Sparring actors’ unions reach deal over live theater productions during pandemic

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. perform in "Hamilton"
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. perform in “Hamilton” on the streaming service Disney+.

Two sparring actors unions have put aside their differences — for now.

Actors’ Equity Assn. (AEA) agreed to a deal with SAG-AFTRA that would allow the New York-based union to organize the workers on theatrical productions that are filmed, the groups announced Thursday.

The two unions had been engaged in a public feud over who had jurisdiction over filmed live events during the pandemic. While SAG-AFTRA believed any filmed content was within its purview for organizing, Actors’ Equity argued that the larger union was making it harder for its members to work and access benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agreement brings an end — at least temporarily — to a bitter schism that formed between the sister unions that normally work together on the opposite side from producers and employers. The pandemic, which led to hundreds of thousands of job losses in the creative industries nationally, has put pressure on unions as much of the entertainment industry has shut down.


“We are pleased that we are able to help create work opportunities for AEA members when it is vitally needed, while also protecting SAG-AFTRA members’ work opportunities now and into the future,” said SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris and National President David White in a message to members.

West Coast-based SAG-AFTRA and New York-based Actors Equity, the two unions representing actors and performers, are in an escalating jurisdictional feud.

The tentative agreement, which runs through until Dec. 31, 2021, allows Actors Equity to sign up theaters with recorded or streamed productions for exhibition to a remote audience. The deal has some restrictions, including that the content cannot go to streaming apps such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max and Disney+.

It also includes an understanding that broadcast or livestreamed media, including the transmission of a live theater performance outside the theater itself, is within SAG-AFTRA’s exclusive jurisdiction.

Last month SAG-AFTRA urged its parent organization, the AFL-CIO, to mediate the dispute over what rights it has when it comes to filmed content from theater stages.

Actors’ Equity, which represents more than 51,000 professional singers, actors, dancers and stage managers, complained that SAG-AFTRA was undercutting it by signing up tens of theaters and making it harder for its members to qualify for health insurance benefits.

It has contracts with theater groups and other employers from Broadway to the West Coast, as well as theme parks like DisneyWorld and casinos. Broadway shows such as “Hamilton” are covered by both unions.

“Both unions praised the collaborative process that allowed the parties to come to the table and reach a solution that serves the best interests of both of their memberships,” Actors’ Equity said in a statement.