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“Jump the fuck up!” Tom Morello, the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, instructed the crowd outside the gates of Paramount. Morello, who wore his signature red bandana around his neck, was strumming “This Land Is Your Land,” to rev up the morning’s picketers. Everyone raised a fist and jumped the fuck up, singing, “This land was made for you and me!” The Writers Guild of America was on day one hundred and three of its strike against the Hollywood studios, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (A.M.P.T.P.); the actors of SAG-AFTRA were on day thirty. The August sun was blazing, and the experienced strikers wore hats; others found shade under signs that read “ON STRIKE!” or “CUT OUT THE CRAP AMPTP!” It was “Bruce Springsteen Day” on the Paramount line, and several people had come in “Born in the U.S.A.” garb. A guy in a headband and tight jeans marched along Melrose Avenue. “I’m here so often I plan my outfits,” he said to a companion. “I gotta go SAG-AFTRA-strike shopping.” He passed Morello, marching in the other direction. “Tommy boy! How ya doing, brother?” he shouted, and they tapped signs.
The twin strikes that have brought Hollywood to a standstill are a long time coming. The streaming revolution has put the industry into a doom spiral; it’s not uncommon to hear words like “apocalyptic” and “existential” thrown around. Writers and actors are fighting for higher minimum fees and better residuals. The W.G.A. wants to prevent TV writers’ rooms from getting reduced to “mini rooms.” Both groups want to put guardrails on the use of artificial intelligence. On the picket lines, a defiant spirit—and a winky humor—prevails. The atmosphere is part protest, part carnival, part networking event. “This is the new ‘Let’s go grab coffee,’ ” one actress told me.
But, beneath the pep, other emotions are roiling: dread, restlessness, economic panic. Strikers are getting survival gigs as nannies, Uber drivers, dog-walkers, brand ambassadors. No one knows how long it’s going to continue. Just before I arrived in Los Angeles, to take inventory of Hollywood’s surreal “hot labor summer,” the actor Billy Porter lamented that he would have to sell his house. “Everyone I know is slowly sinking into a depression and brainstorming alternate career paths, but not aggressively enough to be taking any tangible action,” the writer-director Desiree Akhavan told me. A TV writer I know has been alleviating the monotony of the picket line by listening to Agatha Christie audiobooks. Studios are delaying movie releases; the 2023 Emmys have been bumped to 2024. The prolonged stasis has ricocheted through the L.A. ecosystem in strange ways: plastic surgeons’ offices have reportedly been overrun with stars trying to squeeze in procedures before they go back to work.
Nerves are jangled within the studio walls as well. When I asked a friend who works in marketing to describe the mood in Hollywood in one word, he thought for a moment and answered, “Exhausted.” With the shutdown potentially stretching into next year, wasn’t it a little early for everyone to be exhausted? He considered the corporate and creative denizens of the entertainment industry and said, “I’m not sure these are the hardiest people.”
On a weekday afternoon, Vincent Amaya was driving from his building, around the corner from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, to a food bank in Mid City. Amaya, an L.A. native, is a professional background actor (don’t call them extras). His first gig, during college, was in “Spider-Man” (2002), as part of a crowd fleeing the Green Goblin. He got his SAG card two years later. “I’ve played a dead body. I’ve played a coffee patron or a person at a bar,” he said, behind the wheel. “But my main role is a cop, and I’ve bounced around from cop show to cop show—especially because I understand weapons handling.”
Amaya wore a SAG-AFTRA shirt that he had tie-dyed with bleach. In normal times, he works about three jobs a week. He gets text alerts from Central Casting, the nearly century-old casting company for background actors and stand-ins. The average day is twelve hours, but he’s worked as long as eighteen and half, for a John Leguizamo movie in which he appeared as a concertgoer. There’s a lot of waiting around—he plays chess on his phone—and he’s often required to supply his own wardrobe. (He likes to wear red on weekends, since he can’t wear it on set—too eye-catching.) He also helps produce the Los Angeles Union Background Actors Awards, or “the Blurries,” with categories including Best Time Period Look and Best Multi-Cam Stand-in, plus honors for special skills (card dealing, handstands).
