Actors Earning Living Off Screen Drive a Hard Bargain With Hollywood Studios

Chaley Rose has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies since her first credit on Anger Management a decade ago. Yet like many on the picket lines in Hollywood today, she doesn’t count on acting as her sole source of income.

(Bloomberg) — Chaley Rose has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies since her first credit on Anger Management a decade ago. Yet like many on the picket lines in Hollywood today, she doesn’t count on acting as her sole source of income.

In between gigs like last year’s Lifetime film Fatal Fandom, Rose is also a personal assistant, camp counselor and preschool gymnastics teacher. 

Those are hardly high-paying jobs, but they’ve been enough for Rose to get by. “I’ll be working to survive, and picketing on the days I’m free,” Rose said as she marched outside the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California, on a hot day last month.

Therein lies a dilemma facing major studios as they contend with twin strikes by the Writers Guild of America and SAG-Aftra, the actors union. While the walkouts are an economic hardship for many on the picket lines, a large share of writers and actors actually work in other businesses, often full time, and are under little pressure to settle.

“Acting definitely wasn’t paying the bills, but with this strike, the romance of the industry was taken away,” said Tyson Wong, a 26-year-old actor and TikTok personality who took a job as a bartender after the writers walked out in May. 

The studios are preparing for a long dispute, too. Their parent companies, like Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. Discovery Inc., have cut thousands of jobs under pressure from investors to boost their profitability and will actually save money in the short run while production is shut down. Many are already planning fall TV seasons heavy on game shows and reality programs not dependent on writers and actors. 

“Both sides have a strong incentive to drag this out,” said Yong Kim, an economics professor at a local university and actor whose on-screen credits include The Shrink Next Door and The Valet.

The 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild went on strike July 14, joining the Writers Guild of America. The rare convergence of strikes has brought film and TV production in much of the country to a standstill. The studios this week asked the writers to meet on Friday in what would be their first talks in three months.

The actors are seeking an increase in their minimum wage, as well as a bump in pension and health-care contributions that the union said haven’t changed in 40 years. They also want assurances their jobs won’t be replaced by artificial intelligence. The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, which represents studios, said its members offered a three-year package of wage increases and benefit improvements worth more than $1 billion.

The actors guild, led by Fran Drescher, star of the 1990s sitcom The Nanny, has positioned the fight as one between the struggling little guy and “greedy” executives.

Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger may have inflamed the situation on the very first day of the strike in an interview from the cushy annual retreat for moguls at Idaho’s Sun Valley Resort, saying the actors’ demands weren’t “realistic.” 

“Drescher’s comments were unexpectedly inspired, and Iger’s couldn’t have been timed more poorly,” said Tom Nunan, a lecturer with the School of Theater, Film & Television at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Statistics on what actors or writers actually make from film and TV work are hard to come by. SAG members on the picket lines routinely say that just 14% of their comrades exceed the $26,500 in yearly income required to be eligible for health insurance. Such data doesn’t cover how much they earn from other work, whether it’s bartending or teaching, or if they get health insurance elsewhere.

“A majority of writers and actors have other jobs,” said Sanjay Sharma, professor of finance and business economics at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. 

Victoria Bachan, the president of Whalar Talent, which books actors and other personalities for promotional work on behalf of sponsors, said she’s seen an increase in people being available for work and a greater willingness for them to lower their rates.

The SAG-Aftra Foundation, which provides programs and financial support to actors in times of need, has seen emergency funding requests increase to 25 to 35 a day during the strike from 12 to 20 a week earlier, according to Cyd Wilson, its executive director. The group gave out more than $100,000 in aid during the first week of the walkout. 

“The average actor isn’t making a living wage,” said Stevie Nelson, a strike captain whose credits include the 2023 miniseries White House Plumbers on HBO. She supplements her acting pay with a photography business and expects many of her colleagues to find other ways to make ends meet during the walkout. “We’re totally used to doing that,” she said.

It’s also been tough for industry workers who aren’t on strike.

Daily requests for assistance to the Motion Picture & Television Fund by members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents everyone from camera operators to wardrobe workers, have risen 10-fold to 200 a day, according to Bob Beitcher, the fund’s chief executive officer. Iatse’s membership totals 168,000, according to its website.

“These folks are just getting clobbered,” Beitcher said in an interview. “These are the folks who are really bearing the brunt of the work stoppage right now, and they are desperate.”

Screenwriter Kyra Jones moved to Los Angeles a year and a half ago after working in Chicago on shows like Hulu’s Woke and ABC’s Queens. She was unemployed for a year and lived off savings. Union demands, such as a minimum number of writers per show, would improve job prospects, she said. 

After turning in a writing project 30 minutes before the strike began, Jones went back to an old employer for a part-time gig. She’s now working remotely for a health services center at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. 

“It’s just enough for me to pay my rent,” she said.

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