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Can SAG-AFTRA Have it Both Ways?

As the SAG-AFTRA strike enters its fourth week, and with no end in sight, the union appears to have come to a crossroads. This intersection has already put union members on opposing sides.  In case it wasn’t clear, at issue is the interim agreements being granted to independent productions by the union so that some members can continue to work, and indie film can remind to the members of the AMPTP that there is still life outside the studio system.

It began a week and a half ago when Sarah Silverman wondered in an Instagram video if the interim agreements weren’t undermining the union’s efforts. 

“I feel f—ing pissed off, and I know I just must not be understanding something,” she said in the three-minute video, first shared Thursday night, July 27. “There are like 40 movies being made right now. Movie stars are making movies because they’re independent movies, and SAG is allowing it because if they do sell it to streaming, it has to be because streaming is abiding by all the things we’re asking for.

“That’s just working,” she continued. “The strike ends when they come to the table and we make a deal in agreement. So you’re just letting people make movies, and movie stars are making movies that you know the goal is to sell them to streaming.”

Some people agreed, others didn’t. Perhaps the most famous of the latter was Zooey Deschanel, who responded in the comments, “I think we are striking certain particular contractual agreements with the AMPTP — not all work.”

Actor Mark Moses was on Team Silverman, writing on his Facebook page, “I have to say I am very disappointed as I’ve been marching in picket lines to see that [SAG-AFTRA is] opening the gates to independent contractors who are not affiliated with the AMPTP. The idea is noteworthy, but this allows the AMPTP to stall further in addressing the issues we’re picketing for and allows them to pick and choose content that will be produced under this idea of a waiver for independent films. Who are these independent films and shows going to sell to? They are going to sell their products to the AMPTP?”

SAG-AFTRA responded to Silverman, and by extension Moses, saying, “Some have suggested that the Interim Agreement might prolong the strike, but we disagree. We believe the leverage created by increasing competitive pressure on the AMPTP and denying them what they want most will force them back to the table and help bring this strike to an end.

“We understand the concern that our Interim Agreement may produce content for struck companies to distribute. We are confident that the terms of this agreement, particularly the streaming revenue share, will make distribution of these projects through AMPTP platforms unfeasible, until such time as an industrywide agreement has been reached.”

In other words, as far as SAG-AFTRA’s leadership is concerned, it shows the studios and streamers that the union is not asking for anything unreasonable and, furthermore, forces any buyer to agree to such terms if they want to purchase the project. It handcuffs them into having to adhere to the strict guidelines the union is including with the waivers, and essentially says, “Hey, you want this product? You’re gonna have to take it our way or not at all.”

Another counterpoint that was raised asked the question of who, exactly, is going to force the buyers to adhere to these guidelines? The courts? Because that could get very dicey and, for people who cannot afford to chase these kinds of things, prohibitively expensive. 

There is also an optics issue. A strike generally means no work. Matthew McConaughey, just to name one actor, is taking advantage of an interim agreement to make a movie, but he is not really typical of why the strike is happening, as it’s meant to be on behalf of those struggling to get by. Put McConaughey on the picket line, people notice. Put him on a film set, and they’re looking elsewhere.

Ultimately, it clearly comes down to the fact that the union is giving its members agency as to how they want to proceed through this strike that very well could last through the end of the year and into 2024. You might not agree, but it’s more freedom than most unions give their members, which is worth something.

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