A call from Disney CEO Bob Iger to SAG-AFTRA national executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland on Saturday, Oct. 21 set in motion the long-awaited return to negotiations between the union and Hollywood studios later this week.
During that conversation Iger expressed the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers’ desire to get back to bargaining and finally hammer out a new three-year contract amid a SAG-AFTRA strike that has now stretched out over 100 days. AMPTP president Carol Lombardini soon followed up with her own call to Crabtree-Ireland. Under pressure from members at the bottom and top of the call sheet, the performers’ union quickly reacted, within the same day issuing a joint press release with the AMPTP that announced the return to negotiations and adjourning its biennial national convention two days early so that the union’s staff and negotiating team could get to work.
The AMPTP, which walked out of negotiations on Oct. 11 over what it stated was a massive “gap” between the two sides, is expected to make a presentation of a new package of proposals when the two parties face each other once more on Tuesday. The same four Hollywood leaders that attended the negotiations before they broke down earlier this month — Iger, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav and NBCUniversal Studio Group chairman and chief content officer Donna Langley — are set to return for the continuation of talks, which will be held at the union’s national headquarters on Wilshire Blvd.
These developments arrive in the wake of meetings by A-list actors with both their own union and the Hollywood studios.
Last week, a group that included Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Laura Dern, Scarlett Johansson, Tyler Perry, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Meryl Streep, Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon, growing increasingly alarmed and frustrated as to whether union negotiators were doing everything they could to reach a deal, decided to present a united front. These major union members held several Zoom meetings with SAG-AFTRA leaders Crabtree-Ireland and president Fran Drescher to discuss getting back to the table. Some had already had one-one-conversations with union leaders but decided to go a step further and work together to attempt to break through the stalemate.
Before talks had broken off, sources says the four CEOs who attended SAG-AFTRA’s negotiations had been taken aback by Drescher’s negotiating style, which involved bringing a doll (a heart-shaped plush toy with a smiley face given to Drescher by an 11-year-old fan) and saying Buddhist inspirational quotes. She also alarmed the CEOs when she proclaimed, “I don’t care if we are here for a year” in order to achieve the union’s ends, sources maintain, which a union source denies. A source close to the union explains that Drescher uses a “less contentious” bargaining process and tries to bring the tone down in the room on occasion.
Said Drescher in a statement, “I don’t need to emulate male energy to be an effective leader.”
Crabtree-Ireland added, “Sexist tropes being used to diminish women leaders in Hollywood is nothing new, and this is yet another egregious example. Fran is bringing balance and consensus to what can be an antagonistic process.”
Drescher opened the first Zoom meeting with the A-listers by asking to take a screenshot, according to two sources familiar with the session. The source close to the union maintains that Drescher wanted to take a screenshot in order to preserve the historic moment in the life of the union; SAG-AFTRA collects the history of its union as part of its general operations. Perry politely declined, expressing that he would prefer to get down to business.
In the conversations prior to the Zooms, some A-listers had brought up ideas such as eliminating the $1 million dues cap on high-earning members. On the Zoom meetings, the group proposed a new model for streaming residuals, written by Affleck and designed to benefit lower paid actors, according to a source with knowledge of the calls. During those conversations, Affleck, Clooney and others suggested that eliminating the dues cap on the highest paid actors could augment that model. The discussion emerged in press reports, prompting Fran Drescher to post an Oct. 19 Instagram story noting, “We are a federally regulated labor union, and the only contributions that can go into our pension and health funds must be from the employer. So what we are fighting for in terms of benefits has to remain in this contract.” She added, “[It’s] kind of apples and oranges, just so everybody understands that.”
“None of the actors’ [on the call] suggested this was a magic bullet or anything even resembling a solution,” says one person participating. The source added, “It was proposed as an outside-the-box conversation starter because ‘inside the box’ isn’t currently working for either side of the negotiation.”
The meetings with SAG-AFTRA leaders left this person involved feeling “abject frustration,” and several of the A-list actors says they came out of those conversations concerned.
Actors also began working their studio contacts, seeking to persuade them to return to bargaining and asking how they could help get both parties back to the table. Several of these high-profile performers are also major producers.
At the same time that actors were working their studio relationships, some began channeling their frustrations into a draft of a letter expressing concerns about SAG’s leadership. Over the weekend, as news broke of SAG and the AMPTP returning to the bargaining table, guild members decided not to publicize the document, fearing its contents would harm negotiations.
But ultimately, according to a source close to the studios, the impetus for major companies to make the overture to SAG-AFTRA on Saturday was to salvage the 2024 movie and broadcast season, in addition to restoring industry jobs that have been on hold for months amid multiple entertainment strikes. SAG-AFTRA, meanwhile, expected a counterproposal after the union made a major change to its revenue-share proposal on Oct. 11, turning it into a fee on subscribers. Crabtree-Ireland has portrayed this revised proposal as a “huge, huge concession.”
Meanwhile, in a message to members on Oct. 21, the day of the renewed negotiations announcement, the union told members that their unity had made it happen: “It is clear that the strength and solidarity shown by our members has sent an unmistakable message to the CEOs,” the union’s negotiating committee stated. “As we have repeatedly said, we are ready, willing and able to engage on a moment’s notice to meet and to work across the table to achieve a deal that is worthy of your sacrifice.”
Now, there will seemingly be a new deal on the table on Tuesday — and the question remains what that contract language looks like and how SAG-AFTRA’s negotiators will react to it. When it comes to the latest sticking point — the union’s proposal to charge streaming platforms a fee on every global subscriber — the union seemingly isn’t backing down. “Now, it’s true that the CEOs don’t really want to address that, but sometimes in life when you introduce an unprecedented business model like they did on all of my members with streaming, an unprecedented compensation structure must also go along with it,” Drescher said in her Instagram story on Oct. 19. “It may not be easy, it may not be what they want, but it is an elegant way to solve the problem so we can all go back to work in what would be the new normal.”
Guild members — along with the rest of Hollywood — are awaiting anxiously.
“I’m watching very closely as negotiations move forward,” says former SAG president Melissa Gilbert. “I’m incredibly hopeful that our union will walk away with a deal that will benefit our membership, and everyone in our industry who is suffering mightily will be able to get back to work.”
Kim Masters contributed to this report.