The Summer of Strike – What’s At Stake with the Dual SAG-AFTRA and WGA Strikes

As a society, we the audience have been overwhelmed with an abundance of entertainment over the last few years.  The streaming revolution of the 2010’s began a flurry of investment in new tv shows and movies on a scale unseen before.  While it was fortuitous for us the consumers, who were witnessing what we saw as a Golden Age of Television and a mega-blockbuster period at the box office, all of this unfortunately came at a cost.  The talent behind these shows were working doubly hard to meet the high demand of the new order of things in Hollywood, with streaming becoming the newest platform for distribution, but they were doing so under an outdated compensation standard.  Contracts for all the actors, writers and directors over the last decade have been made under the standard that was set after the 2007-08 Writers’ Strike, which had an ill-defined definition of what streaming content would be.  Back in 2007, YouTube was still in it’s infancy and Netflix was still sending out disc rentals in the mail.  What we know now as streaming wasn’t even on Hollywood’s radar at the time, so the deal made to end the writers strike in 2008 was based on the idea that internet based entertainment was experimental and work done on the platform by Guild talent needed to be compensated differently from the model of residuals for television and home video.  Since then, the streaming platforms, which have grown to become a major part of the Hollywood ecosystem in the 15 years since, have exploited this outdated system of compensation, paying their talent a fraction of what they normally would get through the old residual model for television and yet they were expecting the same talent to work double time to meet the high demand for new content on their platforms.  Of course, the Guild recognize this is a problem and they are now exercising their right to demand a new deal.

The Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) made the first move at the start of this summer, initiating a strike for the first time since the monumental 2007-08 strike.  While the original strike 15 years ago was rough on the industry and ultimately fruitless, this strike has been much differently received, not just within the Hollywood community but on the national stage as well.  The vote to authorize this strike was approved by near unanimous consent in a vote by both wings of the Guild, and without an eleventh hour deal struck by May 1st of this year, the strike would proceed with all members stopping work.  Now, the immediate effect may not have been felt too far and wide in the industry, at least to the outside consumer.  Movie deals made before the strike would continue.  Movie premieres would go on as scheduled.  The only noticeable immediate effect was the abrupt halt on production of daily and weekly talk shows on television (your Jimmy Kimmels, your Steven Colberts, you Drew Barrymores, your Saturday Night Live’s, etc.)  But, the longer the strike runs, the more projects in the pipeline for the studios dries up, and at this point, it becomes a waiting game to see who feels the pinch first; the writers or the studios.  Thankfully for the WGA, the widespread support from across the industry has been tremendous.  One thing that the WGA has this time around that they didn’t in the last strike was the backing of not just the other Hollywood Guilds, but also the Teamsters and IATSE unions that provide the crews for so many productions in the industry.  These incredibly powerful unions have pledged to not cross any picket lines on productions that have not received a waiver from any of the Hollywood guilds, which helps the WGA union out greatly with putting the pressure on the studios.

The WGA also received another boost this last month as they were joined on the picket lines by The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA).  The 160,000 member strong guild has comparatively much bigger pull over the industry than the 25,000 in the DGA, and having them marching alongside the writers for the same cause at this crucial time is a big deal.  Hollywood hasn’t seen a double strike like this since 1960, when SAG and the WGA fought to get residual compensation from the then burgeoning industry of television.  Ironically, the SAG strike at that time was led by their then president Ronald Reagan, who in later years would become a notoriously anti-union President of the United States.  This time around, actress Fran Drescher of The Nanny fame is leading the charge against the studios, and her resolve to get a fair deal for her union thus far seems to be genuine and passionate.  One thing that the two unions have done well so far is taking control of the narrative of the strike.  Utilizing social media to spread the message (something that they didn’t quite have to their benefit during the last strike), both the actors and writers have made their case very well to the public at large.  One of the smartest moves has been for the individual members of the guilds to post on their social media pages an image of their most recent residual checks that they receive for their work on some of the biggest shows and movies on streaming, and spotlight just how little they are actually getting paid for their hard work.  This is to counter the typical argument made by the arbiters of the studio side of the negotiations, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), that the Guild members are rich ungrateful prima donnas; essentially millionaires fighting against billionaires.  The idea that this fight is to make the already wealthy even wealthier is absurd, as the vast majority of Guild members would be considered working class, and these social media posts of the residual checks are a great way of showing that they are indeed paid much lower than you would expect.

