The actors’ strike could finally end this week, but is it too late?

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In a city almost entirely built on deals, the final days of the Hollywood actors’ strike is proving tougher to negotiate than Uma Thurman’s demands for three mobile phones and a three-bedroom hotel suite for her role in Eloise in Paris, a film that collapsed thanks to a dispute over her contract.

Last week, the signals from the negotiating room at the union’s headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard were promising. Both sides spoke optimistically of signatures by Sunday – just in time for a round of Hollywood earnings calls with an increasingly restless Wall Street this Wednesday.

SAG-AFTRA captains Iris Liu and Miki Yamashita and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland with striking actors outside Paramount Pictures studio in LA on Friday.Credit: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

On Saturday, however, the studio’s negotiating body, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) – as well as the heads of the major studios and streamers – presented the actors union with a “last, best and final” offer, dumping it on the table like a mic drop and suggesting it is done with the back-and-forth.

The “best and final” phrase is exactly what the studios said to the Writers Guild of America in the final days of negotiations in late September. The phrase and the tactic were widely mocked at the time. The WGA pushed for, and won, a strong deal.

SAG-AFTRA is taking this more seriously, partly because the actors are less united than the writers. Ever since George Clooney’s strange suggestion back in October that richer actors essentially bankroll poorer actors, the splits have widened. The more militant wing is currently discussing calling for a consumer boycott of streaming services in an attempt to pressure the AMPTP to cut a deal whilst others, including Chelsea Schwartz, a SAG-AFTRA strike captain, are begging A-list actors to lean on producers.

“The time has come for you to put pressure on the CEOs,” Schwartz posted on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “Call the studio heads. Shout at them on social media. Tell them to accept our deal. You can help us end this strike and save our profession! We’re stronger together!”

Studio chiefs have been discretely leaking the broad terms of the package to the trade press, suggesting it includes “the highest wage increase in 40 years, and a 100 per cent increase in performance compensation bonuses” as well as so-called “full” AI protections. “We didn’t just come toward you, we came all the way to you,” some briefed the trade press that Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos is said to have told SAG-AFTRA leaders.

SAG-AFTRA is considering the offer, but if talks break down again this week, the industry is expected to shut down for the rest of the year.

The 2024 autumn television slate is close to unsalvageable and the hope of restarting production in January is beginning to fade. Movies are shuffling back from 2024 to 2025.

The Oscars are in peril, big deals with talent have been axed and adults have abandoned movie theatres – video game movie Five Nights at Freddy’s took $209 million in its opening week, despite awful reviews, while Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon looks unlikely to pocket $150 million worldwide at all. This weekend should have seen the release of the Zendaya and Timothee Chalamet-led Dune: Part Two, now pushed back to 2024. That delivered the lowest weekend box office of the year at just $51.8 million.

Matthew Belloni, the extremely well-informed editor of Hollywood tip sheet Puck, reports that SAG-AFTRA has lowered its cash demands – offering to take a smaller revenue share than first mooted and set up a system similar to that currently operating in the music industry for residuals, where a central fund collects and distributes the money. There’s also progress on wages, with SAGs 15 per cent demand and the AMPTP’s 5 per cent offer narrowing to a haggle over 7 per cent vs 9 per cent. Apparently, the room lacks an east-end market stall trader who can say “split the difference, let’s call it 8 per cent for cash.”

So what’s the hold up? AI. Since the Writers Guild came to an agreement over the use of this fiendish tool, the White House has issued a batch of AI regulations, which has both sides reaching for intellectual property lawyers.

Australian-French actor and producer Charles Jazz Terrier and his AI-generated avatar, Wyatt. Terrier has been an enthusiastic early adopter of AI tech in his own work as a podcaster.

The sticking point is so-called “digital replicas” and the difference between “employment-related digital replicas” and non-employment ones. It would be easier to explain the difference between those terms if the two sides themselves could agree. Broadly, it’s about using digital versions of actors as part of their work for the studio as opposed to sampling people and casting the digital versions.

The studios want broader rights and the ability to train its AI on actors’ performances – ingesting their footage and learning from it – than SAG-AFTRA thinks is reasonable.

Post-strike, normal is a long way off. There’s a vast production backlog, nothing on the shelves, sweeping cuts, UK companies teetering on the brink of insolvency and bad blood between the creatives and the money.

“There’s still every reason to believe that entertainment will persist, and that Hollywood will have some role to play,” according to Richard Rushfield, editorial director of the Ankler.

“But it will be an industry of a very different shape and size. We’re the Mayflower halfway across the Atlantic right now. We know what the world we’ve left behind looked like, but we have no idea what the new world will look like. We’re heading there all the same.”

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The Telegraph, London

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