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Hollywood actors union ratifies new contract with studios

Dec 5, 2023, 9:17 PM

FILE: Hollywood actors have reached a tentative agreement with the major film and television studio...

FILE: Hollywood actors have reached a tentative agreement with the major film and television studios to end a strike, according to a person familiar with the matter. Members of SAG-AFTRA, the Hollywood actors union, have ratified a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major studios and streamers, the union said on Tuesday. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Members of SAG-AFTRA, the Hollywood actors union, have ratified a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major studios and streamers, the union said on Tuesday.

SAG-AFTRA members voted to ratify the contract with about 78% in favor. The union said about 38% of members turned out to vote.

The agreement expires on June 30, 2026.

“SAG-AFTRA members have remained incredibly engaged throughout this process, and I know they’ll continue their advocacy throughout our next negotiation cycle,” union president Fran Drescher said in a statement.

“The AMPTP member companies congratulate SAG-AFTRA on the ratification of its new contract, which represents historic gains and protections for performers. With this vote, the industry and the jobs it supports will be able to return in full force,” AMPTP said in a statement Tuesday.

The ratified contract caps a monthslong saga, which included a nearly four-month strike that had paralyzed the industry and raised existential questions over the future of the entertainment business. Hollywood actors and producers reached the tentative deal on November 8, after tumultuous negotiations throughout the year. Eighty-six percent of the union’s national board had voted to approve the tentative agreement.

SAG’s roughly 160,000-member body spent about three weeks voting on whether to ratify the deal.

The union was optimistic about the tentative deal.

When the deal was struck, Drescher called it “historic,” and the studios said the agreement “represents a new paradigm” for Hollywood, TV and the actors.

The actors union strike ended on midnight after the deal was tentatively reached, tentatively concluding one of the most disruptive strikes in Hollywood’s history.

The terms of the tentative deal did not come without controversy. Some union members criticized parts of the deal, particularly its AI protections. Some union members posted on social media with the hashtag #SAGAFTRAVOTENO, claiming there weren’t proficient protections against the emerging technology.

In contrast, 99% of the Writers Guild of America members voted to ratify their contract.

In a statement posted on the union’s site on Dec. 2, member Bryan Cranston said he was voting “yes” on the “hard-fought contract proposal.”

“No side will EVER get everything they wanted or hoped for. That is the plain truth of every labor dispute,” he wrote.

After Thanksgiving, the union released the full, 128-page contract for members to review.

SAG-AFTRA said the deal included groundbreaking raises, benefit increases and protections around artificial intelligence in a press conference on November 10.

The contract includes $1 billion in new wages and benefit plan funding and a participation bonus for actors on successful streaming shows. Drescher said the deal has a 7% raise in most minimum payments.

For the first time, the contract includes consent and compensation guardrails for artificial intelligence. Notably, the contract also protects background performers from any use of their digital replica without their consent, SAG leadership said.

The union said there will be appropriate hair and makeup services for all performers. There will also be requirements for intimacy coordinators for scenes requiring nudity or stimulated sex.

There will also be increased pension and health caps for the union’s benefit plan and funds.

Saga comes to an end

It was a long road to reach a ratified contract.

After several fits and starts, the striking actors had resumed negotiations with producers on October 2 after a prolonged absence from the bargaining table. The announcement to restart talks came a day after leaders of the Writers Guild of America voted to authorize its members to return to work following their tentative agreement reached September 24 between union negotiators and Hollywood’s studios and streaming services.

But the actors’ contract negotiations didn’t last long, breaking down on October 11 before returning later in the month.

By the end of October, it appeared the actors’ strike was approaching its final scene. SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP had made significant progress in negotiating sessions, arriving at tentative understandings on key components of a potential deal, CNN reported.

In early November, the studios said they delivered the union their “last, best and final offer.” But the union said in a message to its members that there were several “essential items” that the two sides had yet to reach agreement on, such as the use of AI.

On Wednesday, November 8, the actors union announced they had reached a tentative agreement, allowing actors to soon return to work. AI protections were among the last topics to get resolved, reaching a resolution the night before the deal was announced.

Divisions about AI

Unlike the writers union, which had 99% of its membership vote to ratify their deal in October, the actors were far from unanimous, signaling division among the union. After a tentative deal was reached in November, criticism emerged from members — including actress Justine Bateman and “Stranger Things” star and national board member Matthew Modine — who expressed concerns over issues including streaming residuals, self-tape auditions and most notably, protections surrounding AI.

“The idea that it might not pass or might pass at a low vote is very real,” an individual familiar with the negotiations told CNN the night before the voting deadline approached. “There is a huge amount of fear around AI.”

The new contract introduces protections around AI for the first time in history, including consent to be scanned and compensation for the use of an actor’s digital replica. But dissenting SAG members believe that the AI clauses that are intended to protect their livelihood can eventually damage their careers.

“I understand looking at the short term and feeling like it’s untenable, but this is short-sided,” a SAG-AFTRA member who voted “no” told CNN. “If we are protecting some jobs for the next two years, but then erasing 90% of entertainment jobs in the future, we’re not just harming ourselves but our industry.”

A point of contention regarding AI provisions in the contract is surrounding the emergence of synthetic performers to take on human roles.

“We are going to be training our replacements,” this SAG-AFTRA member said.

SAG-AFTRA leadership says that the new contract provides protections from AI that are necessary to face the reality of emerging technology.

“We came from a place of making the human performance the most important thing with the reality of the understanding that AI is here. They’re already scanning people,” said Caitlin Dulany, who is part of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee and serves as an LA Board member.

“If you want the job, you’re probably going to have to agree to be scanned, but you’re also going to be informed of what your digital replica is being used for and get paid for the use of your digital replica,” Dulany added. “We don’t want to make it easier for them to use a digital replica instead of a human performer.”

An actor who is against the new deal told CNN that the requirement to agree to a scan to be hired is problematic. “The deal says ‘consent.’ But it’s actually coercive,” this SAG-AFTRA member said.

Despite mounting criticism, union leaders believe the advances gained in the new deal are hugely beneficial for members, noting historic increases in minimum rates for both principal and background actors. Responding to division among the membership, negotiating committee member Dulany said, “There was pressure [from the AMPTP], but we were ready to hold out. We are really excited about what we got. This contact is worth the last three contracts together.”

And despite the controversy surrounding AI, the ratified contract received a higher percentage approval than the union’s past two deals with AMPTP. The contract in 2020 was ratified with 74% approval, and the contract in 2017 with 76%.

Though the new deal had not been ratified until Tuesday, actors have been able to work under the tentative agreement ever since the strike ended.

Production has started up again across the industry with many films and television shows beginning to roll cameras shortly after the Thanksgiving holiday, in an effort to get new episodes on the air as soon as possible. Broadcast series like “Abbott Elementary,” “Law and Order: SVU,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Blue Bloods” went back into production the last week of November, with many targeting a January premiere date.

However, many shows will have abbreviated seasons, given the months-long production standstill. Most broadcast shows that typically air 22 to 24 episodes per season will now air 10 to 12 episodes.

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Hollywood actors union ratifies new contract with studios