The AMPTP has tried in vain to paint this strike as a ploy for publicity for the elites, and as a result they have foolishly shown their hand in the game.  Disney CEO Bob Iger made a huge mistake early on in the strike by publicly calling the guild demands unreasonable; a statement that resulted in the Guild becoming even more emboldened.  Another anonymous member of the AMPTP also was exposed by a statement where he or she said that the aim was to see the Writers and Actors loose their homes and Apartments before they would be willing to negotiate.  This rather ruthless statement was probably put out there to strike fear in the other Guilds to prevent them from striking out of concern that it would ruin their careers, but the opposite effect actually occurred; solidarity is stronger than ever.  There is concern about how long each side can endure, however, because the longer that the two side refuse to negotiate, the more it puts pressure on the rest of the movie industry as well as all of the other industries that rely upon them.  Movie theaters, which have been on shaky ground since the end of Covid, were hoping a return to normal business would’ve occurred by now, and instead they are anticipating another round of movie release delays and fewer films to fill their screens.  And there are of course the local economies that depend on having their populations of guild members receiving steady income to help boost their local businesses.  With the two sides at a standstill, it may come down to the state and local governments to intercede to help mediate a fair deal.  The 2007-08 Writers Strike cost the California economy billions of dollars, and that’s something that the government and tax payers across the southland don’t need right now.

So, what is the thing that has caused the stalemate in this season of striking.  The primary sticking point would seem to be the residual part.  Residuals are an extended payments to people who worked on a film or television series based on the re-airings of those programs after their initial release.  If a show like Friends gets to play multiple times in re-runs on a variety of different stations, the cast and crew of that show will get a piece of the profits made from that re-airings, based on the frequency of airings and the percentage that was agreed upon in their contracts.  This was a revolutionary deal made after the 1960, which insured that no actor or writer would lose out on the extra money that was being made off of their work long after it was complete.  This helped to make both acting and writing a lucrative profession that could help support a robust work force in Hollywood with strong living wages.  Then, alone came streaming.  Streaming for the most part has been exempt from the residual standards made after the last deal in the pre-streaming era.  Because the income for streamers is subscription based, the money made is not based on things that had become industry standards before like total viewership and ad revenue.  Instead, the total viewership on streaming has been kept a closely guarded secret, which some believe has been the streamers way of exploiting a residual loophole.  The disparity of what the actors and writers make in residuals versus how the shows are performing is becoming very apparent.  Actress Kimiko Glenn spoke about her experience of overhearing Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos gloating about the high viewership of a show she was on called Orange is the New Black (which according to Sarandos was being watched more than Game of Thrones on HBO) and yet she was not seeing any of that success reflected in her residuals for the show.  From what we are hearing from the Actors and Writers on strike, it is much more the streaming side of the AMPTP that has refused to budge when it comes to the residual side of the contracts, because to meet the Guilds’ demands would be opening themselves up to more transparency on the actual viewership numbers of their programs, which I don’t think they are keen on exposing.

One other troubling aspect is how the studios are abusing the hard work that has been put into these movie and shows in the streaming era.  As stated before, the industry has been operating under contracts made with the Guilds that pre-date the standards of streaming.  As a result, the different studios have been able to undermine Guild guidelines under the definition of this being “new media,” therefore able to be more flexible when it comes to staffing and compensation.  When streaming was more experimental and something of a start-up, this was more acceptable under the standards set by the Guilds, but now that streaming has grown to encompass nearly half of all the theatrical and television markets, upending the previously recognized network and cable package standards, it can no longer be acceptable to call streaming a start-up.  Almost every studio has jumped on board the streaming craze, with Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal, and Paramount all launching their own platforms in the last five years, competing with mega-corporate competitors like Amazon, Netflix and Apple.  Sure, this has led to an insane amount of new movies and shows to watch in that time, but at the same time, the studios are also exploiting the work of their creative talent in order to meet that high demand.  This includes the elimination of extensive writers rooms that helped to deliver quality scripts in a timely manner.  Now, the streamers are favoring what is called “mini-rooms” which is the practice of having big shows made with fewer writers.  If you’ve noticed a lower standard of writing on many streaming shows in recent years, this is a direct result of these small teams of writers being stretched too thin.  In some cases, entire seasons are now being written by a mere handful or even just one writer, which is not helpful in creating a well-balanced show.  But even more troubling for creatives in the industry is that because of streaming being a digital based distribution model, the studios have more control over the lifespan of a film or show put on their platform.  If the movie or show doesn’t perform well, the studio can choose to pull it off the platform completely and collect a tax write off for the loss.  If the media didn’t get a physical copy release to coincide along with their streaming premiere, then that program is just gone, because in order to get that tax write off, the studio cannot profit off of it ever again.  We are now seeing a disturbing rise in what is called “lost media” and it should anger the creatives in the business that the studios are cashing in by eliminating their hard work from existence.

