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News / Life / Entertainment

Pizzas and protests: How Hollywood picket lines differ

By Jonah Valdez, Los Angeles Times
Published: August 21, 2023, 6:00am
6 Photos
Picketers walk past an advertisement for the Fox Sports television show "Speak" outside Fox studios on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, in Los Angeles. The Hollywood writers strike passed the 100-day mark as the film and television industries remain paralyzed by dual actors and screenwriters strikes.
Picketers walk past an advertisement for the Fox Sports television show "Speak" outside Fox studios on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, in Los Angeles. The Hollywood writers strike passed the 100-day mark as the film and television industries remain paralyzed by dual actors and screenwriters strikes. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello) Photo Gallery

LOS ANGELES — Pass any major Hollywood studio on a weekday morning and you will see a transformation take place on its empty sidewalks.

Pop-up canopies cast rare pockets of shade on pavement scorched by summer heat. Plastic benches and chairs offer a place to sit. Coolers with water and Gatorade are available to the thirsty. Tables unfold, furnished with sunscreen and granola bars. First aid kits are on hand. Portable speakers start to blast Beyoncé. Local restaurants deliver free iced coffee, ice cream or lemonade. Sometimes there are burritos.

This daily metamorphosis sustains the well-being of thousands of members of the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, who are striking over wages, residuals, working conditions and the specter of artificial intelligence. At the picket lines, members have spoken of struggling to pay rent or obtain healthcare coverage, while some face food insecurity. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major studios and streamers, says it has offered “historic” increases in pay and residuals, improvements in benefits, along with protections against AI that have been rejected. Though talks between the studios and the WGA have resumed, there is no sign that the work stoppage will end soon.

As the simultaneous strikes stretch on, the picket lines have grown into fixtures of the Los Angeles streetscape, each its own mini community. There are more similarities than differences between them. Yet as with any neighborhood, the people within it color the atmosphere with their own personalities and quirks.

Here is a tour of three of them.

Netflix

A foam middle finger stuck to a window at Netflix’s posh L.A. offices had taunted picketers from above for days, recalled SAG-AFTRA strike captain and actor Alan Starzinski.

The foam finger was merchandise for Netflix’s drama series, ” Beef,” in which flipping the bird plays a crucial role. Starzinski, was unsure whether the message was an intentional jab from Netflix (the finger was eventually removed from its window spot). But it seemed to reflect the tone of the relationship between the streaming giant and the writers and actors below.

On Sunset Boulevard, cutting through the heart of Hollywood, the Netflix picket line is easily the most visible. And it feels the loudest. Like the pop of illegal fireworks on July 4, honking from cars and trucks passing along Sunset starts earlier than you’d think and ends later than you’d expect. There’s a constant game of call and response: a honk, then screams from picketers.

Starzinski, a 15-year veteran at the Upright Citizens Brigade, improvises jokes through a megaphone and eggs on the cars to keep honking. (He has taken to calling himself “the resident Honk Daddy.”) “I’m trying to make it the least painful as I possibly can,” the “Impeachment: American Crime Story” actor said, describing the mood at Netflix as “a party.”

If the Netflix picket line is indeed a party, it’s a rowdy one.

A sampling of the chants that ring out:

“Hell no, shut it down, L.A. is a union town.”

“No wages, no pages, no actors on the stages.”

“Hey hey, ho ho, Ted Sarandos got to go!”

“I wouldn’t say that we’re necessarily angrier than any of the other picket lines, but there are people that are adamant about showing Netflix what’s what,” Starzinski said as Netflix’s high-rise office building cast a shadow over the picket line. “They’re kind of the ‘big bad’ in this situation, and everybody recognizes that — they’re the boss level of who we’re fighting against.”

The WGA strike, now past its 100th day, has come to be known as ” the Netflix strike.” It’s outside Netflix’s offices where high profile leaders have taken up picket signs and marched, such as Rep. Adam Schiff, who ditched the halls of Congress (and his suit) to don an actors’ guild shirt in July. The morning after SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher’ famous, fiery speech to usher in the actors’ strike, the Netflix picket line was her first stop.

There’s specific anger at Netflix for what striking writers consider its weak payments and residuals, its notorious mini-rooms and a recent job listing for a manager to run projects related to its AI software, with pay between $300,000 and $900,000.

“This is David and Goliath 2023,” said actor Victoria Smith.

The AI job listing in particular seemed to hang over the Netflix picket line like a foul smell. Actor Aja Morgan called it “a slap in the face” and “another example of their blatant disregard for humanity.”

But she and others kept their spirits high, dancing and exchanging fist bumps with a street performer singing James Brown’s “I Feel Good.”

