Stay informed with free updates
Simply sign up to the Media myFT Digest — delivered directly to your inbox.
After six months of strikes, Hollywood is buzzing again. Almost as soon as the actors’ union on Thursday declared an end to its record 118-day strike, directors, producers, publicists and actors started racing to make up for lost time.
Directors began trying to reassemble far-flung casts to resume shooting on films that were halted in the spring. With actors now able to promote movies again, plans were activated for stars to appear at glitzy premieres and marketing campaigns leading into the awards season.
“Everyone is just grinding right now,” one Hollywood publicist said on Thursday. “It’s so much work, but it’s wonderful.”
The strike was the longest by actors in Hollywood history, as the SAG-AFTRA union clashed with studios over issues including the use of artificial intelligence-generated “digital doubles” and demands by performers for higher payments from streaming services.
The union’s 160,000 members were set to vote the deal through on Friday, ending a strike in which actors picketed alongside members of the Writers Guild for the first time since 1960. The writers reached their own deal with studios in September.
The SAG-AFTRA union, led by actress Fran Drescher, tapped into the energy of an emboldened US labour movement and pushed hard in negotiations with a group representing studios. She faced off against the industry’s most powerful leaders, including Disney chief executive Bob Iger and Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, who at one point called off talks over her demands for a new source of income from streamers.
Drescher had argued that actors should receive a cut of streaming services’ revenue. The studios flatly rejected the demand but ultimately agreed to a new royalty based on how programmes perform on streaming services — far less than Drescher had hoped for but still a significant shift in the formula pioneered by Netflix. The union also won protections against the use of actors’ digital likenesses without approval.
“The actors got a phenomenal deal with great protections from AI,” said Kevin Walsh, founder and chief executive of The Walsh Company, a production business with a multiyear deal at Apple TV+. “It’s a win for them, just like it was a win for the writers.”
Among the most immediate effects of the strike’s resolution will be Hollywood’s rollout of holiday movies and prestige films ahead of the awards season. Union rules prohibited actors from promoting films during the strike — robbing the studios of a linchpin of their marketing plans — but stars are now free to walk the red carpets and give interviews.
This means Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby will be able to appear at next week’s premieres of Napoleon — the $250mn Ridley Scott epic financed by Apple TV+ and distributed by Sony — in London and Paris.
“To have our actors walk down those carpets and be photographed globally is a big amplification for the movie,” said Walsh, a producer on the film.
But the unions’ victories come at a moment when Hollywood studios are slashing costs — including their budgets for new TV series and movies — following years of huge investments in content for their streaming services. Many in Hollywood say this means that while the writers and actors will be paid more for their work, there may be less work to do.
Disney on Wednesday said it would cut its spending on content by another $2bn next year to about $25bn — well below the $30bn it spent in 2022. Netflix said last month that the strikes had led to a $1bn reduction in new content spending, bringing its total budget to roughly $13bn this year, and that if the actors’ strike was resolved “in the near future” it expected to spend $17bn — around the level of recent years — next year.
But Warner Bros Discovery warned on Wednesday that the lingering effects of the strikes, combined with a weak ad market, would hurt the company’s ability to achieve its debt reduction targets, sending its share price down 19 per cent.
“It’s going to be tougher to get movies across the line but if you have good quality and good talent and good material, you’ll still be able to get stuff done,” said one Hollywood executive.
Whatever is happening with studio budgets, actors say they are ready to get back to work. Elyssa Phillips, an actor, comedian and writer who served as a strike captain outside the Disney studio lot, said she was “crying tears of joy” when she heard the news on Wednesday that the industrial action was ending.
“I spoke to my agent and manager . . . and they know their clients are ready to go. Everyone is chomping at the bit to get back to work. I never thought I would say this, but I’m looking forward to auditioning. I’m so excited to audition again.”