With the Writers Guild of America (WGA) having been on the picket line for almost three months, tens of thousands of actors joined them as talks between the studios and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) broke down. This is the first time both unions have been out together since 1960, when Ronald Reagan was president of SAG.
The actors’ strike means that production for all filming of movies and television shows have shut down. With SAG-AFTRA instructing members to not promote their projects; big premier screenings, award shows and fall film festivals are going to take a hit.
Knowing the issues that writers are currently striking for, it isn’t surprising that actors are facing similar existential problems. The boom of massive streaming platforms and the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies has greatly weakened the take home pay of actors in the film and television industry.
Most actors are dependent on residual income from their past projects, pay they receive when television shows or films they have appeared in show again through syndication. Streamers like Netflix and Amazon now control huge percentage of older content and they have been able to pay significantly less residuals than the industry has done in the past. SAG-AFTRA is asking for streamers to come in line with the traditional residual pay scales.
Another huge issue is the fear that AI will begin eroding work of SAG-AFTRA members. Voiceover actors have already noted that AI-generated performances are competing for gigs. Reports from bargaining suggests the big studios’ intentions are even more insidious, proposing that they could use background shots of extras in perpetuity, owning the likeness of those actors forever without having to pay residuals when they use the images in future projects.
While a small section of SAG-AFTRA members earn millions of dollars, the vast majority of its 160,000 members are not signing huge deals, nor are they Hollywood stars. They survive by taking smaller roles, serving as extras, and depending on residuals from their few more successful projects.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers negotiates on behalf of the studios and has been nothing short of disgusting in its disparagement of the striking artists. In addition to not moving on any of the key issues, they have also done their best to appear as Bond-like super villains in this conflict.
Disney CEO Bob Iger suggested that the writer and actor demands to earn a basic living was unrealistic. This statement is made as studio heads have consistently increased their salaries while laying off tens of thousands of staff. Iger makes between $25 million and $45 million every year. Netflix’s Co-CEOs make over $40 million each including stock options. All the big studios pay out similar figures. The executives have lined their pockets, driven up shareholder value and increased industry revenue through the hard creative work of actors and writers, but the thought of paying them fairly for their work is “unrealistic.”
It gets worse though, with a cowardly anonymous studio executive telling the pro-studio rag Deadline “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” Hellboy star Ron Perlman responded that there was “more than one way to lose a house.”
Strong signs of solidarity
In addition to serving themselves up as heartless, the studio executives are facing unprecedented solidarity with the actors and writers. SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher (of The Nanny fame) gave a blistering speech noting that what is happening to actors “is happening across all fields of labour.” She finished with these words: “They stand on the wrong side of history at this very moment. We stand in solidarity in unprecedented unity. Our union, our sister unions, and the unions around the world are standing by us.”
In many ways, Drescher has been pushed by a militant membership eager to take on the studios. Actors across the board, famous and less so, have demonstrated solidarity. Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt walked out of their Oppenheimer premiere as the strike was announced. Matt Damon noted that the issues being struck over are incredibly important, with many actors dependent on residuals to take them over the threshold to qualify for health insurance. Jamie Lee Curtis was even more inspired, changing her Instagram profile picture and stating, “Union contracts PROTECT our SAFETY and EXPLOITATION! We are UNION STRONG!”
The studios will try to drag this conflict out. They will rely on content they have in storage to hang in there, but the lack of production, the lack of writers, and the likely debacles of the vital fall festival circuit and promotional tours for their big money items are going to start impacting the bottom line soon.
The studio execs know that the public narrative is not in their favour. Those who watch the movies and shows have affinity with the creatives who make the content, not the leeches who reap the spoils. With the issues being struck over impacting all workers, the writers and actors have a lot of wind at their back to fight hard and win.
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