Oppenheimer’s cast walked out of its London premiere late on Thursday, in solidarity with the SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) actors’ strike. While buzz for the new Christopher Nolan film was strong at Leicester Square, the possibility of a strike caused the crew to push the premiere event up by an hour, only the previous night. As the actors’ union was unable to come to an equitable deal with movie studios — for proper residual payments — the strike was called upon with a 98 percent vote approval margin, causing Oppenheimer’s cast to leave from the venue in order to adhere to the terms of the union.
“I think right now we are just sorting of… I hope everyone makes a fair deal and we are here to celebrate this movie,” star Emily Blunt told Deadline, during the Oppenheimer red carpet event. “And if they call it, we’ll be leaving together as cast in unity with everyone… We are gonna have to. We are gonna have to. We will see what happens. Right now it’s the joy to be together.” Co-star Matt Damon echoed her sentiments, adding that his and Ben Affleck’s independent studio, Artists Equity, just shut down production on an undisclosed film, waiting for things to resolve between SAG-AFTRA and the studios. SAG-AFTRA is a union representing about 160,000 film and TV actors and media professionals primarily in the United States, whose leadership claims that its deal with movie studios for appropriate pay is not fair. “It’s the difference between having healthcare and not for a lot of actors, and we gotta do what’s right by them,” Damon said.
The last time the entertainment industry faced a double strike was in 1960, with both writers and actors voicing their concerns for appropriate payments, arising from the dawn of television. At the time, they together won residuals for repeated TV reruns and broadcast for movies and shows, in addition to welfare. Residuals payments are helpful for artists when they are in between projects. Now, in 2023, with streaming services taking the lead, companies like Netflix and Disney+ don’t disclose viewing figures for their shows, essentially offering a flat rate, regardless of how much a program might surge in popularity. Making things worse is the debate about the use of AI in film production, like using apps such as ChatGPT to write full-blown movie scripts — directly affecting the jobs and livelihood of writers.
AMPTP, the organisation bargaining on behalf of major studios claimed in a statement that it presented SAG-AFTRA with a deal that promised ‘historic pay and residual increases’ alongside higher caps on pension and healthcare contributions, and even a ‘groundbreaking AI proposal.’ Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s COO responded to the offer claiming that AMPTP had been devaluing the work of actors. As for the artificial intelligence proposal, it was revealed that production studios wanted to pay background performers for one day of work in exchange for the rights to their digital likeness for eternity, without compensation or further consent. The bizarre situation mirrors Black Mirror’s ‘Joan is Awful’ episode from season 6, where studios acquired rights to scan and use actors’ digital likenesses forever.
The strikes have caused movies and TV series productions to get delayed or halted until further notice when new bargaining agreements are met. However, a report from Variety suggests that filming on the Emmy-nominated House of the Dragon will continue normally in the UK. The HBO series’ cast is composed of primarily UK-based actors who do not work under America’s SAG-AFTRA contracts, but rather under the British acting union Equity, whose trade laws prevent them from striking in solidarity with international unions. Equity also put out a guide for its 47,000 members, stating that performers joining the strike will have no protection against dismissal or breaking the contract. It’s worth mentioning that the ongoing writers’ strike had no effect on House of the Dragon’s filming since scripts for season 2 were completed long before, and now creator Ryan J. Condal is strictly involved in a non-writing capacity.
Oppenheimer releases July 21 in theatres worldwide, while the second season of House of the Dragon is expected to release in 2024.