With no end in sight for the historic dual strikes by Hollywood writers and actors, anyone in the Bay Area who relies on movie and TV productions to earn a living or boost local events and city economies could soon feel the impact.
Thousands of Bay Area actors, writers and crew members are going without work. San Francisco and other cities may lose out on the hundreds of thousands of dollars a day that location shoots can generate for hotels, restaurants and other businesses. And upcoming film festivals in San Jose and Mill Valley likely won’t feature the usual red-carpet appearances by celebrities, which add luster and help support those events.
Oakland actor Michael X Sommers is among the striking artists who says, “I’ve got to wait it out and do my best.” A member of the SAG-AFTRA actors union, Sommers is among the rank-and-file Hollywood workers who help make the blockbuster films and critically lauded streaming series that keep the world entertained.
But Sommers and other workers – who aren’t famous stars or massively rich like Disney’s Bob Iger and Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos – say they have found it increasingly difficult to make a decent living doing what they love, here in the Bay Area or elsewhere. They say they only get a very small share of the billions reaped by major studios and top executives since the advent of streaming.
Actor Michael X. Sommers with some of the audio and video recording equipment that he uses for auditions and voiceovers at his home in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, August 8, 2023. Sommers is a SAG-AFTRA union member of and one of 3400 Bay Area film and TV actors on strike. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the group negotiating on the studios’ behalf, argues that streaming has benefited actors and writers, giving them more opportunities to work, including on projects that wouldn’t otherwise get produced.
But SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) say that hasn’t translated into increased pay, steady income or better working conditions. Notably, residuals, the long-term payments actors and writers receive when their work is rebroadcast on TV or sold on DVD, have plummeted in the age of streaming, making it hard for them to pay bills between gigs. At a July 20 protest outside Netflix’s Los Gatos headquarters, one actor held up a residual check of just 1 cent.
Writers and actors also want safeguards around the use of artificial intelligence, concerned that the technology will be used to generate scripts or replicate images of background actors and stunt performers.
The last time the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and WGA went out on strike at the same time was in 1960. SAG merged with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) in 2012.
“I’m trying my best to continue to make a career out of acting” said Sommers, who has had roles in “The Matrix Resurrections,” the Oakland-set “Sorry to Bother You” and Netflix’s “Sense 8.” For the time being, he’s is working on a one-man play and fixing up things around his home, while relying on his savings and residual checks that don’t come from streaming projects. “Knock on wood: We come out of this strike well.”
One of the most visible impacts of the strikes has been at premieres and film festivals as actors are barred from promoting new movies. SAG-AFTRA announced its strike during the London premiere for “Oppenheimer,” prompting stars Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh to leave the theater.
Anthony Abate, from Sonoma, holds a residual check of $.01 while striking for SAG-AFTRA outside of the Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif., on Thursday, July 20, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
In the Bay Area, San Jose’s Cinequest film festival opens this week with more than 350 artists attending or presenting, though the actors involved will be non-SAG members, a spokesperson said. Stars like Brendan Fraser, Robert Pattinson and Jamie Foxx have appeared in the past at the Mill Valley Film Festival, which opens on Oct. 5. Mark Fishkin, the festival’s founder and director, isn’t ready to announce this year’s slate of films but said they will include some of 2023’s “large awards contenders.” Whatever happens, Fishkin said the festival will work within the guidelines set by the unions and with the “utmost respect for people who are trying to secure a living wage” in the industry.
It’s still too early to say how strikes will impact local economies, but Manijeh Fata, executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission, has already heard about two feature film productions — now on hold — that had considered San Francisco location shoots.
“Film productions in San Francisco have enormous economic benefits,” Fata said, citing a study showing that film or TV productions can inject up to $250,000 a day into a local economy. Over the last two decades, the Bay Area has lost productions to Vancouver and Georgia, which boast lower costs, but filmmakers are still drawn to San Francisco and Oakland. “When crews are working and staying local, that has a positive ripple effect on their families and the film community,” Fata said.
Veteran location manager and writers guild member Patrick Ranahan echoes Fata’s concern, but says, “It’s about time for a strike.”
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“You tend to hear about four, five or six (projects) on the horizon, and maybe if one or two happens, that makes for a great part of the year for a lot of people,” said Ranahan, who has worked as a Bay Area location manager for 45 years. He employed a crew of more than 300 for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings” alone.
“We opened the Fairmont Hotel during the pandemic and took up 11 floors,” Ranahan said. “Strikes affect literally hundreds, if not thousands of people, when you talk about extras and background people and crews not working … That’s all stopped now.”
Fellow location manager Heather MacLean is a member of the Teamsters union, which isn’t on strike but is supporting SAG-AFTRA and WGA. “These strikes are absolutely necessary,” said MacLean, who is known for “Sorry to Bother You” and the “Blindspotting” TV series. She said working conditions on some major projects have become untenable for “below-the-line” workers — a category that includes everything from gaffers and boom operators to make-up artists, sound engineers and technicians — as she sees productions being run by profit-driven executives.
Rocky Capella’s nearly 200 credits as a stunt actor and coordinator go back to the early 1970s and include “Terminator 2,” “Basic Instinct” and “The Matrix Resurrections.” He recalls a Bay Area couple who made up to $100,000 a year and put their children through college working as background actors and doing commercials. That’s become difficult, with productions moving out of the Bay Area. But Capella also faults declining residuals, noting that only about 12% of the 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members make the minimum $26,470 annually needed to qualify for health insurance.
He said “the greed” shown by executives like Iger, who will potentially earn $31 million this year, tells actors, especially those who perform dangerous stunts, their work isn’t appreciated. “Most stunt men and women will do anything to get the right shot,” he said. “They’ll do it over and over again.”