Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA who starred in the sitcom “The Nanny” in the 1990s, spoke on a live Zoom call with the Atlanta union contingent for more than 40 minutes. She repeated the fiery rhetoric from her live press conference last Thursday, providing insight into the behavior of the negotiators with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents producers like Disney, Netflix and Warner Bros. Discovery.
“They’re not land barons and we are not serfs,” Drescher said. “But that was their attitude. Their whole job is to screw us. I don’t know how they sleep at night doing what they do.”
She said the AMPTP did not meaningfully engage on the most divisive issues even after they agreed to extend the negotiating deadline 12 days.
So many people showed up to the rally that organizers had to set up TVs in multiple overflow rooms and even outside the entrance. The actors in the main room, many wearing black “SAG-AFTRA Strong” t-shirts, cheered and stood up multiple times throughout the two hours and after the meeting, dozens lingered in the parking lot engaging with old and new friends.
This is the first time actors have been on strike against TV and film producers since America was obsessed with “Who Shot J.R.” from “Dallas” in 1980. Writers have been on strike since early May, arguing over many of the same issues as the actors. The union is girding for a strike that could last months with no new negotiations in sight.
The business model for television has massively shifted in the past decade to streaming. Actors have relied heavily on residuals, which is money paid out when a TV show or film is repeated on broadcast or cable TV. But those residuals have largely disappeared when a show lands on Netflix or Hulu.
Credit: Katelyn Myrick/AJC
Credit: Katelyn Myrick/AJC
SAG-AFTRA, which represents about 160,000 members worldwide, has 3,700 members out of Georgia, triple the number from a decade ago.
Actress Meredith Parks, who has appeared on shows such as Fox’s “The Resident” and the CW’s “Legacies,” is one of the many newcomers to Atlanta. A North Carolina native, Parks moved here from Los Angeles in December to be closer to family and has found the Atlanta acting community warm and friendly.
“The biggest issue for me is residuals,” Parks said. “When I work a network show versus a streaming show, the paycheck difference is substantial. That has to change.”
She also noted that streaming services not only air shorter seasons than most broadcast and cable networks, but they will sometimes sit on a series for long periods of time without renewal or cancellation, preventing series regulars from auditioning for other regular roles. That, Parks said, needs to be addressed.
For J. Wells Jr., who has done stunt work for both “Black Panther” movies and multiple Tyler Perry shows since moving to Atlanta seven years ago from Jacksonville, Florida, said safeguarding actors from artificial intelligence was paramount. “It’s now or never,” he said. “AI is already able to manipulate still images. It’s only a matter of time before AI will be able to create really good video. We have to move now to protect our jobs”
A handful of recognizable actors showed up to the rally including Erika Christensen, a regular on ABC’s crime drama “Will Trent”; Elaine Hendrix, who played Alexis Carrington on the CW’s “Dynasty” from 2019 to 2022; and Cooper Andrews, Jerry on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” from 2016 to 2022.
“I came to hear what happened in the negotiating room,” said Andrews. “Unfortunately, I’m more frustrated after tonight hearing the rudeness that happened.”
He said it’s disheartening to see a hugely popular show like “The Walking Dead” end up on streaming services worldwide on places like Netflix and Disney+ and not see any real residual payments from his work.
Hendrix, who also had a major part in the 1998 remake of “The Parent Trap,” said she is “impressed and extremely proud to be part of this union. Georgia is a right to work state but as performers, we have a right to be protected. We have a right to a living wage.”
The turnout at the rally, she noted, gave her confidence in the union’s resolve and after listening to both Drescher and chief negotiator and executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland speak, “I feel like I can rest easy that they are in charge. We’re ready for battle. This is about history. It’s about working people everywhere. We are part of a tide that is turning.”
Tom Key, a long-time Atlanta-based stage and film actor who has been with SAG-AFTRA since 1985, believes that the union will win in the end, even if it takes several months of picketing and sitting on the sidelines. “Having this kind of unity is fantastic, he said. “We will prevail. I can’t imagine having better leadership. We went on strike in 1960 and that system of residuals, insurance and pension helped me. I believe whatever new SAG-AFTRA contract we get will help us going forward.”
Mike Pniewski, an Atlanta character actor who has a whopping 180 acting credits on actor database IMDb.com, is on the negotiating committee for SAG-AFTRA and spent hours via Zoom engaging in talks with the producers in recent weeks.
The rally, he said, was important for members and more are planned. “It’s important for them to feel connected with leadership and feel heard,” said Pniewski, who is a former president of the Atlanta chapter of SAG-AFTRA. “The energy and spirit here has been wonderful.”