“For the 2020 contract, we had to cave,” he said. “That was when the lockdown was happening. We got about a 2.5-per-cent increase, but rent is going up three per cent.” He was worried about A.I. “I do not want to be scanned,” he went on. “They can use my image and then always have me crossing in a cop station without paying me. That’s my livelihood.” Some of his friends had already been scanned: “They weren’t even told what it was for.” But he doubts that A.I. could eliminate the profession entirely. “Some of the simple things cannot be replaced,” he said. “Like, I started a scene by handing somebody an iPad.”
He turned into the World Harvest Food Bank, on Venice Boulevard. Since the actors’ strike began, he’s been waiting tables, but the food bank, stocked with donations from supermarkets and caterers, has helped him with essentials. He showed his SAG-AFTRA card, then was given a shopping cart and a cardboard box, which he loaded up with fruits and vegetables: parsley, celery, green onions, limes, lettuce, cherry tomatoes, bananas. A volunteer named Albert, who works as a deckhand in Marina del Rey, gave him baked beans, cookie dough, yogurt, and collard greens. Amaya topped off his cart with Bloody Mary mix, hand-sanitizer wipes, eggroll wraps, and more cookie dough. (He’s been learning how to cook from YouTube.)
He loaded the groceries in his car. “I’m able to weather the storm out as long as it takes,” he said. “I do want to go back to work, but I don’t want to go back to work with a 2.5 per cent.” On the drive home, he passed a picket line and honked in support. “This is the most walking L.A. people have done in decades,” he noted.
Barry Michels is one of L.A.’s most in-demand psychotherapists. His patients—prominent screenwriters, actors, and other industry folk—have included Adam McKay and Drew Barrymore. Michels uses Jungian-derived techniques developed by his mentor, Phil Stutz, to help them unlock creative potential, conquer writer’s block, or generally cope with the vicissitudes of the business. “His waiting room was like the red carpet,” one former patient told Dana Goodyear, when she profiled him for this magazine, in 2011.
I visited Michels at his sunlit home office, in Santa Monica. Michels (white goatee, soothing voice) sat near a colorful Marc Chagall print; I sank into a puffy blue sofa, which was like my portal into the subconscious of V.I.P. Hollywood. Were screenwriters talking about the strike in therapy? “It’s not what you would expect,” he said. “It’s not targeted to specific issues. It’s more that there’s a pervasive feeling that writers don’t matter, and that’s a terrible feeling. They feel that they’re being treated as if they’re completely expendable.” He clarified, “If they’re coming to me, they’re well off. For them, it’s much more an issue of respect.”
Michels picked up a piece of paper next to a box of tissues. He had printed out an infamous line from a Deadline article published in July, in which an anonymous executive was quoted saying, “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” “This has come up a lot in therapy,” Michels said. “When that came out, it was, like, one session after another: ‘Did you hear what this guy said? Asshole.’ Just intense, intense hatred. Because, if you read that statement, it really is a negation of human value.”
What did he advise his patients? Michels has a tactic called Cosmic Rage: “You visualize the force of pure evil—just a dark, dark force out there—and the person who said the awful thing is just the front man for that force. That’s step one. Step two is you remove the person—you don’t want to make this personal—and you face this dark force. And what you do is you rage at it with out-of-control rage.” (You don’t do this to the person’s face, he cautioned, but it seems like it might be handy on the picket line.) Another exercise is called Dust, which Michels has suggested for pitch meetings or movie premières: you imagine the people watching and judging you blanketed in dust. During the strike, Michels has recommended it to patients in order to “stop them from thinking about the producers and their position.”
Do his patients on the executive side talk about the strike? “Weirdly enough, I do treat some executives, but they’re not talking about it,” Michels said. “They may just not be involved in the negotiation at all. I suspect the other reason is that what the writers suspect is real: producers don’t think much about writers.” They weren’t venting about the actors’ strike, either: “In my experience, they care about movie stars only when the movie star is being a real pain in the ass.” Then there are agents and entertainment lawyers. “They’re just frustrated because they can’t do any deals,” Michels said. “In the instance of one, the advice was ‘Finally, it’s time for you to spend some time with your kid.’ ”
Along with the agents and lawyers, entire professions—caterers, gaffers, editors, publicists, set decorators, and intimacy coördinators—are idled, many supportive of the guilds but with little to gain. One afternoon, Camille Friend, a hair-and-wig designer, sat in her dining room, in Studio City, greeting students on Zoom. Friend has been the head hair stylist for movies such as “Django Unchained,” “Tenet,” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” for which she received an Oscar nomination. Recently, she designed Halle Bailey’s hair for “The Little Mermaid.” A few years ago, she started a training program called Hair Scholars. Without movie work, it’s become one of her only sources of income, along with corporate tutorials and talks.
