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What the Hollywood actors' strike means for Pittsburgh

A movie shoot in Pittsburgh's South Side Flats.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
There likely won't be any more movie productions like this one in town until the Hollywood actors' and writers' strikes are settled.

Last week, some 160,000 performers in the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Radio and TV Artists went on strike, joining the Writers Guild of America, which had struck May 2. If American film and TV production was hobbled by the writers’ walkout, the historic double strike effectively shut it down.

In Pittsburgh, the immediate effect was muted: No productions were in progress here as of May 2, said Pittsburgh Film Office executive director Dawn Keezer, though the WGA strike subsequently delayed pre-production on next season’s shoots for three series: “American Rust,” “A League of Their Own,” and “The Mayor of Kingstown.”

Still, for actors, the long-term stakes of the strike are high.

Charles “Stony” Richards is a veteran Pittsburgh actor whose credits include “American Rust” and “Predator 2.” He’s been a SAG-AFTRA member for more than four decades, and he said the issues under negotiation — largely, residuals from streaming and whether studios can use artificial intelligence to appropriate actors’ voices and likenesses — are a big deal for actors’ ability to make a living.

“This is something that’s going to change a lot of the way things are done,” said Richards, who's also a SAG-AFTRA board member.

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Streaming has upended Hollywood’s traditional models of production and distribution, said Keezer, of the Film Office, which promotes the region to film and TV studios. Actors are paid more when films or episodes they starred in air on say, broadcast TV, than when they are streamed. In recent negotiations, they've demanded more from streaming residuals; studios say they can't afford it.

And AI raises the possibility that studios could use actors’ voices or likenesses without their consent to create original content.

Meanwhile, observers note that studios from Netflix and Amazon to Disney and Warner Bros. have been hurt by the steep, post-pandemic drop-off in streaming revenue that followed their early-pandemic investment in streaming content.

SAG-AFTRA began the strike at midnight July 13 after weeks of negotiations that included a two-week extension of the original deadline and even calling in a federal mediator.

While strikes are not uncommon in Hollywood, this is the first time the actors’ union and writers’ union have struck simultaneously since 1960 — when SAG was headed by Ronald Reagan, before he began his political career. (SAG and AFTRA merged in 2012.)

Some observers believe that SAG-AFTRA joining the WGA on strike could pressure the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the major Hollywood studios, to reach an agreement. But the rhetoric from both sides has been heated, and others say the walkout could be lengthy.

That, of course, would impact more than members of the two striking unions, including the large numbers of crew members — electricians, carpenters, production assistants and more — who work on the shoots.

Keezer expressed optimism that the differences with the studios will be resolved.

“We’re very supportive of our union members and our union employees that work in the region, and we hope this all gets completed successfully for all of them sooner rather than later,” she said.

WESA reporters, producers, hosts and editors are represented by SAG-AFTRA but are not impacted by the actors' strike.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: