The film and TV industry in the US has pretty much shut down following strikes by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) that began on May 2 and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) that began on July 14, both against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the media companies that produce shows.
The main complaint of the writers is that they are being squeezed by being asked to do more, working with fewer writers on shows for shorter seasons, making their profession even more precarious than it already was. Another major issue for both writers and performers is one that has been brought on by the increasing popularity of streaming services that the old contracts did not deal with. This involves the payment of ‘residuals‘, payments that are made to writers and actors when the shows they worked on are rebroadcast later.
For decades, an actor who appeared on a popular TV show like “Seinfeld” or “The Office” even once could count on getting royalty checks when the show appeared in reruns, bringing pay even at times they were unable to find work.
The streaming model has largely dried up that income, with residual payments untethered from a show or movie’s popularity. Actors want a long-term share of that revenue.
The issue is one of many the actors have in common with writers. For both scribes and performers, the move to streaming and its ripple effects have also meant shorter seasons of shows with longer gaps between them, and therefore less work. They say inflation is outpacing the scheduled pay bumps in their contracts.
And both writers and actors fear the threat of unregulated use of artificial intelligence. The actors say studios want to be able to use their likenesses without having to hire them, or pay them.
By coincidence, that last point was illustrated in the episode Joan Is Awful in the latest Black Mirror season released last month where a streaming company uses AI to create content using the likenesses of famous stars.
Because some famous actors get paid massive amounts for their appearances, it is easy to forget that almost all actors and writers earn very little and that their livelihood is precarious with large gaps between getting assignments. They are now being squeezed even more. Hamilton Nolan writes that this illustrates the class war that is always at play between workers and employers, though the few famous celebrities among the actors may obscure that fact.
And that brings us to the second underlying battle here: the class war itself. When you scrape away the relatively small surface layer of glitz and glamor and wealthy stars, entertainment is just another industry, full of regular people doing regular work. The vast majority of those who write scripts or act in shows (or do carpentry, or catering, or chauffeuring, or the zillion other jobs that Hollywood produces) are not rich and famous. The CEOs that the entertainment unions are negotiating with make hundreds of millions of dollars, while most Sag-Aftra members don’t make the $26,000 a year necessary to qualify for the union’s health insurance plan.
In this sense, the entertainment industry is just like every other industry operating under America’s rather gruff version of capitalism. If left to their own devices, companies will always try to push labor costs towards zero and executive pay towards infinity. The preferred state of every corporation in America is one in which all of its employees earn just enough money to survive and the CEO and investors earn enough money to build private rockets to escape to a private Mars colony for billionaires. The only – the only – thing that stops this process is labor power. That comes from unions. The walls that unions build protect not just their own members, but by extension the entire working class. That is what’s at stake here.
SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher, famous for her whiny, nasal voice, gave a fiery speech when the actors’ strike was launched, blasting the company executives for treating the union negotiators like dirt and saying that this was another case of greedy employers squeezing the workers who make things run.
While she excoriated the company executives of the AMPTP for receiving massive compensation packages while squeezing everyone else, the reality is that some actors are among the few people at the top who are massively overpaid while those at the bottom, who constitute the overwhelming majority, are massively underpaid. The top actors will have to come to terms with their role in this inequality.
Yet beyond the philosophical, the nitty gritty of many of the touchstones of the dispute does affect A-listers and Z-listers very differently. Some actors famous enough to qualify as a brand will have already resolved complicated negotiations over use of their image. Some, particularly those in the later stages of their career, will actively embrace AI that enables them to remain rich and famous beyond their working years – or, even, their death.
This is a very different situation to that faced by background extras or bit-parters who, the new deal proposes, will have to sign away rights to their face for a day’s work. They will then have to sit back and see their own image copied and pasted into any film or TV content, in perpetuity – with no residuals.
The current dispute is in most respects no different from that seen across a corporate world which depend for their profits on huge wealth discrepancies. Yet the passion and radicalism this has given rise to on the streets of LA should not, however, be underestimated by those observing from the Hollywood hills.
They did not personally create a system that rewards its most recognisable stars thousands of times more than its least. They are not as culpable as those studio heads who have raked in huge sums while making decisions that actively disenfranchise others. Yet they have undoubtedly benefited from this system.
This is a class struggle, as are all struggles that pit workers and unions against owners. In such struggles, my sympathies are always with those at the bottom, the workers and unions.