“How’s everybody?” Friend, in a mint-green blouse and hoop earrings, asked the twenty-odd students in her “Blueprint for Beginners” class. She had invited a friend to lead guided breathing exercises. “Because you know what? Sometimes life is stressful! Sometimes you’re having a strike,” Friend said. Then she turned to the day’s subject: continuity. “Who has ever watched a movie, and you caught bad continuity, and it takes you out of the movie?” she asked. “Exactly.” As homework, the students had filled out mock continuity sheets, with photos of Friend’s head from various angles. She urged the students to notate everything, down to eyebrow tint, because you never know when you’ll need to re-create a look in reshoots. “Don’t post continuity pictures on the Internet,” she warned.
The next class would cover time cards and call sheets. “Do some breath work this week,” Friend urged. “We’ll see what happens with the writers—you know, they’re supposed to be going back to the table.” She advised using the downtime for self-care. “I’m working out, getting a little facial, doing a little body scrub, cleaning out the garage,” she said brightly. “I took a long bath last night—come on, now! All those things that we don’t get to do, this is a great time to do those things.”
After the students logged off, Friend was less cheerful. “If I get into my logical brain, I understand what this strike is about. The system is broken. But the hard reality is, I have friends, I have family, I’m personally responsible for my mother,” she said. “Most of my days are really good. But I have days where I’m sad. We don’t know when we’re going to go back to work, and we don’t have any control.” Friend is in IATSE Local 706, which represents hair stylists and makeup artists. Some of her colleagues have gone back to salon work. In June, she was in Atlanta, designing Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s wig for the Marvel film “Thunderbolts.” After that, she had a big Disney movie lined up in Hawaii. Both are on indefinite hold. “I thought I was going to have a really great year,” she sighed.
On weekdays, picketers have a range of studio locations to choose from. One Thursday morning, it was “Back to the Future Day” at NBC Universal, “90s/2000s Hip Hop + R&B Picket” at Warner Bros., and “Netflix Is a Joke Picket” at Netflix, where, at nine-thirty, the strike captains at neighboring W.G.A. and SAG-AFTRA tents prepared for the day. They had supplies (sunscreen, water bottles, hand sanitizer, potato chips, earplugs) and, at the W.G.A. tent, a bulletin board where you could pin jokes about the A.M.P.T.P. (Entries included “Ted Sarandos is the Ted Cruz of the entertainment world” and “MORE LIKE AMPOOPOOPEEPEE.”) Jess Brownell, the showrunner of “Bridgerton,” had sent an ice-cream truck.
Each location has its own vibe. Netflix, a W.G.A. strike captain named Alicia Carroll explained, is considered “the most egregious among the A.M.P.T.P., so people definitely get fired up here.” Disney is “more sleepy,” since it’s in the suburbs, but there’s a nice park. “Fox and Amazon are really fun, too,” Carroll said, then reconsidered. “ ‘Fun’ is not the right word for it—energizing.”
Calum Worthy, a former Disney Channel star, came with a friend he had met planting trees. “I’ve worked with Netflix on a number of projects, so I wanted to make my voice heard with some people I’ve worked with,” Worthy said. A young picketer who recognized him approached. “I grew up watching ‘Austin & Ally,’ ” she said. (Worthy starred as the character Dez.) They took a photo. Nearby, an older woman who was resting on a bench handed me a pocket-size edition of the Zohar, from the Kabbalah Centre. “It’s about human dignity,” she said, of Kabbalah. “Right now, the A.M.P.T.P. is not having human dignity. They’re filling their pockets with the work of all of us.”
