Studio executives “ended up offering us basically bupkis,” Fran Drescher, SAG-AFTRA president, told Salon just over a week after the union made up of 160,000 members announced it would strike. Since then, thousands of actors have formed picket lines in New York, Los Angeles and across the county, in hopes of reaching an agreement for increased minimum pay, protections against artificial intelligence (AI) and residuals aligned with the industry’s current structure that relies heavily on streaming.
In a video interview for “Salon Talks,” Drescher, the creator and star of “The Nanny,” called out the CEOs in charge of the corporations represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which includes Amazon, Apple, Disney, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Paramount, Sony and Warner Bros. Discovery.
“They are living in this dystopia. For the CEOs, they consider it entertainment. For the people with boots on the ground, they’re living it — and they’ve had enough,” Drescher said. “As my mom always said, ‘You get s**t on enough, you begin to notice it stinks around here,’ and that’s where we’re at.“
Drescher called reports from the summer camp for billionaires “tone deaf” and pushed back against Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos’ recent statement that he’s “super-committed” to reaching an agreement soon. “We called him — he didn’t call us. We wanted to urge him to see that we are his partners, and we need to have a piece of the subscriptions because that’s where the money is in this new business model,” Drescher said. “It’s not going to go away by just saying ‘no’ over and over again, or pleading poverty when you, my friend, are making a king’s ransom.”
With Hollywood writers also being on strike, the motion picture and television industries are feeling the impact. Studio productions have halted, promotions for the summer’s biggest blockbusters like “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” have all but ceased and fall TV schedules are being rearranged to accommodate more reality and unscripted shows. (Salon’s unionized employees are represented by the WGA East.)
Watch Fran Drescher’s “Salon Talks” interview here, or read the conversation below to hear more about the deliberations leading up the strike, why concerns about AI and residuals are a huge part of actors’ frustrations and how Drescher has been “standing on the side of the underdog” since a 1994 episode of “The Nanny” called “The Strike.”
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
One hundred sixty thousand SAG-AFTRA members are on strike right now. What impact is this having across the entertainment industry?
Essentially, it’s going to stop being able to promote movies with my members and stop production and force the industry executives to reevaluate why we’re in this position and how they can pivot toward making the very foundation of their entire business model — namely the performers — feel respected and honored and part of what is really a partnership and a collaborative art form.
What has it been like to see actors from all levels of the industry coming out?
“We don’t want to be out of work. This is our chosen craft and livelihood.”
It’s extremely gratifying. We’re all in the same boat, and many of the things that we’re fighting for and striking over are for the journeyman working actor who really is just trying to make a living to put food on the table and pay their rent.
There are a very, very small minority of people who are at the very top of the heap, and those are the very famous people who really fuel the engine. They’re the reasons why people go to the movies and turn on the TV. They, too, are threatened by an AI situation whereby their likeness will not be protected.
It’s a very dangerous time that we live in because as performers — our likeness, our behavior, the way we act, the way we move, the way we speak — that is what we sell to make a living. And if there’s artificial intelligence that can rip that off without the proper barricades for consent and compensation, then we’re going to find ourselves out of work. And we don’t want to be out of work. This is our chosen craft and livelihood. I think that there’s some lacking of empathy, lacking of a long vision of how AI is going to negatively impact all of us. By putting people out of work, that never is a good thing. People need to work. People need to have purpose in their life. If you think it’s OK to do that, then you should not be in leadership because you’re not a people person.
We’re here because the industry has changed in so many ways. You brought up AI. Can you talk about the other ways that you’ve seen the industry change?
Streaming has had really a very huge impact on the business model of our industry, which used to be predicated on the longevity and success of a series. Now, it’s whether or not the series can do the heavy lifting to gain subscribers. The algorithms indicate how long a series has to be on to do that before it begins to plateau, and how many episodes per season it needs to have on before it begins to plateau. That is, on average, two-thirds less than what the old contract was predicated off of, so there’s no way you can make the money that you used to make with the long tail of initial run on network television and then syndication and cable and foreign sales.
“I have nothing against making money, but money at the expense of everything of true value is maniacal.”
There was a long tail of revenue that everybody up and down the ladder from the smallest one-liner to the star would benefit from, and we would have years and years of residuals, which was a form of revenue sharing because the studios continued to make money off of the project that we all put together. Now, with streaming, we’re in a box, and that box is a vacuum with no tail and very short episode buys and very limited buys. That’s no longer a fruitful place to get the kind of revenue sharing that allows us to make a living.
We have to go into the pocket where the revenue is because now the name of the game is subscriptions. And we need to get into that pocket, but we were completely stonewalled. They said “no,” and there was no conversation about it. You’re asking for a strike with that kind of an attitude. I don’t think they expected us to analyze the business model and see the change in the system and what was required in the contract to change it to complement the new business model, but we did see it and we presented a very reasonable proposal that made sense.
We didn’t change the business model — they did. They foisted it upon us. I don’t know if it ever occurred to them that well, “Wait a minute, this is going to seriously impact the economics of the performer.” Or they did think of it, and they said, “Ooh, goody, we won’t have to pay as much.” Whatever it is, they now understand that this is the cornerstone upon which we have to set up a new fresh negotiation and contract structure.
Stars like Mandy Moore revealed that they’ve received checks for as little as one cent for residuals. Sean Gunn expressed frustration with Netflix streaming “Gilmore Girls” without fair compensation. Help our viewers understand why that matters.
