Hollywood has been dubbed the “dream factory,” because of it’s ability to craft an imagined reality for audiences to consume, but behind those dreams put on the big screen, there very much is a “factory.” Despite the artistic pursuits that inspire many people to become filmmakers, one has to go into the business knowing that it’s just that; a business. Movies, especially today, require a massive amount of money to make, and those who are financing these movies are adamant about seeing a return on their investment. Most of what we know as the “business” of Hollywood is entirely unseen by the casual audience member, and the only indication of the massive amount of labor that goes into the making any movie is found at the long scroll of names during the credits that most people in the theaters often leave before seeing. But each of those names are important, and even more crucially, their recognition at the end of the movie is something that had to be fought for by past generations of technicians throughout Hollywood history. In the early days of cinema, screen credit was reserved exclusively for the top tier talent involved, like the director, the actors, and the writer. Now, every aspect of the production is credited on screen, but this is a minor achievement for the technicians that work in the industry. For them, it’s far less important that their name is listed on screen than it is that they earn the fair amount of what their labor is worth and that they will be continually protected while on the job. Like all industries, the labor force in Hollywood has been represented by unions, which have been responsible for pushing Hollywood in the direction of fair treatment of their workforce many times, which has been a difficult task given the way that film industry changes so rapidly each new generation. Though a lot of good things have come out of union representation within the film industry, it hasn’t been without struggles along the way.
Each branch of the film industry here in America has a union (or Guild) representing it. Movie actors have the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) which is partnered with AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), and it is the single largest union within the film industry, which makes it the most powerful. All it takes is a few credits in a film or TV production with SAG-AFTRA certification, and anyone can earn their Guild card and be an active member of the union if they so choose. The other major guilds of the film industry would be the Director’s Guild (DGA), the Producer’s Guild (PGA) and the Writer’s Guild (WGA), which itself is broken into two East and West branches. Though not as substantial, there are unions for most of the other positions in the film industry like Editing, Cinematography and Art Direction, as well as the powerful IATSE union which represents all the technicians responsible for putting together an maintaining the film sets. These separate unions all operate independently of each other, but their goals are often intertwined, which is fighting for fair wages and safe work spaces for their members. Because Hollywood, like most other industries, is profit driven, there are times when film productions will end up exploiting their work force in order to maximize their income. This means cutting corners, breaking contracts, or deceiving the work force in order to get them to work harder for less reward. Unions are necessary for keeping the studios and their cost-cutting shenanigans in check. Thus far, the industry has managed to find ways to work in cooperation with the unions in Hollywood, but every now and then, the unions will push back when they see violations of their deals made with the studios.
Such a time is currently hanging over the industry right now. The Writer’s Guild voted overwhelmingly, by a 97% margin, to authorize a strike. The demands are fairly standard with what most labor disputes are about; fair wages and appropriate work hours, but what is behind the dispute is interesting. The issue that the Writer’s Guild is disputing about today is with regards to residuals form streaming. Because streaming has become a major part of the film and television market in recent years, the previously agreed to contracts with the guilds don’t quite apply to the revenue made from streaming subscriptions, so the film industry has been in some cases exploiting that loophole. That’s why some projects intended for theaters or television have been moved to streaming instead, because it means the studios can save money on the back end without the profits that would’ve been applied based on receipts from the box office. The same applies on the other end two. Stuff that was made for streaming have in the last year or so been disappearing off of platforms, solely because the studios would’ve had to pay up more residuals from airing and re-airing those same programs into another contract year. The end of the year purge on the HBO Max platform is a prime example of this, with shows like Westworld disappearing forever just so the Warner Bros. Discovery merger could take advantage of tax credits in their restructuring. For the writers of these shows and movies, these kinds of extreme measures have been made without their input on the matter, and this has led many of them to rightly believe that they are getting shut out of their fair share of compensation by the exploitation of these streaming loopholes. Right now, the focus of the Writer’s Guild is to form a new contract with the studios in which this loophole is addressed and make sure that all union writers are not being denied the wages that they owed, even if the studios change their minds about distribution. This follows a long history of the Guilds in Hollywood having to shift gears whenever something changes in the business as a whole.
