Screen Actors' Guild strike leaves Australia's Hollywood-led productions in limbo

Screen Actors' Guild strike leaves Australia's Hollywood-led productions in limbo

Photo: Screen NSW.

The politics playing out in the US screen industry, with writers and actors striking in the hope of achieving better pay and working conditions, is set to have ripple effects in Australia where 'Hollywood Down Under' is being put on hold.

One example is the pause in production for the $79 million series Apples Never Fall starring Annette Benning and Sam Neil, after the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) made the historic announcement overnight of a strike.

The industrial action coincides with the ongoing strike from the Writers Guild of America (WGA).

"This directly impacts our ability to continue to shoot and regrettably we are forced to temporarily suspend production of "Apples Never Fall"," cast and crew of the Universal Studios production were told in a circular.

"We anticipate this pause period to be for the duration of the SAG industrial action."

This follows the news last month, in connection to the writers' strike, that Universal Studios was cancelling production of the $188 million science-fiction series Metropolis, which was due to be among the biggest productions ever planned for Victoria.

There are likely more suspensions to be confirmed, although screen agencies have been unable to name specific productions that may be affected.

"We hope the negotiations in the US resolve the matter quickly. Queensland’s screen industry remains very active with our local post-production houses working on a host of Australian and international projects, and local producers developing a range of projects for the domestic and global market," says Screen Queensland acting CEO Dr Belinda Burns.

"Screen Queensland has been fielding enquiries from producers locally, nationally and internationally about projects to commence filming in the second half of this year and well into 2024. 

"We are looking forward to a raft of Queensland-made films and series coming to screens, as well as the completion of the $12.6 million Screen Queensland Studios, Cairns development, which will welcome productions and tenants from early next year."

VicScreen is working alongside supported productions to determine the potential impact in light of the announcement, and has not been advised of any delays to planned projects. Currently, all upcoming international projects in Victoria are slated for late 2023 at the earliest.

"Victoria has a healthy pipeline of local film and television projects slated for production," said a representative from VicScreen.

"To date there are nine local productions set to film in Victoria for the remainder of 2023. These projects are expected to provide invaluable work opportunities for Victorian screen practitioners and businesses."

A spokesperson for Western Australia's Screenwest said the agency was monitoring the evolving situation which would likely have implications across Australia.

Screen Australia declined to comment. 

An industry insider, who asked not to be named, said Australian producers, studios and screen agencies were "stuck between a rock and a hard place" because of the situation.

"Anyone who is working in Australia on a US-financed show, their ultimate client will be a struck company underneath those rules," the insider said.

"Usually the studios are pretty full. Marvel is in back-to-back production in the Sydney Fox studios (now Disney Studios), so whatever’s shooting there will be halted."

A spokesperson for Screen Producers Australia (SPA) clarified the strike does not apply to non-scripted productions, including documentaries, light entertainment and reality shows.

"However, it will apply to some scripted TV and feature films produced in Australia. SPA anticipates that a limited number of scripted “offshore” (i.e. non-Australian) productions will be affected by the strike, with cast and crew stood down while the strike continues," the SPA spokesperson said.

"However, local scripted productions, produced and controlled by Australian production companies, engaging Australian and Imported SAG members, will remain unaffected by the strike order provided they engage all cast under Australian Industry Contracts in accordance with the Global Rule One Agreement between SAG-AFTRA and the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA). 

"SPA is working to provide its member businesses with up-to-date information and will continue to provide updates as they emerge. SPA hopes for a quick resolution to the strike."

Meanwhile, the union for Australian screen crew and performers has given its full support to Hollywood actors and screenwriters in their industrial action for better work contracts, which starts after midnight tonight (US West Coast Time) after a breakdown in negotiations with Hollywood studios.

"Streaming services are raking in billions of dollars in revenue and earnings as their audiences continue to grow but these profits are not being shared fairly with actors," said MEAA chief executive Erin Madeley.

"Although series budgets are increasing, that increase is not being reflected in the share of the money going to performers. Residuals – payments for the reuse of their work – are also much smaller on streamers compared to broadcast TV rates.

"In addition, artificial intelligence poses a new threat to the livelihoods of actors around the world and there need to be agreed rules around its use."

SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher, who is best known for her lead role in the classic 90s sitcom The Nanny, described this moment as a "seminal hour".

"What happens here is important because what's happening to us is happening across all fields of labor when employers prioritise Wall Street and greed and forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run," Drescher said.

"I went in earnest, thinking that we would be able to avert a strike. The gravity of this move is not lost on me, our negotiating committee, or our board members, who have voted unanimously to proceed with a strike.

"It's a very serious thing that impacts thousands, if not millions, of people all across this country and around the world."

The actor and film worker advocate said she was "shocked by the way the people that we have been doing business with are treating us".

"Quite frankly, how far apart we are on so many things - how they plead poverty that they're losing money left and right when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting. Shame on them," Drescher said.

"We stand in solidarity in unprecedented unity. Our union and our sister unions and the unions around the world are standing by us as well as other labor unions because at some point the jig is up. You cannot keep being dwindled and disrespected and dishonoured."

SAG-AFTRA executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said actors deserved contracts that reflected the changes that have taken place in the industry.

"Generally, the current streaming model has undercut performance residual income, and high inflation has further reduced our members ability to make ends meet," he said.

"Additionally, industry expectations around self tape auditions, meaning performers are bearing casting costs that were once the responsibility of producers. To complicate matters further, actors now face an existential threat to their livelihoods with the rise of generative AI technology. 

"We propose contract changes that address these issues, but the AMTPT (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) has been uninterested in our proposals."

Australian Production House executive producer Louise Schultze tells Business News Australia now is the Australian industry's chance to "knuckle down and step up, while we hold on tight to our American friends stories and champion their rights to be paid and treated fairly".

"Australian Production House has always had an open door policy to writers from all over the world, and a conversation is had daily with American production companies, writers and filmmakers," she says.

"America is the foundation of filmmaking, so the ripple effects will be seen and felt continuously across the shores. 

"We feel it here and it does affect some of our projects. However, we have a great Australian slate of globally appealing projects also in the works.

"We have the studios, the space, and enough skilled workers to pull off any production. We can carry the load for now."

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