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Sonita: The Afghan rapper taking on the Taliban | USA

It is as flight attendants say when presenting the safety instructions that hardly of us pay any attention to: one has to save oneself before one can help others. Sonita Alizadeh survived by escaping her own family, who twice tried to sell her into a forced marriage. It was the tradition of the country where she was born in 1997, Afghanistan, which was under Taliban rule at the time. With time, she discovered other methods of survival beyond flight. She was also saved by searching inside herself, learning again to love her mother who despite living through a forced marriage herself did not seek to spare her daughter the experience. By saving herself, Sonita also saved others. She has saved many women and given many others food for thought by turning her protest into song. “I hope that having been willing to fight for my ideas and having opposed the practice of forced marriages, I have given other women the strength they need to decide their own destinies for themselves,” Sonita tells EL PAÍS from Bard College in New York, where she is studying for a degree.

Very close to where she was born, in Herat in the west of Afghanistan, lies the Shahrak-e Sabz refugee camp. Two years ago, a group of reporters from the BBC visited the camp to tell the story of Naranin. She was five years old when her parents, who did not know how to read or write, sold her for around $3,400 (€3,000). Her mother told the reporters that it was a case of survival: the money was needed to pay for medical treatment for another of their four children. It is not only in Afghanistan where girls are sold. It also happens in Myanmar, China, Syria and North Korea. They are sold ostensibly as brides, but soon become domestic and sexual slaves when they are barely 10 years old. It is a widespread problem and a result of extreme poverty and a lack of education, mixed with a profound lack of humanity.

Sonita says that more than 12 million young girls are sold as potential brides around the world every year. This is what befell her and her siblings in Tehran after the family had fled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Having walked hundreds of miles with her mother and her sisters, in rain, wind and snow, to arrive in Iran they found that their new home did not provide them with a brighter future. But she continued on her path, first with her family and then on her own.

Sonita’s first flight was from the Taliban, and her second was from her own mother. Escaping from the guardianship of her mother, who wanted to try and sell her for a second time in Iran, cost Sonita all of her documentation. She was forced to live as a refugee. That was when an NGO stepped in to help her. At the school for undocumented refugees in Tehran, Sonita started to sing.

“I hope I have given other women the strength they need to decide their own destinies,” says Sonita Alizadeh.
“I hope I have given other women the strength they need to decide their own destinies,” says Sonita Alizadeh.©Emmanuele Lubezki

She was 15 years old and she managed to express herself with joy. She used the strength she had employed to engineer her escape at the school to compose a catchy, danceable pop song. “But I realized that my message, what I wanted to say, was too sad. It wouldn’t fit into just one song,” she says from the Annandale-on-Hudson campus.

What Sonita had to say also didn’t fit comfortably into the chords of the pop music that she liked. So she decided to try rap. What she wanted to say was in reality a denunciation. She wanted to talk about the inhumane obligation of being forced into marriage, which had happened to her, her sisters and her friends and to which innumerable young girls are subjected every year in many countries the world over. “The force of rap, as well its nature of protest, made me feel good,” she says. Sonita realized that “people who listen to rap pay attention to the lyrics in the songs. They are as into the music as they are the message. They are looking for that information. They feel engaged with what they are listening to. I think rap is a vehicle for sharing transformative messages. Its strength can change attitudes.”

In the music video for her song Daughters for Sale, a bride is having make-up put on for her wedding. She is young and beautiful. She is not smiling. There is a television set on. And it is there, on that screen inside the screen, where Sonita sings: “I scream to make up for a woman’s lifetime silence. I scream on behalf of the deep wounds on my body.”

The video relates how many young women learn that they have been sold by their fathers and, knowing that Sonita escaped, the bride having make-up applied also ends up running, as Sonita sings, to escape suicide or a living hell. The video has been viewed more than 140,000 times on YouTube. The music, the lyrics and the story went viral. It even featured on television in Afghanistan. “This is the power of music; it’s international,” Sonita says. What she did in Iran also went viral in Afghanistan. “In as much as a song can go viral there,” she clarifies. Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami also became aware of Sonita on the web and contacted her to suggest she go further still. Ghaemmaghami wanted to make a documentary about her story. When the movie, Sonita, was distributed, she was invited to study in the United States. “I made my story known, I had the strength to tell it and it changed my life,” she says. Her courage gave her an education. Today she is studying Human Rights and Music. “That’s me, but it could be so many more women.”