The picketers traipsed beneath “For Your Consideration” billboards for “The Witcher” and “Beef.” “Remember to stay hydrated,” a captain reminded them through a megaphone. Cars on Sunset Boulevard honked in support. Aly Monroe, a writer for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” had been a strike captain at Netflix since May. When the actors joined, in July, the crowd got bigger and more invigorated. “Everyone in the W.G.A. was really dug in, but I think we were starting to flag in energy a little bit,” she said, adding that Annette Bening, Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin have all been spotted on the picket line. “We also have a d.j. now, since SAG joined,” she remarked.
Hours earlier, the W.G.A. negotiators had announced that the A.M.P.T.P. was inviting them back to the table. “We keep getting accused of acting emotionally, but I feel like they’re really acting emotionally,” Monroe said. “Our proposals are pretty reasonable. I feel like it’s going to last a really long time because of that, but I hope I’m wrong.”
Around the corner, an actor named Stephen Hopkins was picketing with his wife, who works at a studio and preferred not to give her name. Their nine-week-old daughter, Mara, slept in a stroller. The strike had made them a one-income household, a stressful situation with a newborn. “I love the idea of one day telling her, ‘You were part of this action,’ ” the mother said. “Right!” Stephen added. “When the labor movement was kicking up into full force, her parents were all about it.” A loud honk of support woke up Mara.
That afternoon, I visited SAG-AFTRA headquarters, situated in a boxy white building a block away from the La Brea Tar Pits. On the eighth floor, I met Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the national executive director and chief negotiator. His office was staid, save for a Darth Vader blanket folded over a couch. “I’m a big ‘Star Wars’ fan,” he said. “I should probably put it away during the strike.”
With negotiations on hold, Crabtree-Ireland was spending his days working behind the scenes and rallying strikers. He told me that he had just walked the Disney picket with Troy Kotsur, the Oscar winner for “CODA.” Crabtree-Ireland began working for SAG in 2000, as a staff attorney. Before that, he was a criminal prosecutor in the L.A. district attorney’s office. “I did a lot of attempted murders, a lot of gang violence, domestic violence, drug cases,” he recalled. Crabtree-Ireland shares leadership with the guild’s president, Fran Drescher, whom he calls President Drescher. “We talk pretty much every day, or text,” he said. In July, he and Drescher announced the strike at an emotional press conference, where Drescher accused the A.M.P.T.P. of giving them “a leck and a schmeck”—Yiddish for “a lick and a sniff.” “She’s taught me some new vocabulary,” Crabtree-Ireland said.
The day before we met, Disney’s C.E.O., Bob Iger, had said on an earnings call that he was “personally committed” to finding a solution to the labor impasse, the kind of bland corporate statement that Crabtree-Ireland insists he takes at face value. “We’re ready to negotiate,” he said. “We have been since July 12th. I say that privately to people related to the companies and through back channels. I do know that there are people who are helping us in subtle ways to put pressure on the C.E.O.s of the companies to get back to the negotiating table. And I am under the definite impression that C.E.O.s are talking to each other about what changes they might make in their position, so as to help further the negotiations and get us to a deal.” He was confident that morale was high enough to keep up a united front for months, but he acknowledged that the toll on striking actors was “rough.”
Down the hall, I found Valerie Yaros, the guild’s ebullient “historian-slash-archivist.” She works out of a former storage room stuffed with boxes and ephemera, hidden behind a wall of acrylic paintings of “The Godfather Part II” and “All About Eve.” Yaros, who has a Joan Jett mullet and chunky jewelry, began working for SAG twenty-seven years ago, when its president was the character actor Richard Masur. The inquiries she gets are “mostly Reagan and blacklisting,” she said.
The Screen Actors Guild was founded in 1933, just a few years after the birth of talkies, and technological changes have often preceded labor upheavals. The last time SAG and the W.G.A. had a double strike was in 1960, when a central issue was residuals from movies showing on television; now it’s streaming and A.I. Yaros flipped through bound volumes of the guild’s official magazine, The Screen Actor. February, 1960: “STUDIOS REJECT BASIC PROPOSAL.” March, 1960: “STUDIO HEADS PROLONG STRIKE DESPITE GUILD CONTRACT COMPROMISES.” There was a photo of Ronald Reagan, who’d been enlisted for a second stint as SAG president to lead the fight. “And there’s Nancy with him, because she was on the board, also,” Yaros said. The double strike led to groundbreaking residual agreements, along with funds for pensions and health care.