And then of course there is the increasing existential threat that is hanging over the heads of creatives on all sides of Hollywood; the rise of AI technology in filmmaking.  While AI hasn’t quite reached the level of creating a whole movie or show whole cloth out of nothing, the emergence of AI platforms like ChatGPT which can replicate informative text based on user prompts has rightfully raised concerns amongst many creatives in Hollywood.  Like most unionized industries, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are concerned that Hollywood will someday replace man power with robots and computers, and that that day is coming sooner rather than later.  If “mini-rooms” was a concerning result of the streaming era, than the threat of AI eliminating writers rooms altogether is even more alarming.  One argument that the writers do have in their arsenal against this is that while platforms like ChatGPT can produce a lot of text very quickly, it can’t create something new.  It is basically advanced plagiarism; scouring the vast amount of information on the internet to form something resembling a new script, but is really just a jigsaw puzzle of things that have already been written.  One of the best picket line signs that went viral on the internet at the start of the strike read “ChatGPT does not have childhood trauma,” which is a good way of stating that AI cannot replicate the lived in experience that writers put into their own work.  Sure, Hollywood can just keep repeating old and tired gimmicks ad nauseum and AI would help churn those projects out quickly, but what really keeps the industry going are new and surprising things.  Could AI create something like the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)?  I doubt it.  The threat of AI also extends to the concerns of SAG-AFTRA too.  It’s been discovered that some background actors in the Guild had been offered a fee to have their likeness scanned into a database and then the studios that own those scans could use them in perpetuity in whatever they want without the consent of the actor to decide what it’s used for.  This is a disturbing abuse of technology to move more creatives out of the process of filmmaking, and making it more possible for studios to have their entire creative output become more automated.  The Guilds are rightfully using this opportunity while this technology is still in it’s infancy to put up guard rails and ensure that the studios do not misuse this technology, and more importantly, ensure that ordinary actors and writers have the power to consent to how this technology based on their input is used.

Much more than perhaps any other strike to hit Hollywood, this one represents an inflection point that will determine the future of what the movie industry will be for generations to come.  This is much more important than pay raises; this is about preserving the ability to make filmmaking a career pursuit worth striving for.  People want to be in the movie-making business because they are story tellers and have been inspired by the films and television shows that ignited their creative flames.  But, the way that the streaming era has upended the previously agreed upon standards of the industry, we see a Hollywood that seems less concerned about pleasing their creatives and their audience, and more concerned about pleasing their shareholders.  The streaming wars have grown into this unsustainable arms race to have the most robust subscriber base in the market, while at the same time undercutting the compensation for the creatives that worked hard to deliver this glut of new content for the streamers in order to keep costs down.  The Guilds are rightly raising the alarm and showing that they are increasingly being pushed out of the creative process as studios are driving the creative decisions more and more, and even looking to AI technology to eliminate the human factor altogether.  It’s become less about what stream has the best shows and movies and more about who has the most.  The studios have felt the strain as well, as the Big Five studios are all seeing their investments into streaming turning into a money pit, while the mega-corporate giants like Apple and Amazon can endure the strain of this increased competition longer.  Those streamers as we learned are the big holdouts and it’s likely that the executive who was cheering on the financial woes of the striking writers and actors probably came from from one of them.  What matters now is that the WGA and SAG-AFTRA continue to stay strong in solidarity.  The WGA strike is now over 100 days old and the SAG-AFTRA is over 20, and the studios are no closer to getting the unions to their breaking point.  In fact, support has only increased.  The picketers are braving a heat wave here in California, and their spirits have not been deterred.  Hopefully, for everyone’s sake, a fair deal is reached soon and that it will hopefully lead to a brighter future for the industry.  SAG-AFTRA and WGA Strong!!!