With some reservation, Sonita says her sisters and her friends have not shared her good fortune and were sold. She doesn’t say if she still has contact with them. She prefers not to talk about that aspect of her life to avoid putting them at risk. But she does insist on saying that she does not hate her mother. She understands that she didn’t know any different, that she was repeating a tradition that she was taught. “I love her. Although it may not seem like it, she did what she thought was best for everyone. I don’t preach any stance. If someone wants to change their life, they have to do it themselves. Nobody can change your life for you.”

Today Sonita Alizadeh, singer, rapper, subject of a documentary and student at Bard College, is one of the 12 people featured on the 2022 Lavazza calendar, under the slogan “I can change the world” and photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki.

Does Sonita think she has played her part? “I write and sing about what is important to me; war, child exploitation. I don’t know if my music is or always will be political. I see myself more as a singer who advocates for human rights, and who uses music for that. I grew up as a child refugee and that makes you rethink your life every day. Every morning. Although I didn’t go to school, my life experience taught me a lesson: it’s essential to aim high and try to fulfill your dreams. And to do that you have to be able to dream.”

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‘Pachacútec,’ the story of a legendary Peruvian cooking school, premieres at the San Sebastián Film Festival | Culture

A student at the Pachacútec Institute of Culinary Arts, in an image from the documentary ‘Pachacútec, the Improbable School’ (2023).Cortesía

For the past 16 years, a warehouse —located in a desert overlooking the sea, in a shantytown on the outskirts of Lima, Peru— has been converted into a kitchen, where several of the most promising Peruvian chefs of recent generations have gotten their start.

The Pachacútec Institute of Culinary Arts is —in the words of Joan Roca, the founder of El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona, Spain— an “oasis of culinary knowledge.” For the gastronomic critic Ignacio Medina, it’s “a laboratory.” And, for the famous Barcelona-based chef Albert Adriá, it’s “a great opportunity for hundreds of young people without resources.”

All of the aforementioned food experts have visited the school on the sandy beaches of Ventanilla, in the Peruvian province of Callao, getting the opportunity to tour the institute that was founded in 2007 by Gastón Acurio, the global ambassador of Peruvian cuisine.

Acurio, 55, had been thinking about bringing Pachacútec’s stories to the big screen for some time. But it wasn’t easy for the chef and restaurateur to choose someone who had the creative genius to direct and produce the project. It was only after watching an episode of the third season of the series Street Food: USA, in mid-2022, that he made up his mind. The director —the man behind the Miami episode— would be Mariano Carranza, a Peruvian living in the United States. He has significant experience in putting together diverse documentaries, dealing with wide-ranging subject matter, from a brain bank at Harvard University to the construction of a hand-woven rope bridge in the Andes.

While taking a look at a school where more than 400 chefs have been trained —who now work across the Americas, Europe and the Middle East —Carranza’s challenge was to summarize the spirit of Pachacútec in three representative cases. He interviewed more than 30 chefs and, after a couple of months of deliberation, he settled on Jhosmery Cáceres —the master pastry chef at La Mar, in San Francisco— Gerson Atalaya, head chef at Kay, a modernist restaurant that has revolutionized Luxembourg – and Alan Larrea, the owner of Percado, a ceviche bar that has refreshed the Lima scene.

Gastronomy students outside the school.Cortesía

The result is a 38-minute-long movie, filmed in four countries, which premiered at Spain’s San Sebastián Film Festival on Wednesday. It’s titled Pachacútec, the Improbable School. While it’s in the Culinary Cinema category, it’s not in competition for the award, due to its short duration. “In a country that prides itself so much on its gastronomy as a unifier, it’s necessary to put the lens on the people who have had an uphill climb. It should be noted that this school has been able to create opportunities for young people, who didn’t have the money to study cooking,” Carranza explains. The school —which receives more than 350 applications every six months— is only able to admit 25 people per semester.

