As more than 3,000 striking actors and supporters united Wednesday at a massive rally in Los Angeles, the performers union, SAG-AFTRA, and the major Hollywood studios appeared to make progress on key issues and inch closer to a deal.
SAG-AFTRA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers have convened frequently over the past couple weeks in an effort to reach an agreement that would end the months-long work stoppage that has ground much of the entertainment industry to a halt.
As of Wednesday afternoon, a source close to the studios who was not authorized to comment said that the entertainment companies saw a clear path to a deal and were optimistic that a tentative resolution could be reached soon.
Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA national executive director and chief negotiator, struck a more cautious tone, saying that while recent discussions have been productive and "things are moving in the right direction," the parties are "still far from an agreement."
Crabtree-Ireland added that if studios come to the table with "the kind of mind-set" that would satisfy the union's wishes, a settlement could be easily reached "in a matter of days."
"Whether that will happen is hard to say," Crabtree-Ireland added, noting key disagreements remain over the use of artificial intelligence in filmmaking, among other issues.
The union is seeking to place limitations on the use of AI to re-create actors' likenesses and performances, while the AMPTP has advocated for informed consent and fair pay in situations where performers are digitally replicated.
Before heading into its latest round of bargaining, several members of the guild's negotiating team — including Crabtree-Ireland — stopped by what the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists dubbed a "Unity Picket" at the Disney studio lot in Burbank on Wednesday morning.
The union shut down all other picket locations for the day and encouraged members to convene as one on Alameda Avenue to mark the 111th day of the walkout. Members of other Hollywood labor unions — including the Writers Guild of America, crew members guild IATSE and the organization representing drivers, casting directors, location managers and other workers, Teamsters Local 399 — also showed up in solidarity with performers.
By 9 a.m., more than 60 strike captains and hundreds of demonstrators had already gathered under the grand entrance to Walt Disney Studios.
"We're just trying to stay strong and keep the solidarity going," said strike captain Terry Wilkerson. "And what a better way to do it than to do it at Disney."
Artificial intelligence seemed to be the most pressing issue on guild members’ minds at the Disney rally. Wilkerson described the latest talks between the union and the alliance as “a game of tennis.”
“They’re going back and forth,” he said. “We're trying to meet in the middle without losing money. … The fact that we have gone this long, it's a pretty good sign. But I don't know how long the negotiations are going to take."
"We still don't have AI language," echoed another strike captain, Kate Bond. "That's what we're consistently hearing. It just lets us know ... that we're gonna be out for a while."
Among the picketers was mechanical engineer and children's TV legend Bill Nye ("the Science Guy"), who expressed concerns about the entertainment companies using AI to replicate performers' likenesses "indefinitely, for crying out loud."
"A lot of people use my image for all sorts of things," he said. "I am recognizable with the cheekbones and stuff, but if you're a character actor, it's really costly. ... They just can use you."
A previous effort to end the strike fell apart last month due to a disagreement over streaming pay: The guild has advocated for a per-subscriber compensation model while the entertainment companies have pushed for a success-based payment system.
Crabtree-Ireland said SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP have since had "productive discussions about streaming residuals," but that the issue hasn't been resolved quite yet.
Ellen Stutzman, chief negotiator for the WGA who oversaw the end of the writers' strike in September, and Teamsters Local 399 Secretary-Treasurer Lindsay Dougherty both made an appearance at the Disney picket on Wednesday to show their support for SAG-AFTRA.
"Having been through it, I know it's tough," Stutzman said. "These companies resist making a fair deal. And I guess I'm not surprised that they ... did all the things they did to us. ... and then they go and do the same thing with SAG-AFTRA."
"Both sides have been meeting every day and talking, which is a good thing. And they were working over the weekend, which means they're getting close to a deal," Dougherty said. "We're all looking forward to that. ... This has been six long months."
Last month, a handful of A-list actors — including George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and Ben Affleck — met with guild leadership to discuss strategies to end the walkout. During their meeting, the movie stars proposed lifting the current $1-million limit on membership dues so that wealthier performers could contribute more and potentially ease the financial burden of working actors.
At the Disney picket on Wednesday, one guild member carried a sign that read, "Don't want Clooney [money]. Gimme that mouse money."
Late last week, 5,500 of the performers union's 160,000 members signed an open letter reaffirming their commitment to the strike.
Among the signatories were Daniel Dae Kim, Daveed Diggs, Debra Messing, Gina Rodriguez, Jon Hamm, Lena Dunham, LeVar Burton, Mark Ruffalo, Sarah Paulson, Pedro Pascal and Kerry Washington — who attended the Disney picket on Wednesday. .
"It's really wonderful that we are here to see all of our members so committed to each other, so committed to moving this forward and standing strong," Washington told reporters at the event.
"I'm so encouraged to hear that we're getting closer and closer, so I just want us to all keep our focus on that."
Times staff writer Wendy Lee, Meg James and Brian Contreras contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.