Actors join writers on picket lines

SAG-AFTRA walkout over pay and artificial intelligence fears

by Amber Wilkinson

A-listers Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt were among the first actors to vote with their feet last night leaving the premiere of Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer in London as the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) went on strike.

They were showing solidarity with the 160,000 workers who downed scripts at midnight in Los Angeles as they joined an ongoing strike by Writers Guild of America (WGA), effectively shutting down most US film and television productions.

The SAG-AFTRA dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) - an industry body which represents major production studios, distributors and streaming services - centres on the payment of residuals payments for the repeated use of their work, along with declinging wages and conditions. They are also concerned about the use of artificial intelligence, which they fear could lead to actors being replaced by digital copies.

AMPTP had claimed it had made a "groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses for SAG-AFTRA members". SAG-AFTRA's chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland disagreed.

At a press conference, Crabtree-Ireland said: “This ‘groundbreaking’ AI proposal that they gave us yesterday, they proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get one day’s pay, and their companies should own that scan, their image, their likeness and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation. So if you think that’s a groundbreaking proposal, I suggest you think again.”

The WGA is also in dispute over similar issues, citing declining residuals since the advent of streaming and fears over the use of AI such as ChatGPT as a way of generating ideas or even replacing human screenwriters.

At the Oppenheimer premiere, Nolan declared his support for the strike, telling the audience they were all "off to write their picket signs". Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie, who declared herself a member of SAG-AFTRA, also expressed their support for the actors at the Barbie premiere.

Writer Neil Gaiman is also among those speaking out. On BlueSky he wrote: "SAG-AFTRA strike is on. Sandman has stopped shooting completely, along with everything else that was squeaking by without writers. I hope that the AMPTP sees reason and gets back to the table with the actors and the writers. I have no reason at this point to think they will see reason."

Actors also took to social media to voice their support for the strike.

Posting a photo of comedy and tragedy masks on Instagram, Jamie Lee Curtis left the message: “It looks like it’s time to take down the MASKS. And pick up the SIGNS.”

A Quiet Passion star Cynthia Nixon tweeted: “I am proud to be standing tall with the @WGAWest and @WGAEast as actors and writers together demand a fair share of the record-breaking profits the studios have been reaping from our labor for far too long. We will win this!”

Also on Twitter, Vincent D'Onofrio wrote: "Attention @sagaftra stay strong actors. Do not let the higher echelon of our peers convince us otherwise. The writing is on the wall. Solidarity is staring us in the face. Eyes are on us let's finally be the Union we should have always been. This is no joke this is our moment of reckoning good people. Look to the @WGAEast writers as we are used to. Without us and them there are no productions."

And actor Sydney Battle tweeted: "The backbone of SAG-AFTRA are the kind elderly members who’ve managed to turn background acting into a steady career with benefits and who tell u some of the most bizarre stories you’ve ever heard (unprompted) & the fact that the studios are trying to decimate them makes me livid."

In addition to the walkouts shutting down current productions, it will also mean that actors are not available for reshoot or promotional work, including film festivals and events like Comic-Con.

Questions now hang over whether films will be given to autumn festivals like Venice, Toronto, and New York, given that the stars will not be willing to attend red carpet events alongside them.

A spokesman for Toronto Film Festival said: “The impact of this strike on the industry and events like ours cannot be denied. We urge our partners and colleagues to resume an open dialogue. We will continue planning for this year’s festival with the hope of a swift resolution in the coming weeks.”

The strike action by both unions simultaneously is the first time such a walkout has happened since 1960. The Directors Guild of America negotiated its settlement in June and is not taking action.

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