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Hollywood Shifts Attention to Performers After Writers Reach Agreement

Hollywood’s actors are back in the spotlight.

With screenwriters reaching a tentative agreement with the major entertainment studios on a new labor deal on Sunday night, one big obstacle stands in the way of the film and TV industry roaring back to life: ending the strike with tens of thousands of actors.

The two sides have not spoken in more than two months, and no talks are scheduled.

Leaders of SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, have indicated a willingness to negotiate, but the studios made a strategic decision in early August to focus on reaching a détente with the writers first. A big reason was the rhetoric of Fran Drescher, the president of the actors’ union, who made one fiery speech after the next following the strike, including one in which she denounced studio executives as “land barons of a medieval time.”

“Eventually, the people break down the gates of Versailles,” Ms. Drescher said after the actors’ strike was called in July. “And then it’s over. We’re at that moment right now.”

Ms. Drescher has been less vocal in recent weeks, however. Only a resolution with the actors will determine when tens of thousands of workers — including camera operators, makeup artists, prop makers, set dressers, lighting technicians, hairstylists, cinematographers — return to work.

The actors’ union offered congratulations to the Writers Guild of America, which represents more than 11,000 screenwriters, in a statement on Sunday night, adding that it was eager to review the tentative agreement with the studios. Still, it said that it remained “committed to achieving the necessary terms for our members.”

It has been 74 days since the actors’ union and representatives of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of the studios, have talked. That will probably soon change given the high stakes of salvaging the 2024 theatrical box office, which will be in considerable jeopardy should Hollywood not be able to restart production within the next month. Neither SAG-AFTRA nor the studio alliance immediately responded to requests for comment on Monday.

“There’s tremendous pressure on both sides to get this done,” said Bobby Schwartz, a partner at Quinn Emanuel and a longtime entertainment lawyer who has represented several of the major studios. “The deal that the Writers Guild and the studios struck economically could have been worked out in May, June. It didn’t need to go this long. I think the membership of SAG-AFTRA is going to say we’ve been out of work for months, we want to go back to work, we don’t want to be the ones that are keeping everybody else on the sidelines.”

The dual strikes by the writers and the actors — the first time that has happened since 1960 — have effectively shut down TV and film production for months. The fallout has been significant, both inside and outside the industry. California’s economy alone has lost more than $5 billion, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Warner Bros. Discovery said this month that the impact from the labor disputes would reduce its adjusted earnings for the year by $300 million to $500 million. Additionally, share prices for other major media companies like Disney and Paramount have taken a hit in recent months.

The industry took a meaningful step toward stabilization on Sunday night, though, with the tentative deal between the writers and studios all but ending a 146-day strike.

The deal still needs to be approved by union leadership and ratified by rank-and-file screenwriters in the coming days. Both are expected to happen. Though the fine print of the terms has not been released, the agreement has much of what the writers had demanded, including increases in compensation for streaming content, concessions from studios on minimum staffing for television shows and guarantees that artificial intelligence technology will not encroach on writers’ credits and compensation.

“We can say, with great pride, that this deal is exceptional — with meaningful gains and protections for writers in every sector of the membership,” the Writers Guild’s negotiating committee said in an email to members.

On Monday, President Biden released a statement applauding the deal, saying it would “allow writers to return to the important work of telling the stories of our nation, our world — and of all of us.”

The prospective writers’ deal should provide a blueprint for the actors, since many of their demands are similar.

Union leaders for the actors said that their compensation levels, as well as their working conditions, were worsened by the rise of streaming. Like screenwriters, actors have been terrified by the prospects of artificial intelligence. They are worried that it could be used to create digital replicas of their likenesses — or that performances could be digitally altered — without payment or approval, and are seeking significant guardrails to protect against that.

The actors, however, have had several demands that the studios balked at, including a revenue sharing agreement for successful streaming shows. The actors have also asked for significant wage increases, including an 11 percent raise in the first year of a new contract. The studios last proposed a 5 percent raise.

Though the entertainment industry had been bracing for a work stoppage by the writers going back to the beginning of the year, the actors’ uncharacteristic resolve this past summer caught studio executives off guard.

The actors last went on strike in 1980. By comparison, the writers previously walked out in 2007 for 100 days.

The first worrying sign came in June when more than 60,000 actors authorized a walkout with 98 percent of the vote — a margin that even eclipsed the writers’ strike authorization. Then, as bargaining began, the studios saw the actors’ list of demands. Union leaders handed over a list that totaled 48 pages, nearly triple the size of their asks during the last contract negotiations in 2020.

While bargaining was ongoing, more than 1,000 actors, including Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence and Ben Stiller, signed a letter to guild leadership saying that “we are prepared to strike.” The union called for a strike a little more than two weeks later.

Brooks Barnes contributed reporting.

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