Alan Larrea received one of those prized spots back in 2008. Living among ladles, knives and cutting boards wasn’t exactly his first choice: in fact, he had a sexist view of the matter, thinking that cooking was for women. He thought that they were the ones who had to shed tears while chopping garlic and red onion —key ingredients in Peruvian cuisine— and have the food hot and ready for when the man came home.

This mindset was shaken up when he was 17. His mother died of leukemia and his father lost his job. While looking for ways to help out at home, his first work experience came to him on a platter: washing dishes in his aunt’s modest restaurant. A spark was lit. In one year, Larrea went from being a dishwasher to kitchen assistant. His voracious curiosity didn’t stop —he began devouring second-hand cookbooks and watching cooking shows on TV.

Years later —after caring for the elderly, walking dogs and collecting fares on public transportation— he learned about the Pachacútec school, while flipping through a magazine in a barbershop. Being admitted, he recalls, was like getting out of a hole and finally seeing a less bleak horizon.

Different dishes prepared by Gerson Atalaya, a graduate of the Pachacútec Institute of Culinary Arts, at the Kay restaurant in Luxembourg.Cortesía

“They taught me the techniques and language of cooking. But, in Pachacútec, above all, they taught me how to be a person. To be supportive, honest and responsible,” Alan Larrea tells EL PAÍS, before taking his flight to Spain. He attended the documentary’s premier at the San Sebastián Film Festival, along with Jhosmery Cáceres and Gerson Atalaya. The three protagonists also faced a challenge following the filming: cooking dinner for 80 guests at the Basque Culinary Center, the prestigious institution dedicated to research and innovation in gastronomy. “It’s a dream to be able to cook on the same stage as [the Argentine] Narda Lepes, one of my greatest references,” Larriera smiles. He’s come a long way from paying his tuition by spending his early mornings working as a gardener at the Pachacútec Institute. Today, at 42, he runs his own restaurant.

Similarly, Jhosmery Cáceres’s first experience in the kitchen didn’t involve caramelizing fruit or preparing a fondant to decorate a cake. It was, rather, supporting a family enterprise: an on-the-go ceviche cart. Like her companions from Pachacútec, life wasn’t kind to her. Jhosmery’s mother managed to cover the family’s three meals a day with just 25 soles ($7). She always says that Pachacutec not only changed her life, but also her mother’s. “It was my lifeboat. I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am if they hadn’t extended their hand to me,” Cáceres sighs in the film. This girl —with straight black hair and thick glasses— ended up leaning towards pastry-making, given her talent for accuracy. “If you follow the rules, everything will be fine. Salty food is more unpredictable.”

Gerson Atalaya —who will celebrate five years in Luxembourg this December— sees cooking as an act of love, but also as a chance to break the rules. He found that gastronomy in the European country of fairy tales wasn’t magical enough —it was rather stuffy and classic. Atalaya —who, before putting on his apron, sings a hip hop song— feels that his Kay restaurant is a way of getting out of the box. “It’s like freestyle. You can express your feelings on a plate [without limits]. Cooking with love is important, but it’s more important to cook with personality,” he affirms.

Co-produced by Gastón Acurio and Irzio Pinasco, Pachacútec, the Improbable School aims to continue its journey through festivals and movie theaters. San Sebastián is just the first stop. Showing the school in the desert of Ventanilla is a must. Let the pots and pans ring.

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Extremely violent, cruel and uncomfortable: How ‘Saw’ became a 21st century phenomenon | Culture

When Australian filmmaker James Wan defends the Saw series, his life’s work, the cornerstone of his empire, he often resorts to an intuitive gastronomic analogy. It’s not sirloin steak. It’s not steak tartar. It’s not beef entrecôte. It is a hamburger. Burgers are generously seasoned, processed pieces of meat and are usually served with large amounts of mustard and ketchup. People like them. But they are not fine dining.

Wan has always described himself as a voracious cinephile with a rather coarse palate, a consumer of gory flicks, slasher movies, giallo films and all manner of irreverent horror films, from Black Christmas (1974), Halloween (1978), The Ring (2002) and Braindead (1992) to Blood and Black Lace (1964) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Privately, he has a place in his heart for Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (I), but his influences are primarily people who are none-too-subtle and carry heavy caliber ammunition in their cartridge cases. His heroes are guys like Tobe Hoper, Mario Bava and Hideo Nakata.

