Actors and writers are getting restless.
The message is impossible to miss in the campaigning underway as SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America, West and East, prepare for leadership transitions with their September elections.
Candidates for the top elected posts in both guilds are already talking tough about the 2023 round of master film and television contract negotiations. There’s an undercurrent of anger and angst among creatives after several years of massive business shifts in the industry.
They feel the pinch in their paychecks even as there are objectively more shows in production than ever. More work overall brings hurdles and complications that working actors and writers want their guilds to help sort out.
In the case of SAG-AFTRA, a fierce contest for the national president post is shaping up between two veteran actors, Fran Drescher and Matthew Modine. On the other end, contenders for the top elected posts at the WGA West (showrunner Meredith Stiehm) and the WGA East (news and documentary writer Michael Winship) are running unopposed.
Both unions are sure to push hard in the 2023 master contract negotiations for wage and residual gains from movies and TV shows that air on streaming platforms. But the bigger challenge will be addressing the fundamental industry shifts in the way TV series are being produced and the fact that traditional compensation formulas haven’t kept pace with the reality of the job offers that actors and writers field today.
“We really are seeing a new golden age of television, but the changing business models really squeeze our members,” Drescher tells Variety. “The union has made some important strides — in streaming residuals for instance. But there’s still work to be done. As an example, some actors are being held off the market after shooting a short season of a TV series while waiting for a second season to start. In some cases that means an unpaid hiatus of over a year.”
Modine says the union needs to be willing to take an aggressive stance with employers in contract talks.
“Members are not happy with the outcomes of our past several negotiations. We’ve given away far too much, from the decimation of our location and travel provisions to the giving away of 90% of our syndication residuals to the absolute failure to negotiate funds to sustain our health plan adequately,” he says. “Those kinds of failures must never happen again.”
SAG-AFTRA’s election results will be revealed on Sept. 2. The WGA will install its new leaders on Sept. 21.
The rising temperature of the rhetoric more than a year out from the likely start of contract talks sets the stage for sparks with the major network-studio conglomerates that make up the industry’s collective bargaining unit, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
The studios will come into the 2023 negotiation with plenty of evidence of revenue and profit losses amid the historic consolidation and reallocation of resources that is underway at Disney, Comcast, ViacomCBS and the emerging Warner Bros. Discovery. The conglomerates have been actively tallying their investment projections in the billions and earnings losses for Wall Street for the past two years. Those numbers will surely be invoked as the unions push for increases.
The memory of the 2007-2008 writers strike will hang heavy over the process. Stiehm and her slate of WGA West running mates — Michele Mulroney (vice president) and Betsy Thomas (secretary-treasurer) — have emphasized their WGA strike credentials in their public statements. Winship, meanwhile, was president of the WGA East during the 100-day work stoppage.
“Writers feel in our bones this will be a crucial negotiation,” Stiehm wrote in her candidate’s statement. “Once again a new business model — vertically integrated streaming — is revolutionizing writers’ jobs and being used to squeeze our pay. The downward pressure on income that we are all feeling is not a byproduct of the model — it is the goal.”
Actors in particular also want the union to do more in terms of ensuring workplace protections. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a klieg light on safety concerns on set. There are new areas of focus on intimacy coordinators and establishing strict production rules for scenes involving nudity.
Actor Joely Fisher, who is running for SAG-AFTRA secretary-treasurer on Modine’s slate, points to Canada, where the actors union recently focused on intimacy concerns and secured protocols in writing, unlike SAG-AFTRA. “We went in to negotiate and got a robe,” she said. “I haven’t been asked to take my clothes off lately, but there are plenty [of actors] who are, and I want to protect the next generation who are asked to do so.”
SAG-AFTRA’s internal politics are flaring around the Drescher-Modine contest. Drescher has the endorsement of outgoing national president Gabrielle Carteris, who has been criticized by the Modine slate for weakness in dealing with employers.
“Gabrielle Carteris said this union will never strike, which is bad negotiating skills,” Fisher says. Drescher emphasizes her focus on organizing and policing of contracts.
“We’ve negotiated powerful provisions, but the employers often attempt to take advantage, and we need to be there to really push back and fight for our members’ rights,” Drescher says. “And I have to include organizing work as a top priority. Organizing is crucial, and I will be laser-focused on this.”
(Pictured: Matthew Modine and Fran Drescher)