Though celebrities such as Sarah Paulson, Aubrey Plaza and Hannah Einbinder had joined the Netflix picket line in recent days, on this particular Friday, the buzz was about the other unions, the Starbucks workers’ union and Service Employees International Union, which recently took part in a massive one-day strike, that marched in solidarity. SEIU strike captains, veterans in direct actions, chanted, “If we don’t get it, shut it down.” Some actors and writers shared how they too were Starbucks workers when starting out in the industry.

The joint picket ended with marchers spilling onto Van Ness Avenue. LAPD officers promptly formed a line at the intersection of Sunset. “Right now, this is for their safety,” a sergeant said when asked whether police would declare it an unlawful assembly.

Following impassioned speeches, such as Jane Fonda yelling for fair wages through a microphone at Netflix’s C-suite, picketers handed their signs back to strike captains. Others hydrated, swirling electrolyte packets into water bottles. The sidewalks cleared within minutes, replaced by the steady hum and growl of traffic on Sunset. And honking continued, only the casual L.A. road rage kind.

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Paramount

Actor Brandon Morgan has been avoiding the Netflix picket line after his WGA friend warned it was “too crazy” and “too high energy.” Instead, three times a week, when he can arrange for child care, the SAG-AFTRA member has been picketing about a mile south at Paramount Studios. He described it as “friendly” and “relaxed.”

“Striking is kind of hard, man — I mean, I’m in my 40s — but to be out here in the sun, walking, I think I got like 8,000 steps in so far,” Morgan said while on his way to his car. “This is hard work.”

Paramount — the last major studio to operate in Hollywood — is far from the biggest name in streaming. Unlike Netflix, Paramount+ isn’t synonymous with the upending of the Hollywood business model. And here, there are no corporate offices to scream at. Instead, large gates provide a picturesque backdrop for picketing.

It’s common for groups protesting together to catch a selfie in front of the Melrose Gate. “Who doesn’t want a picture in front of those pearly gates?” joked writer-director-actor Nicol Paone, who wrote and directed the 2020 comedy “Friendsgiving,” as she marched at the Netflix picket line.

The studio’s original Bronson Gate — featured in more than a dozen films — is ensconced within Paramount’s private property, protecting it from any picket line social media posts. But it remains visible on a nearby billboard, advertising studio tours at Paramount, showing a young couple holding hands as they walk toward the historic Spanish colonial revivalist archway. “Ready for your close-up,” the ad entices.

With little ground to cover along the Melrose Gate, picketers at Paramount walk at a leisurely pace to the sound of pop hits blaring from portable speakers, such as NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” or Nena’s “99 Red Balloons.” Last week, guilds hosted a karaoke day. Strike captains orchestrate crossings in front of the gate, careful to not obstruct the road. A man in a black SAG-AFTRA shirt served as a de facto “walk” signal, beating his drum whenever strike captains allowed the picket lines to pass.

Though Melrose carries less vehicle traffic than Sunset, honks still come. And occasionally cheers, as a woman who claimed to be an executive producer rolled by yelling in a beat-up sedan, fist shaking in the air, “Don’t give up!”

Catching some shade beneath the gate on a warm afternoon in late July was Dan Aid, an actor and musician who lives nearby. Before the strike, Aid had minor roles on the Showtime comedy “SMILF” and NBC’s crime drama “Good Girls,” and was busy booking auditions and prepping for callbacks. The recent time off has allowed him to find balance in his life, committing more time to his music projects and family. The picket lines have provided a sense of community and belonging with other creatives unlike any other space he’s found since moving to Los Angeles two years ago.

“I love artists, I love creative people, I love getting excited about the new things they’re bringing into the world,” Aid said. “And I think those conversations definitely happen here, more than any place I’ve been to.”

At the Paramount picket line, some of those fellow creative people happen to be celebrities.

One week earlier, Jack Black picketed while in town visiting his father. Black — a SAG-AFTRA member “since before most of these strikers were born” (1983) — marched, posed for photos with younger actors and fielded questions from reporters. Some picketers observed that after Black’s appearance, attendance doubled over the next several days.

That week, Lance Bass, a member of NYSNC and SAG-AFTRA, bought pizza for protesters. The previous week, Hillary Duff joined the picket line and was seen dancing and singing along to her song ” What Dreams Are Made Of ” from “The Lizzie McGuire Movie.” And on this particular day in late July, Seth Rogen and Max Greenfield of “New Girl” joined picketers, causing an audible stir among the line, and attracting paparazzi to the studio. Morgan said their presence is important because it “puts people in better spirits.”

The significance of the celebrity presence at the Paramount line isn’t lost on Isa Briones, who marched, for the first time, alongside fellow actor and friend Miles Elliot. The pair marked the moment with selfies at the Melrose Gate, which Briones later posted to Instagram. The daughter of musical theater and screen actor Jon Jon Briones, she had recently landed key roles in the Paramount+ series ” Star Trek: Picard ” as android Soji and in the upcoming Disney+ “Goosebumps” remake.