That’s the film diet the Malaysian-born Australian, now 48, has consumed since he was a teenager. It’s also the kind of movie he set out to make — when he was just 20 years old and still a student at the Melbourne Institute of Technology — with his partner and friend Leigh Whannell, an enthusiast of “zombies, monsters, serial killers, grotesque and sappy horror and Hollywood action blockbusters.” As Andrea Albin recounts in a sympathetic Bloody Disgusting article, Wan and Whannell resisted the fine steaks — intellectual and auteur films — their professors and fellow students tried to get them to appreciate. But they could never stomach Godard. They always knew that their films would be raw, unadulterated fast-food cinema. And so they tried to sell that, first to a series of Australian independent production companies and eventually to Hollywood studios.

Screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan pose in 2004, at the height of the 'Saw' craze.
Screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan pose in 2004, at the height of the ‘Saw’ craze. The AGE (Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Wan and Whannell produced the first of their flicks nearly twenty years ago, in 2004. As Chris Coffel explains in the blog Film School Rejects (III), shortly after landing in Los Angeles, the twenty-something Australians won over Lions Gate, which delivered a million dollars and a couple of high-profile performers, Cary Elwes and Danny Glover, and gave them 18 days to try to turn the script they had brought back from Australia —the curious story of a homicidal maniac bent on subjecting his victims to intricate and cruel sociological experiments — into a film that was “at least palatable.”

A feast of blood and gore

Despite its intense appetite for fresh blood — it’s not suitable for the faint of heart — and meager budget, the first Saw was an overwhelming and unexpected hit that showed Wan how in tune the public was with his taste. What’s more, the movie served to revitalize a horror genre that, at the time, was at a low point and helped popularize one of the most controversial and reviled categories in the history of cinema: torture porn, which is synonymous with explicit extreme violence with an added dose of psychological cruelty.

Ross Tibs, editor of Far Out Magazine, considers the film to be “brave” and disruptive. A more than worthy product in its assumed modesty, the movie also gave cinema “a timely mix of philosophy, psychology and extreme physical violence,” thus paving the way for Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005). For Tibs, “these films brought back the logic of ‘go see it if you dare’ that had been anticipated by the most hard-core classics of horror released in the 1960s and 1970s,” from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left.

In a way, this demented ultraviolence energetically reclaimed the right to “surprise, horrify and shock” an audience that had already grown accustomed to the great contemporary horror franchises, like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, which were falling into self-parody and becoming increasingly bland and innocuous. The genre had become indoctrinated and was crying out for a jolt to avoid losing its immediacy and relevance. With all its virtues and flaws, Saw provided a jolt.

‘Cruelly empty’?

Of course, not all critics were taken by Wan and Whannell’s gorefest. On the contrary, reviews of the film ranged from skeptical to furious. It had plenty of detractors and found few allies in the press. David Germain of the Associated Press called it “vicious to no end,” and was outraged by its “cruelly empty” script and “clumsy” mise-en-scène, lamenting that actors of some standing like Elwes and Glover had compromised their reputations by participating in such nonsense. Germain concluded that the director and screenwriter were a pair of talentless opportunists who had attempted to dress up something that was nothing more than a degrading display of perversion and stupidity as a morality tale.

Actor Cary Elwes at a party after the screening of the film 'Saw' in New York.
Actor Cary Elwes at a party after the screening of the film ‘Saw’ in New York. Dimitrios Kambouris (WireImage for LIONSGATE)

Peter Travers, of Rolling Stone, needed just three lines to pan Wan for his “creepy” display of unscrupulousness and bad taste. Mike Clark, of USA Today, felt that the film engaged in constant assaults on sanity and the most basic sense of ethics, and that it did so through “shamelessness” rather than true cinematic skill. Scott Tobias, of AV Club, considered the movie to be the epitome of imbecility, starring a “random freak pulled out of the screenwriter’s ass.”

