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At Phoenix rally, SAG-AFTRA members say strike has halted plans to make movies in Arizona

By Reagan Priest/Cronkite News
Published: Tuesday, September 19, 2023 - 9:08am
Updated: Tuesday, September 19, 2023 - 5:40pm

Sandy Kim at the SAG-AFTRA Arizona-Utah rally
Kiersten Edgett/Cronkite News
Sandy Kim, a SAG-AFTRA Arizona-Utah board member, leads a union chant at the organization’s rally, on Sept. 17, 2023. Over 1,000 SAG-AFTRA members in Arizona and Utah have been on strike since July 14 with the national union.

Members of the Arizona-Utah chapter of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists rallied in Phoenix on Sunday to demand increased benefits and residuals, prohibition of artificial intelligence content and protections against unauthorized use of their likeness.

SAG-AFTRA local leaders and members were joined at the U.A. Local 469 union hall by leaders of local chapters of entertainment unions, including the Actors’ Equity Association, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the American Federation of Musicians, as well as other local union leaders.

Amanda Melby, the president of SAG-AFTRA Arizona-Utah, explained to the assembled crowd how the national strike has impacted local members. Melby said there are over 1,000 SAG-AFTRA members in Arizona and Utah who have been on strike since July 14 with the national union. The actors joined the Writers’ Guild of America, which has been on strike since May 2. The strikes have stopped production on films and TV series.

SAG-AFTRA STRONG sign at Arizona-Utah rally
Kiersten Edgett/Cronkite News
Union members and supporters hold picket signs saying “SAG-AFTRA STRONG” at the SAG-AFTRA Arizona-Utah rally, on Sept. 17, 2023.

“It affects us here because many of us have to go and work outside of this market to make a living,” Melby said in a speech. “It affects us here because the work is coming here, and when it does, we need the same protections and the same working conditions offered in bigger markets. It affects us here because it is already hard to work in this industry, especially in a right-to-work state.”

Melby told Cronkite News in an interview that there are productions with plans to shoot in Arizona that are now on pause, which has an impact on not just actors, but the local economy as well.

Angie Seger, an agent with Signature Models and Talent in Scottsdale, said in an interview that a tax incentive that went into effect this year was expected to bring more work to Arizona, but now that those productions are stalled, the economic benefits are stalled as well.

“We were really excited for the theatrical aspects, for what they would bring to Arizona — not only for the actors, but also the crew, and restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, all those things that affect the economy,” Seger said. “It affects all of Arizona.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 340 actors working in Arizona and 770 in Utah as of May 2022.

Cynthia Baker and Jennifer Pfalzgraff at the SAG-AFTRA Arizona-Utah rally
Kiersten Edgett/Cronkite News
Cynthia Baker, president of the American Federation of Musicians Arizona chapter, plays violin to a union chant with Jennifer Pfalzgraff, a SAG-AFTRA member, at the SAG-AFTRA Arizona-Utah rally, on Sept. 17, 2023.

Another demand of local union leaders who spoke at the rally was updating contracts to reflect advances in film and television, like streaming and AI-generated content.

Technology can’t “replace the heart and the humanity that we breathe into everything we do,” Gil Berry, a member of the Actors’ Equity Association, said in a speech on Sunday.

Seger said that with the talent in both Hollywood and Arizona, studios should have no reason to use AI, which would only replace the “soul and intentions” of actors. She also hopes studios realize that Arizona has a lot to offer the film and TV industries.

“It’s really important that people in other markets understand we have incredible talent,” Seger said. “We have incredible talent all across the board. And it just blows my mind that we aren’t tapping into that more.”

Though an end date for the strike is not yet clear, Melby told Cronkite News that she remains hopeful that the union will have its demands met and come back to work across the nation stronger than before.

“I’m an optimist,” Melby said. “So I’m always hopeful that work will be fruitful and beneficial, and that’s what I’m working on, to try and make that dream come true and to continue to have better work opportunities for our members.”

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