The Writer’s Guild of America, along with the other Hollywood unions, was formed in the 1920’s, during the rise of the studio system. The aim of the union, like with most other industry guilds, was to ensure that the rights of the workers were protected. As the studios were amassing power, they were also taking advantage of laborers that often had to work long hours for very little money in order to meet the high demand for new films. There are several stories about people who died on film sets in the early days, mainly due to lack of oversight on set safety and inadequate services meant to cater to large crews of people, like first aid or craft services. The unions were helpful in getting the studios to agree to these improvements, but it wasn’t without struggle. And by struggle, I mean strikes, which often brought the industry to a stand still. The good thing about all the unions in Hollywood is their strong commitment to solidarity. When one union goes on strike, the others will stop work as well, making a statement of their own, even if they don’t actively strike themselves. There have been a number of times that the industry has indeed reached this point, and it often comes at a cost. The Writer’s Guild themselves have gone on strike five times, the longest of which lasted 22 weeks in 1988, a move that in many ways crippled the broadcast television market to the point that they still haven’t recovered 35 years later. And why were the strikes necessary? Because, in the 1988 case, the studios were unfairly singling the guild out of distribution deals that had been newly formed since the agreements on the last contract; in this case re-runs and foreign distribution. When the Guild went on strike again in 2007, it was because of internet downloads, due to new video sharing websites like YouTube. It’s always a constant battle between the studios and the guilds and that creates conflicts that extend far beyond the picket lines.
From an outsider perspective, it looks like a battle between elites. Since most of the Guilds are made up of entertainers and storytellers, the most famous names and faces often become the voices we hear the most with regards to the strikes that happen. And for many people, they have a hard time believing a person who makes $20 million a movie complain about unfair compensation. But, what outsiders need to understand is that when these strikes happen, it’s not to protect the exorbitant salaries of the big celebrities, but rather to help out the professionals who don’t have the same means but still are affected by the cost-cutting measures made by the studios. These include writers, actors, and technicians who work on small productions, outside of the Hollywood mainstream, who are very susceptible to exploitation. If the studios can cut back the big salaries of the most famous people in the industry, the same can happen with producers of small budget films and shows too. Only the small time workers on these projects will feel the burn of exploitation even more. The goal of the Guilds is to make sure that everyone is held to the same standard, no matter the size of the production. That’s why, with the solidarity of all the guilds involved, they can put the pressure on the studios by going on strike as a united front. Any film or show that then uses non-union labor will as a result be scrutinized as a result, which can damage it’s reputation. Sure, the celebrities won’t feel the sting, but they are valuable in the fight because they are the voices that ultimately get listened too, and thus, they become the face of the movements. The studios can complain about any perceived “hypocrisy” they want, but the struggle for fair wages is far more universal than they think. One recent example of the studios misjudging the public perception of labor rights came when actress Scarlett Johansson’s dispute over the residuals from the release of Black Widow (2021) pitted her against the top brass at Disney. She rightly pointed out that doing a hybrid release of the movie on streaming diminished the potential box office of the movie, which would’ve determined her back end payday depending on the gross. She sued Disney to demand compensation for what she felt owed due to the terms of the original contract, which has box office gross as a major part of her eventual payday. Disney’s then CEO Bob Chapek tried to paint her as selfish, but audiences and outsiders mostly sided with Scarlett, because they rightly recognized a major employer was trying to back out of a deal they had made, which could happen in the same way to someone with less influence as Scarlett Johansson and would’ve been extremely unjust in that scenario. She is a big name not just fighting for herself, but for all those who likewise could’ve been cheated out of a better payday.