Of the rare praise in the first reactions, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, found the film to be “an unhealthy and eccentric atmosphere” worthy of cruel thrillers like Seven. In Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman chose to be condescending, observing that, beyond its nightmarish atmosphere and commitment to unadulterated physical horror, the movie had a remarkable ability to entertain the audience without insulting its intelligence (at all).

Count to ten

Two decades later, the film that Gleiberman considered to be honest in its own way — an atrocious movie without much ambition, whose success he never would have predicted — has eight sequels with earnings of between $40 million and $169 million; the franchise is about to premiere its tenth installment, Saw X, which opens on September 29. The latest installment is directed by Kevin Greutert, who also made Saw VI and served as editor on up to six of the franchise’s installments. Saw X brings back the original villain, John Kramer, also known as Jigsaw (played, once again, by the very competent Tobin Bell), the cancer patient whose resentment and excessive attachment to life have turned him into a twisted and merciless predator.

In a telling Reddit thread about what to expect from Saw X, fans of the franchise are more than willing to take the bait again and go to the cinema as enthusiastic as ever, but they have a number of conditions for the film. The first is that they don’t want “a new disciple and apprentice psychopath,” a plot device that has been abused since Kramer died at the end of the third installment. Nor would they accept “an excessive use of computer-generated visual effects” (Saw has always boasted of a certain “handcrafted” style that makes its most violent scenes particularly shocking), the introduction of paranormal phenomena or the representation of the villain “as a kind of vigilante and not as the bitter, moralistic and hypocritical individual he has always been.” If none of these things happen, they are all for the new movie.

Reading those comments, it is clear why Saw has not lost its ability to connect with its natural audience, mostly men between 18 and 25 years old. The installment has established a solid pact with its community of unconditional followers because it gives them what they want. It has understood their expectations and dedicated itself to satisfying them without denaturing the product. The red lines are clear: the coherence of characters and situations must be maintained; the violence should not be reduced, even though this particular ingredient makes it hard to accommodate in many cinemas; a certain level of verisimilitude and realism must remain, without falling into carnivalesque excesses; the sordidness and macabre humor must be retained, and, finally, while the quality of the script has deteriorated, the film must keep its ingenuity and capacity to surprise and not abuse previously used devices.

James Wan directed, co-wrote and produced the film that launched the franchise. He was also the one who made Saw 0.5, the short film — it’s just nine and a half minutes long — that started it all, now a cult classic, which was shot in a couple of days with a 16 mm camera for just over $2,000. Since then, Wan’s involvement in the franchise has been limited to participating in writing the Saw III script and serving as executive producer (along with Leigh Whannell) for all the other installments. The rest of the movies have been directed by the aforementioned Greutert and Darren Lynn Bousman, while the scripts have been written by different people, in a not-always-successful attempt to freshen things up and get ideas flowing. Saw’s creators have exercised increasingly distant quality control while embarking on other projects (Insidious, Anabelle, The Conjuring) and carrying the banner of revitalizing the horror genre in the process.

Through 2010, the Saw franchise continued its frenetic pace of releasing a new installment every year; they were always released in October to coincide with Halloween. Saw 3D, the seventh in the series, premiered as the final chapter that was set to end the story once and for all. And perhaps that would have been the case if its success at the box office (it earned $136 million and had a $17 million budget) had not made its directors reconsider the decision to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Ultimately, the planned cancellation became a seven-year hiatus that served to rejuvenate the product. They launched the franchise again with Jigsaw (2017), an update directed by genre cinema’s new bluebloods, the Spierig Brothers. Jigsaw ended up following the same path as its predecessors: it garnered tepid to lousy reviews but enjoyed notable box-office success. That’s also what we can expect of the next installment of Saw, that is, unless the filmmakers have found a way to bring back our horrified amazement at Jigsaw’s first crimes.

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The Benefits Screenwriters Will Enjoy After The Strike Include Juicy Bonuses, Better Salaries & Limits On AI

The Benefits Screenwriters Will Enjoy After The Strike Include Juicy Bonuses, Better Salaries and Limits On AI
Actors picketing outside Paramount studio.