“You’re seeing people with very different careers,” Briones said. There are big names like Rogen and Greenfield, and people who “have done some things here and there. But then there are these people who can’t make enough to get health insurance with the rest of everyone. And so all of us are here for the same thing, and all of us are united in this.”

With film production mostly halted due to the strike, the picket lines can also provide a place where performers can do what they do best.

“People who get into these performance industries have a need to be witnessed and seen at the moment they are at in their lives,” Aid said. “That’s why we’re drawn to it, because we need that reflection of ourselves to check in on where we sit in the world.”

The picket lines, Aid said, are a place where creative people can still express themselves.

“You can show up with joy, and you can wear a costume and you can sing and you can dance.”

Disney

“The people at the top are making more than their fair share off the people that are doing a lot of the work, and we’re just fighting for more equality in the industry and other industries,” said actor Jennifer Brian.

Those are the words she chose to explain the historic double strike to her 4-year-old daughter before bringing her to the Disney Studios picket line for the first time, earlier in July.

Now, her daughter will chant “union power” from her car seat. When asked how she wants to spend her morning, she asks to picket at Disney.

Brian marched with her friend and fellow actor Trilby Glover, who also brought her daughter, 7, and son, 5. To cool off, they leaned against the studio’s fences in the shade of trees and hedges, licking free ice cream cones served from a food truck.

Glover recently told her kids about how studios might start using AI to write scripts and generate actors’ movements without their permission. “Well that’s not right,” they’d shoot back in disgust, said Glover, who has been on shows such as “Scream Queens” and ” Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.”

“It’s hard for her to see what I do,” said Brian. “She knows I’m an actor, but this is like an overt way to see, ‘Oh, my mom’s a part of something.’ I like that she’s having a memory of being a part of something with me that I believe in.”

Like its theme parks, Disney’s picket line seems to draw the largest crowds and the most families. “And this is a light day,” one strike captain said.

Strike captains surmised the main draw for parents is the wide sidewalks, as well as the towering pines, maple, ficus and eucalyptus trees that offer shade along the route.

Unlike other picket lines, Disney’s functions as a continuous loop (about 1 mile around). This appeals to dog owners. (Strike captains had to post a sign asking picketers not to throw dog poop in the provided trash bin: “The smell lingers.”)

Many WGA and SAG members with young children also tend to live in Burbank, or adjacent neighborhoods in Glendale, Northeast L.A., the San Fernando Valley or Studio City, according to some demonstrators. The long route and large crowds also bring out a wide assortment of resource tents giving out water, Gatorade, electrolyte packets, ice cream sandwiches, chips, first aid kits and sunscreen.

In a city where walking can seem like a novelty, Disney’s picket line is an example of what can happen when you step outside of the car.

“We already ran into three people we know. And it’s like, oh, we do have a community,” Glover said. “Even though it’s a humongous city, the artistic community is there.”

A steady stream of picketers crowding near the studio’s Alameda Gate can feel like Main Street in Disneyland. The crowd bottlenecks as picketers wait for a crossing signal. To entertain the swelling crowd, the unions have set up a karaoke station beneath a canopy where one picketer is belting ” What’s Up ” by 4 Non Blondes.

WGA member Lacey Dyer is drawn here because of her recent writing work for Disney’s children’s shows, but also because of its organized loop, which makes for “the most pleasant walk.” She moved to Los Angeles in 2007 during the last writers’ strike and called her picketing “full circle.” Her 1-year-old sat quiet in a stroller affixed with a small, portable fan. She’s had to take her children out of daycare, which she can no longer afford since the strike began.

“It’s just cheaper than keeping them at home right now,” Dyer said.

Fellow WGA member Evan Kyle often brings his two young children to the picket lines. He’s enjoyed the conversation, as well as the shade, “especially after tree-gate.”

“It’s definitely just like more of a stroll in the park kind of vibe,” said Kyle, who was recently in the writers room for CW’s teenage drama, ” Riverdale.” A father of a 2-year-old daughter and a 5-month-old son, Kyle chose Disney because of its “family oriented environment,” which he said differs from picket lines in Paramount and Netflix or the nearby Warner Bros. Studios. “Places like that are more like youngsters and partying and stuff like that,” the 29-year-old said.

Though his children are too young to understand why they’re out there, he said it’s a good excuse to get them out of the house. The next week, picketers would host a day to encourage parents to bring their kids to the picket line.

“That day is for me every day,” Kyle said, laughing, while he cradled his son in one arm, his daughter standing nearby, asking him if it was time to go home.

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