She skipped ahead to 1980, another strike year. The new technology was videocassettes and pay TV. “WHAT IS TELECOMMUNICATIONS?” one headline read, followed by a glossary of concepts such as “optical fiber,” “Home Box Office,” and “Turner, Ted.” That strike ended with minimum payments to actors for home-media releases. “Going on strike is always because you’ve exhausted all your options,” Yaros said. “In 1980, the argument on the other side was, ‘We’re not making enough money! We don’t know how this is all going to play out with home video!’ Spyros Skouras, the president of Twentieth Century Fox in 1960, was, like, ‘We can’t afford to pay actors residuals if we sell these films to TV! We’d all go broke!’ Well, did they go broke? No, they did not. But that is what they will say, every time.”
A former senior studio executive called me from his car. “Everyone is feeling down on all sides,” he said. “It really does feel like the business is in a lot of upheaval. People are talking about how linear television is declining faster than anybody thought, which means that the twenty-two-episode scripted network show is becoming a rarer and rarer thing. And the six-to-eight-to-ten-episode series on a streamer—the economics of that turns out to be much harder for everybody. If you look at all the legacy studios, it seems like their profit margins are going down. And, obviously, talent—writers and directors and actors—are feeling like they’re getting squeezed.”
He went on, “So the mood is tough for everybody. There’s a lot of mistrust and animosity between the studios and the guilds. In the past, there has been more empathy across the aisles. Right now, it just feels like everybody’s sort of frustrated with everybody, almost like everybody’s fighting for a bigger piece of a shrinking pie.”
The A.M.P.T.P. has long represented legacy studios such as Disney and Paramount, but it now includes the likes of Apple and Amazon. “I think it’s making it harder, because, in the old days, it was a bunch of old white men who all knew each other and had been in their jobs for a long time,” the former executive explained. “Their business models looked really similar: theatrical, home entertainment, television. There was just a lot of overlap.” Did Netflix deserve its reputation as the strike villain? “Netflix is the outlier,” he said. “In the beginning, they were making so much content, and they were paying people really handsomely, so there was this gold rush. But now that Wall Street has reëvaluated how to value Netflix, and its subscribers are subservient to profit, they’re having to adjust their business model. And then talent isn’t loving that, because adjusting it means being more selective and paying less.”
Did Netflix really have enough content banked to wait out the strike for months? “It seems like they have an advantage,” he said. “And that frustrates people, because everybody else is in pain. Everybody else is bleeding. Writers and actors are worrying about paying their rent, taking care of their kids. And this giant company—wait a minute, this is actually working to their benefit? Psychologically, that’s just really galling.”
Josh Decker, a bartender at Residuals Tavern, an industry hangout in Studio City, spun a glass in the air as he mixed a margarita. It was Friday night, and some guys at the end of the bar were watching a Dodgers game. The tavern opened in 1986, with a gimmick: anyone who presented a residual check for less than a dollar got a free drink. At first, checks were posted in a display case. “It’s one per visit,” Decker said. Someone had already come in with a check for ninety-five cents. “We usually get at least one or two a day,” he noted.
In the heyday of linear television, residual payments from reruns and syndication could keep an actor or writer afloat between jobs. But the streaming era upended all that, and both guilds are demanding a more equitable model. Decker, who has bartended at Residuals for eighteen years, said that people have been spending less on booze during the strikes, since they’re tightening their belts. But he hasn’t heard many barstool sob stories: “When people come in, they want a break from what’s going on out there.”
Decker, who wore a black shirt and a ball cap, is good-looking enough that you don’t really need to ask him if he’s also an actor, but, now that you mention it, he is. He still gets residuals for a 2014 film called “Boulevard,” in which he played an E.R. doctor. “I’ve had quite a few that have been under a dollar, so it’s fun to be able to bring it in and trade it for a drink,” he said.
