals, upcoming releases and award show campaigns. It leaves Hollywood at an inflection point that could define it for decades to come.