We can’t be squeezed out of making a livelihood. They should know better, and they should not encourage that. They should support the performer because we are the center of the wheel, and we’re the very foundation upon which they’ve built an entire business. We need people with more character and more courage to change their culture from trying to squeeze and screw the performer out of every last nickel so that the CEO can get his bonus because he’s doing right by shareholders.
SAG-AFTRA has been on strike for a week. The Writers Guild of America has been on strike for more than two months. With two major strikes happening across the entertainment industry, what do you think it says about this moment?
I said to them in the negotiating room, “Why do you think everybody is up in arms? You did this. You disemboweled the industry as it was, which was inclusive to all of the above-the-liners, and you foisted this upon us. And you’re surprised that everybody is pushing back and saying, ‘Wait a minute. This new business model squeezes us out of our livelihood.’ What were you thinking?”
When you are blinded by a determination to screw the performer and that’s your job, it’s very difficult. We’re talking to people that say things like, “We want to break the WGA. If people lose their homes, that’s a necessary evil.” Really? They are punishing us. They don’t want to speak to us because we exercise our legal right to strike when they wasted the entire unprecedented 12-day extension and ended up offering us basically bupkis. We were forced into that next step. It’s not something that anybody relishes because most of the people that are in my union can’t even make the $26,476 threshold to be able to get medical insurance, so obviously to strike is a very big deal for us. It’s something that’s going to impact us much faster than these mega-salaried CEOs.
Disney’s CEO Bob Iger said that some of your asks weren’t “realistic,” and former media studio head Barry Diller suggested that top actors take cuts to share the wealth that way. What do you think the business side doesn’t understand about working actors?
First of all, I’m not looking to take money away from the few actors who, as I said before, are what makes the engine run. Those are the people that sell the tickets, so don’t look to them. Look to the ogres, pardon me, the Igers. That was so tone-deaf from the billionaires camp [in Sun Valley], where they all came off their private jets in their designer clothes. They probably said to everybody else, “Better we just put statements in writing,” which is all that’s happened subsequent to that.
Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos recently said he’s “super committed” to ending the strike. What is your response to that?
“Most of the people that are in my union can’t even make the $26,476 threshold to be able to get medical insurance.”
We spoke to him on the phone. We called him — he didn’t call us. We wanted to urge him to see that we are his partners, and we need to have a piece of the subscriptions because that’s where the money is in this new business model. It’s not about the mechanism, and it’s not about the number. We made that very clear. But you have to sit down and talk to us about that because it’s not going to go away. It’s not going to go away by just saying “no” over and over again, or pleading poverty when you, my friend, are making a king’s ransom.
What has been the most surprising thing during the negotiations?
Well, I think that the lack of respect was apparent, even in the negotiating room. Whenever I spoke — and I’m the president — they didn’t even make eye contact with me. They had their noses in the computers. The only one that was possibly looking at me was Carol Lombardini, who was the president of the negotiating group. But everybody else? Not looking, on the computers, going in one ear and out the other or talking to each other or multitasking or whatever. Complete disrespect.
SAG-AFTRA has been on strike for a week. What can we expect next? When will you go back to the table?
That’s up to them. We wanted to go back to the table the minute the clock struck midnight on the 12th and continue talking. But true to their attitude about us, now it’s time to punish us. So, they’re not going to talk to us — and they made that very clear.
Salon covered the strikes in New York City and talked to actors on the picket line. A strike can take a toll. How would you suggest that actors stay motivated in the midst of not working?
They motivated us. They didn’t want us to have the extension even because they are living in this dystopia. For the CEOs, they consider it entertainment. For the people with boots on the ground, they’re living it — and they’ve had enough. As my mom always said, “You get s**t on enough, you begin to notice it stinks around here,” and that’s where we’re at.
Before the strike, we talked to actress Dominique Fishback from “Transformers” and “Swarm,” and she spoke about the misconceptions people have about celebrities. She talked about demanding schedules, missing important family moments and just how quickly the money gets divided up. What don’t fans understand about working actors?
Most of us have to go up on dozens of auditions before we get one little job. Most of us are just working-class people and background people, stunt people, people that are on the edges of life in every scene that comes to reality and makes it believable for you, the viewer at home, who are being squeezed out of their livelihood. It’s not right. It’s not fair. I never ever live my life that way.
“You have to be able to say, ‘No, that’s not right,’ and do the right thing, even if it means a little less money.”
I have nothing against making money, but money at the expense of everything of true value is maniacal — human beings, other life, the planet, all of it. It all has one systemic core issue — and that’s greed. You have to be able to say, “No, that’s not right,” and do the right thing, even if it means a little less money because you can’t take it with you. That’s not what this journey is all about. This journey is for each of us to develop into more refined versions of our self with a capital “S.” That’s our true being by our creator. If we don’t try and practice that each and every day, we’re missing the opportunity of what this journey is all about. Now you may think, “Wow, I give to my clergy and I’m good to my family and I don’t cheat on my wife.” But if you compartmentalize that and then you go to work and your whole objective is to screw hardworking people with families of their own, then you’re living from a false truth.
In the light of your role leading this strike, a clip from an episode of “The Nanny“ has resurfaced where your character refuses to cross a picket line. What’s it like to look back on that episode?
I love it. I’m glad. There’s also something from “The Beautician and the Beast” where I galvanize a union, and I think it’s great. I created “The Nanny,” and I actually created that episode of the strike. It was called “The Strike,” and I think standing on the side of the underdog, always going to the mat for those being marginalized is my modus operandi. And I wish it were everybody — the world would be a much better place.