Around nine, an actor named Carter Jenkins walked in and asked Decker for a hard cider, plus darts for the dartboard. His girlfriend, a musician, got a glass of red wine. Jenkins (thirtyish, windswept hair, stubble, credits on “Mad Men” and “Doom Patrol”) began as a child actor, so he’s used to getting residuals. “I have a check magneted to my refrigerator that’s for one penny, but I didn’t bring it, because I didn’t know we were coming here,” he said. Nowadays, he gets residuals via direct deposit. He had tried to show his SAG-AFTRA app to the bouncer, but the bar accepted only paper checks. Nevertheless, he opened the app to show me his latest haul, including twenty cents for a 2006 Miramax comedy called “Keeping Up with the Steins.” “It’s one of the few movies about bar mitzvahs,” he said. “I was thirteen at the time.” He nodded to his date and added, “I told her, ‘I could have been an alcoholic if I knew about this place.’ ”
He went on, “I’m, like, twenty-one years into this career, and I’ve definitely had lean years that I lived off residuals. The last few years: not good. And all the things I’ve done are streaming on Hulu or Netflix. They give you a little extra up front and say, ‘We’re going to buy out your residuals.’ It feels good, because you’re getting more than you’ve ever gotten. But the old model paid a lot better in the long run.” He scrolled through the app: $103.89 for a guest spot on “CSI: NY” from 2005, $356.05 for a starring role on “Women of the Movement,” which aired on ABC last year. “It doesn’t re-air or anything—it just went to Hulu, so the residuals are trash compared to what I got paid initially,” he explained. Then he went to throw darts.
Emily Heller, a comedian and TV writer (“Search Party,” “Barry”), led me through the garden in her back yard, in Atwater Village: cucumbers, Sungold tomatoes, loofahs, zucchini. “And then this is the butterfly zone, or it used to be,” she said, crouching beside a patch of milkweed. She began growing the milkweed last summer, in the hope of attracting monarchs. It worked. At one point, she had seventeen caterpillars, and she documented a metamorphosis on Instagram.
This summer, it’s become a strike hobby, though she’s had some trouble with predators. “The wasps have been relentless,” she said. She had tried protecting the caterpillars with mesh enclosures, but then removed them. “Some monarch experts say that a better way to help them is to just let nature take its course,” she explained. “But it has been somewhat discouraging to see how brutally effective their predators have been.” She pointed to a tiny white dot on a leaf. “One of the females came by and laid a bunch of eggs yesterday,” she said.
Before the strike, Heller had an over-all deal with CBS Studios. “I’ve had such a hard time getting shows picked up while I’m under this deal, as a direct result of these mergers and the changing landscape of television. When it’s over, I have no idea what’s next for me.” Monarch season has coincided with the strike almost exactly. “I’ve definitely had a lot more time in the garden than I expected to have at this point,” Heller said. “It is nice to have something that shows such tangible progress, when it feels like we are stuck in this limbo with the strike. After a certain amount of days, it’s going to form a chrysalis. And, after a certain amount of days, it will emerge as a butterfly.”
A few metaphors had come to mind. “The wasps are the capitalists,” Heller said. “The enclosure is the protection of a union contract. If you leave things to nature, or to the free market, it tends to favor the predators.” Also, the W.G.A. is fighting for the intermediate jobs that help writers metamorphose into showrunners. “Every stage of progress from a caterpillar to a butterfly is very important,” she said. “It’s hard not to project onto that.” Then there’s the paltry success rate. “These butterflies lay hundreds of eggs, and only a few of them survive,” she observed. “People say that about show business all the time: you have to get really comfortable with failure.”
Had the W.G.A.’s resumed talks with the studios given her hope? “I’m trying to remind myself that I just have to believe it when I see it,” she said. “It’s not the negotiations that are giving us hope. It’s the strike that gave us hope. It’s the fact that everyone made this agreement to come together and fight for a better future.” Even if the writers’ strike ended at any moment—less likely after the studios made their counteroffer public, roiling the writers—the actors’ strike could still take months to resolve. No guild members I spoke to were ready to cave, no matter how economically stressful or tedious or exhausting it all was.
Heller knelt down at the milkweeds again and spotted a newborn caterpillar, tinier than a fingernail tip. “This one just hatched, probably while we were talking,” she said. “I’m seeing more. That’s encouraging.” Any chance that the strike would end before it became a butterfly? “We just have to watch very closely over the next two weeks,” she said. “You have to hope for the best, even if everything is telling you not to.” ♦