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The Accidental Turitz: As the AMPTP Prepares to Reopen Talks With the WGA, Are SAG-AFTRA Members Wavering on Waivers?

Just as the AMPTP returns to the negotiating table with the WGA, or at least talks about when it’ll be ready to reopen talks with the guild, following some heated rhetoric from both sides, I think I’ve finally found a real-life example of having one’s cake and eating it, too.

I never really understood what that phrase meant, because I always thought you had the cake and ate it and that was that. Someone finally, patiently pointed out to me that it meant you could eat your cake, while also still having it. This was totally new to me, the idea that you could eat it and also still have it after. Kind of like a cake that never ends. True bliss, indeed.

What the hell am I talking about? Well, you may have heard that SAG-AFTRA is on strike alongside their WGA siblings. At the same time, you may have also noticed that, while the union is on strike, it is also granting waivers for independent productions not aligned with the AMPTP to continue shooting while people are on the picket lines. This is what I refer to in the opening paragraph, because it means that the union is both not working and working, depending on whom is doing the hiring.

Having its cake and eating it, too.

There are those who think this is a bad idea, that “on strike” means, you know, “on strike,” as in, no one is working at all. Others think that this punishes indie productions, who end up hiring most of the union’s members anyway, for what the studios and streamers are doing. These folks also believe that, by making independent features that are not being made for the studios, entertainment is being produced that hurts the AMPTP and serves indie distributors.

There is, of course, a counterpoint to that, too, which is the notion that much of this indie work will end up on streamers anyway, so all these waivers are doing is hurting the strike itself. Don’t believe it? Just google “Sarah Silverman Zooey Deschanel” and see how the comedian is furious about the waivers and thinks those who are working on these indie films are hypocrites, while the New Girl star points out that the strike is specifically aimed at the AMPTP and not all work, and so it’s really okay.

Zooey Deschanel and Sarah Silverman
Zooey Deschanel and Sarah Silverman images via Searchlight Pictures and Comedy Central

Silverman, incidentally, did not seem convinced by this argument, and I know for a fact that there are many, many others in her union who feel the same way. One friend of mine, the actor Mark Moses, wrote on Facebook, “I have to say I am very disappointed as I’ve been marching in picket lines to see that [SAG-AFTRA is] opening the gates to independent contractors who are not affiliated with the AMPTP. The idea is noteworthy, but this allows the AMPTP to stall further in addressing the issues we’re picketing for and allows them to pick and choose content that will be produced under this idea of a waiver for independent films. Who are these independent films and shows going to sell to? They are going to sell their products to the AMPTP. … I understand that these waivers will put people back to work, but at what cost? If we are going to strike that means actors stop working on everything, not just films produced by the AMPTP. Because this allows them a loophole to continue supplying new content on their platforms.”

SAG-AFTRA responded to Silverman, and by extension Moses, saying, “Some have suggested that the Interim Agreement might prolong the strike, but we disagree. We believe the leverage created by increasing competitive pressure on the AMPTP and denying them what they want most will force them back to the table and help bring this strike to an end.

“We understand the concern that our Interim Agreement may produce content for struck companies to distribute. We are confident that the terms of this agreement, particularly the streaming revenue share, will make distribution of these projects through AMPTP platforms unfeasible, until such time as an industrywide agreement has been reached.”

In other words, as far as SAG-AFTRA’s leadership is concerned, it shows the studios and streamers that the union is not asking for anything unreasonable and, furthermore, forces any buyer to agree to such terms if they want to purchase the project. It handcuffs them into having to adhere to the strict guidelines the union is including with the waivers, and essentially says, “Hey, you want this product? You’re gonna have to take it our way or not at all.”

Again, another counterpoint: who, exactly, is going to force the buyers to adhere to these guidelines? The courts? Because that could get very dicey and, for people who cannot afford to chase these kinds of things, prohibitively expensive.

As it happens, I see both sides of this. I’m an indie filmmaker, and I have friends currently making indie films, and they’re only able to continue these productions with the waivers being granted. I have a project myself that we’re planning to shoot in the first quarter of the new year, and if the strike is still going, I’ll be looking for one of those suckers, too.

The Lincoln Lawyer
Matthew McConaughey in The Lincoln Lawyer/Lionsgate

And yet, both Silverman and Moses — and all those who have the same opinion and perspective — have a valid point. A strike means no work, and there are optics here that are not great for everyone. Matthew McConaughey, just to name one actor, is taking advantage of one of these waivers to make a movie, but he’s not really typical of why the strike is happening. It’s not for the big stars, it’s for the common folk who are struggling to get by.

Not to put it all on one actor, but if McConaughey is on the picket line, people notice. If he’s on a film set, they’re looking elsewhere.

My friend Mark is right. It’s a loophole, for sure, but my take is that this loophole does in fact serve the greater good. The AMPTP is not looking at these indie productions and thinking about how they’re going to scoop them up, thereby solving the content problem that is currently staring them in the face, what with all the creators of content and the people who perform it not actually doing those things at the moment.

Make no mistake, the AMPTP is talking a good game, but there is some serious freaking out going on behind closed doors because both unions are firmly committed to their cause. That said, the AMPTP is not suddenly going to be putting edgier indie cinema into theaters in the hopes that people will show up. Studio films are studio films for a reason, just as indie films are indie films, and never the two shall meet.

Mark Moses
Mark Moses photo courtesy of IMDb

These waivers allow filmmakers who are not and never will be AMPTP members to fulfill their vision, while also allowing actors to work in the process. No one is going to be getting rich off these jobs, but that’s not really the point. Art is still being created, and it’s the best kind, because it’s not the lowest common denominator nonsense the studios have been churning out, but rather a more organic creativity that the indie film world fosters.

Again, this doesn’t mean those who oppose the waivers are wrong. It’s just a difference of opinion and, frankly, if I were in the actors union I might feel the same way. My perspective is such that I want the industry to thrive even while this is happening, and this is one way that occurs.

If the strike lasts for a year, and the studios really start to feel its effects, that would be fine with me. But if indie filmmakers who have nothing to do with those studios are kept from doing valuable work that is otherwise something of a win-win for everyone, that becomes a fairly major issue, one that would cause far more damage in the long run.

Ultimately, I get that SAG-AFTRA is doing what it thinks is best while also taking a hard line with the AMPTP. Whether or not its members want to take advantage of the opportunities being offered is an individual choice, which is sort of the idea. If those choices make the studios and streamers sit up, take notice, and see the kind of money they’re losing as the strike stretches further into the year while indie distributors start filling up cinemas with the fruits of these waivers, all the better.

Thus, the union gets to have its cake and eat it, too. I totally get that now, and my stomach hurts.


Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for more than 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.

You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.

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