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'You could be the hero': Fran Drescher tells NPR how the Hollywood strikes can end

SAG-AFTRA leader Fran Drescher has some choice words for Hollywood studio heads.
Mandalit del Barco
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NPR
SAG-AFTRA leader Fran Drescher has some choice words for Hollywood studio heads.

Updated September 7, 2023 at 10:11 AM ET

Hollywood is all but shuttered, with negotiations at a standstill between the writers and actors who power the industry, and the major entertainment studios that employ them.

And Fran Drescher, president of the actors' union, SAG-AFTRA, has a message for studio heads.

"Don't step on me, climb on my shoulders, beat me down just so that you can make an extra shekel," she told All Things Considered this week. "Sorry, but that is no longer acceptable."

"This is a collaborative art form that means that we are all in it together. We are integral to [the studios'] success, and yet we're being treated like we don't count."

Writers, who belong to the Writers Guild of America (WGA) have been on strike since May, and actors, who belong to the SAG-AFTRA union, have been on the picket lines since July. Both unions are fighting major entertainment studios represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) for a variety of demands including better compensation, regulations around AI, and the terms of streaming shows.

Studios like Warner Bros. and Disney are on the other end of the negotiating table — a table they last shared with negotiators from WGA on Aug. 18. They have not negotiated with SAG-AFTRA yet.

The studios have been largely silent on the state of affairs, although their association did publicly release the concessions they offered to writers in a press release on Aug. 22, which included a 13% increase in pay over three years and increases in residual payments.

Disney's CEO Bob Iger has been one of the few outspoken studio voices and has said that the timing of the strikes has come at a particularly difficult time following the pandemic.

"There's a level of expectation that they have, that is just not realistic. And they are adding to the set of the challenges that this business is already facing that is, quite frankly, very disruptive," Iger said on CNBC's Squawk Box on July 13.

In a recent earnings call, Warner Bros. Discovery's CEO David Zaslav took a different tone, saying he's hopeful a deal will be reached soon.

"It's critically important that everybody, the writers, the directors, the actors, producers, all the below the line crews, everyone needs to be fairly compensated and they need to feel valued," he said.

In recent weeks, AMPTP hired a crisis PR firm to help manage their image, called the Levinson Group, which told NPR that a studio head was not available for an interview. Instead, they provided a written statement that said: "The AMPTP fully recognizes that the talented creative community makes the entertainment industry possible. The AMPTP is focused on reaching a swift resolution to the strike and is eager to have a meaningful negotiation about the issues on the table with SAG-AFTRA and WGA leaders."

Drescher has long been ready to sit down and reach that resolution.

"If you want to make a deal, you know where to find me," she said.

Drescher speaks during a SAG-AFTRA & WGA rally at City Hall Park on Aug. 1 in New York City.
Michael Loccisano / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Drescher speaks during a SAG-AFTRA & WGA rally at City Hall Park on Aug. 1 in New York City.

All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang spoke to Drescher about the standstill and why she is seeking a culture change.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

Fran Drescher: This is unlike any other strike and any other contract. We are at an inflection point. And we're seeing that because, you know, we stood our ground. There are strikes that are beginning to show up all over the place that have nothing to do with our industry. And it's like a domino effect because suddenly somebody said, "The emperor has no clothes!"

Ailsa Chang: Let me ask you about this inflection point. The studios, who, again, are represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP, they publicly released their counter to the Writers Guild on August 22nd with concessions like a 13% increase in pay over three years, increases in residuals, which are basically like royalty payments. What do you make of those recent concessions to the writers?

Drescher: I mean, the WGA, too. And I always say, "Writers rule. If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage." The problem is the culture of the big business in this industry. It's no longer what it used to be. It's CEOs very tied to their performance with Wall Street, and it's this diminishing and degrading of the artisans that they're building their whole business on. Like, let's try and get them as cheap as we can so that the shareholders, we can show we're making more money for them and then the CEOs can get their big bonuses. That's not the way to have a collaborative art form.

Chang: I hear your point about it being a collaborative art form, but I mean, the business of entertainment is changing. Studios like Disney are saying traditional TV revenues are in decline. They're also losing money on streaming. I mean, don't the unions at some level have to recognize that the entertainment business, because it's changing, the way writers and actors get paid will have to change as well.

Drescher: Well, that's what we're striking over because we're dealing with a contract. That structure was created at the last big strike in 1960. The business has no resemblance to that anymore. When you cut down the amount of episodes per season from six or eight or ten, that used to be 22 to 28, and you cut back on the amount of seasons that make up a series, that old residual model is ineffective. Also, it's in a vacuum because they're not selling it into syndication. They're not selling it globally. There's no tail to the revenue anymore. So where is the money? It's not there anymore. And that's the problem, because the structure of the contract has to change as exponentially as the business model has changed. Only they're not thinking that way.

Members of the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA walk the picket line outside of Disney Studio, in Burbank, California, on Aug. 16.
Valerie Macon / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Members of the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA walk the picket line outside of Disney Studio, in Burbank, California, on Aug. 16.

Chang: And what I'm understanding from some of the studios is the money simply isn't there. Or that, as you know, Bob Iger at Disney said that some of these unions demands are just unrealistic because, I mean, the numbers are telling: Disney streaming operation lost $512 million in the most recent quarter. Its total streaming losses since 2019 amount to more than $11 billion. Disney is saying at the same time, advertisers are pulling back from traditional TV channels like ESPN and ABC. So, you know, this is all from their latest earnings reports. How do you push back on the studios who say you're talking about getting more money from us for streaming, but we don't have that money yet. It's unrealistic to demand what you're demanding. How would you respond?

Drescher: I would say that, first of all, stop talking to the studios.

Chang: You got to talk to everybody.

Drescher: No, no, I'm being facetious. And also, I have to say that whoever is going to listen to this, you have the loveliest voice and then you keep coming back to me. I don't know what this interview is going to sound like. Oh, but let me just say this. When a CEO is making $78,000 a day, when a studio makes $1 billion on a weekend, please do not plead poverty to me. Just make a good deal. You could be the hero in the story. Just pivot. Start being inclusive. Start realizing that we're not peons. We're not serfs. We're in this together. Honor our artistry. Exalt what we bring to the world. Share the wealth and you'll see that, you know, the business will have much more longevity and much less of this kind of thing.

Chang: Do you see the studios coming back to the negotiating table with SAG-AFTRA any time soon? Because you guys are at a standstill right now.

Drescher: Well, it's not really — the only standstill is that I think that they're not wanting to come to the table because they're hoping that they can hold out longer than we can hold out. But that is not in the spirit of negotiation.

Chang: You feel like it's a game of chicken right now.

Drescher: I think that and I think greed, you know, this insatiable appetite for money, they're still not seeing that the culture needs to change, that they need to change. This conversation is bigger than our contract. It's about caring. It's about being empathic. It's about making money, but not at the expense. Don't step on me, climb on my shoulders, beat me down just so that you can make an extra shekel. Sorry, but that is no longer acceptable.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.