Despite having achieved plenty of good things for workers across the industry, the track record of Hollywood’s unions have their bad history too. One such moment was the House Un-American Activities committee in the 1950’s which eventually led to the blacklist. While the Writer’s Guild’s leaders were more defiant than the other guild’s during this Red Scare witch-hunt, with then SAG president Ronald Reagan being a “friendly witness” to the committee who named names, they still nevertheless upheld the blacklist that followed thereafter, denying hundreds of their members screen credit and compensation for their work. It was a dark time in the film industry, which saw many writers lose confidence in their guild. Another point where the Writer’s Guild failed to deliver for their members was during the 2007 strike. The Guild authorized the strike, which lasted 100 days, but did so without an exit strategy. Basically, they were playing a game of chicken with the studios, with no clear definition over what the “new media” they were fighting over was supposed to be. Some of the issues arising now that the Guild is yet again threatening to strike on is due to the unfinished business left over from the 2007 strike. The deal, which was brokered through a similar contract made between the studios and the DGA, did grant the Writer’s Guild jurisdiction over residuals made over internet based distribution. However, it was determined to be related to online media purchases, such as from iTunes. YouTube, which was still in it’s infancy at the time, was not seen as a viable marketplace of content at the time, so the WGA missed a prime opportunity to protect their members with streaming declared as “new media,” and that’s an oversight that the studios have been exploiting ever since. Sure, it’s hard for the guilds to have foresight over every market trend, but the vagueness of the 2007 settlement was a missed opportunity for the Writer’s Guild that made the 100 day strike a mostly wasted effort.
But, despite the problems that the Guilds in Hollywood have had, they have been an essential and needed part of the film industry. The fight for much needed health coverage for many of the members has been especially beneficial for people within the industry. Apart from medical insurance plans, the Guilds have also helped many technicians and performers gain beneficial retirement plans. But, even these can fall prey to cut backs from the industry unless the Guilds remain strong and committed to their members. Recent Oscar-winner Ke Huy Quan mentioned in his acceptance speeches that he was dropped by his insurance providers during the pandemic, due to his absence from acting in front of the camera for decades and the fact that the movies he was making, like Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) were considered too small to justify him retaining the benefits of his union membership. A lot of people haven’t been as lucky as him where the success of the movie has helped him to regain a foothold in the industry again. Many more fall by the wayside, and life-altering events like the pandemic can indeed lead to layoffs that affect the livelihood of people dependent on union work. Hollywood is competitive to be sure, and just being able to gain a single credit to be eligible for union membership is a privilage that itself is hard to achieve. But, unions are important for balancing the power structure in Hollywood, and giving the laborers themselves a say in the business, so as to not be exploited by the studios who are most concerned about their bottom line. Membership is not mandatory, and there are some noteworthy filmmakers who have left their cards behind, like George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriquez, and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. But it should be known that they are in a different position where they can survive without the Guilds. They’re departure is mostly because of creative autonomy, because Guild members must abide by rules when it comes to credits, and working with other Guild members as well. It’s a better thing overall to be working on a Guild certified film, because independent non-union work comes with too many risks.
With another strike possibly looming on the horizon, what kinds of outcomes are we likely to see. A prolonged shut down could have a devastating effect on the industry, especially since it’s still in recovery from the pandemic. Keep in mind, any project with a finished script can still move forward on schedule without violating the Guild’s rules. Any project still in the development stage will be the ones that suffer the most, with many likely to get cancelled because the studios cannot keep paying writers and filmmakers for something that can’t be produced. Scripted television that is produced on a daily basis, like talk shows, will also likely suffer, with hosts having to either write their own material or put their show on a costly hiatus until the strike is resolved. As the 2007 strike showed us, things can be disrupted quite a bit the longer a strike goes on, and shows and movies that had a lot of promise beforehand will end up struggling or be cancelled outright. Are we going to see a repeat in the days ahead? We will know on May 1, which is when the current Writer’s Guild contract expires. If nothing is brokered before then, you can bet the WGA will bring the industry to a standstill, given the overwhelming support for a strike amongst their membership. It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially if you are a struggling writer just starting out in the industry. A work stoppage can lead to a full stop in the progression in one’s career. At the same time, too many people will find themselves disadvantaged by ill defined contracts that the studios can exploit, and it’s up to union solidarity to counterbalance that position of power. Perhaps the Writer’s Guild may have an advantage this time around in the negotiations as the pandemic stricken industry is resistant to the idea of another costly shut down. It might mean a quicker resolution to this labor dispute that hopefully avoids a strike, while at the same time granting the Writer’s Guild with a new contract that meets most of their demands. We’ll see what happens, and one can hope for the best outcome. Make no mistake, the main reason why Hollywood is still the “dream factory” today is because the workers who make it all happen have ensured that the movie industry is one that respects it’s labor force and doesn’t take it for granted.