From the first minute of this Wednesday, the screenwriters’ strike will become part of Hollywood history. The leaders of the screenwriters’ union, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), have ratified the agreement reached with the studios on Sunday. On Tuesday afternoon, WGA leaders endorsed the final text of the contract, putting an end to the 148 days in which the scriptwriters turned off their computers, and brought the entertainment industry to a halt.

The agreement has an estimated value of $233 million a year, a much higher figure than the $83 million that executives put on the table in the first round of negotiations. Hollywood, however, is still a couple of weeks away from returning to normal. Actors are still on strike.

The 11,500 members of the WGA will vote between October 2 and 9 on the collective contract that is on the table. The WGA’s negotiating committee made it clear it was pleased with the deal struck on Sunday, describing it as “exceptional.” Following the tentative agreement, the leaders of the organization began to explain the benefits contained in the new 94-page text, which will be in force for three years.

The deal will 5% increase writers’ basic pay in the first year of the contract’s term, 4% in the second year and 3.5% in the third. It also includes bonuses for hit shows online, and restricts the use of artificial intelligence. Now that WGA leaders have voted to recommend the tentative agreement, writers will be able to return to work, starting Wednesday.

Talk show writers are expected to be the first to return, as they were the first to walk off the job when the strike was called. These shows are set to go back on air in the first days of October.

As the scriptwriters requested, the new collective contract will offer protections against the emergence of AI in the industry. Under the deal, the tool cannot be used to write a script or rewrite a new version of one, not can it be credited as a writer instead of a human. Studios will not be able to force a screenwriter to use an AI program, such as ChatGPT, to assist with a script. The WGA will have the final say, on behalf of its members, on whether or not to allow creative materials to be used to train or develop artificial intelligence software.

The studios also agreed to a new model for residuals, the payment that is given to members of a production when a program is broadcast in a new market or platform. Under the new system, the bigger the viewership, the more a screenwriter will be paid.

This was one of the points that had stalled negotiations for weeks, as studios were adamant about not revealing audience numbers. In the new text, however, the studios will share with the union, through a confidentiality agreement, the total number of hours a title was streamed both domestically and internationally.

The new contract promises to compensate, from January 1, 2021, the screenwriters for a high-budget title that is considered a success. This is defined as any title that is viewed by 20% of domestic subscribers to a streaming service, such as Prime or Netflix, in the first 90 days of release.

Screenwriters will receive residual bonuses for series and films that meet this threshold. The bonus will be calculated with a formula that takes into account a production’s budget, the length of the series or film and the number of views. This means, for example, that writers of a widely watched TV series will pocket about $9,000 for a half-hour episode and $14,600 for an hour-long episode. For a feature film that has cost more than $30 million to produce, screenwriters can expect a bonus of $40,500.

Under the new contract, studios must also hire a minimum number of writers to develop treatments for a TV season. At least three writers will be needed for a six-episode show, while six is the minimum for a 13-episode show. Three of these writers may have the position of writer and producer.

The wins achieved by the WGA have raised the hopes of actors on strike. Currently, no negotiations are being held between the actors union SAG-AFTRA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents Paramount, Sony, Universal, Walt Disney, Warner Bros., the major TV networks and streaming companies such as Netflix and Apple TV, among others.

Actors continue to picket outside Hollywood studios. The WGA has not called any demonstrations since Sunday, but the group’s leadership is allowing writers to show solidarity with their colleagues on the picket line.

On Tuesday, the creator of the TV show Mad Men, writer Matthew Weiner, accompanied his friend, actor Noah Wyle, at one of the protests. “We would never have had the leverage we had if SAG had not gone out,” Weiner told AP. “They were very brave to do it.”

Meanwhile, the industry is coming under greater pressure. Striking actors voted on Monday to expand their walkout to include the lucrative video game market, which recorded nearly $35 billion in profits this year.

The threat promises to extend the wave of strikes that the United States has been experiencing. The video game companies under fire are Activision, Electronic Arts, Epic Games, Take 2, as well as the corresponding divisions of Disney and Warner Bros.

“It’s time for the video game companies to stop playing games and get serious about reaching an agreement on this contract” SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher said in a statement. The studios must sit down at the negotiating table if Hollywood wants to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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