On July 14th, Fran Drescher (Screen Actors Guild [SAG] President and one-time nanny) delivered a fiery speech announcing that her union would enact a work stoppage immediately. She also promised solidarity with other fields of labor with the following quote:
What happens here is important because what’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor, when employers make Wall Street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run.
SAG now joins the Writers Guild of America (WGA), a union who has been striking since May 1st, on the picket line. Together, the two film bodies have effectively shut down Hollywood–right in the middle of blockbuster season!
(Update 9/30/23): After 22 weeks, the WGA strike has ended with huge gains for the guild. SAG looks to resume negotiations next week.
Below, this article will explain the historical significance of this dual walkout, the main issues at play, and what it means for the American consumer.
1960 was the previous SAG/WGA dual strike. The president of SAG at the time, Ronald Reagan (yes, THAT Ronald Reagan), led the charge against studios in order to get actors residual fees from the movies and TV shows in which they starred. Basically, movie stars weren’t getting paid when their films showed on television, and TV stars weren’t getting paid for reruns. The WGA, meanwhile, won the right for screenwriters to receive residuals when movies they’d previously written aired on television.
Strangely, this dual strike echoes one of the main problems both guilds have today: residuals. This time, however, their gripe is with streaming views, not reruns.
Past strikes have gotten SAG and WGA a fair-ish royalty fee when workers’ media is viewed in theaters, on television, or via a rental service. Basically, every time a person watched Escape from New York back in the ’80s, Kurt Russell and the movie theater got $1. Every time a person watched that movie when it showed on cable, Kurt Russell and the Sci-Fi channel each got $1. Every time a person rented that movie, Kurt Russell and Blockbuster got $1. If you’re like me, however, and watched the movie on Amazon Freevee, Kurt Russell got $.05 while Amazon got $1.95.
While Kurt Russell likely isn’t hurting financially, the writers and other actors involved in Escape from New York enjoy neither the clout nor profit percentage that he does. So my Freevee stream likely got Russell’s co-stars $.001 while Amazon still gets $1.95.
…Don’t look too closely at that math; it’s a metaphor.
Firstly, writers for large studio films, especially those regarding valued intellectual property, are now put in “mini-rooms,” mock-television writers’ rooms where every idea and sentence of a script is okayed by a quasi-show-runner. These writers all share a slice of a normal feature-length screenwriting fee rather than the carefully-graded salary and producer credits that TV writers enjoy. Even worse, many of these writers don’t get their name on the final product because they either don’t contribute enough to the room, or the room is too large and their names exceed the four-name limit in the movie’s credits.
How do I know about all of this? A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to have lunch with the writer of an extremely well-known animated movie who explained the practice just as it was becoming more common. This person was livid about it, but their agent had no leverage. They took the job, however, because the studio had a sterling reputation, and it promised them a good reference afterwards–something on which the company made good. This writer got a key position on one heck of a prestige streaming show. During that time at the animation studio, though, this writer felt odd since they were struggling to make ends meet while working on a movie that grossed over $1 billion.
(Update 9/30/23): The contract the studios gave to the WGA largely puts an end to this practice, especially on the TV side of things.
Tools like ChatGPT or Bard can easily craft a result based off a prompt that a person inputs. That said, AI still has trouble with any form of nuance or shades of meaning. Personally, I think that the fear of AI replacing screenwriters is overblown–but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The alarmist fears coming from creative writers will, I hope, proactively define healthy boundaries for AI tools going forward. That way, if those fears ever prove warranted, the safeguards will be in place.
Similarly overblown are studio executives’ faith in AI tools. Firstly, ChatGPT isn’t even a true AI (it can’t create something new, only combine or mimic existing ideas). Secondly, it needs significant help to get the job done. My co-writer on our script Ctrl+Alt+Delete used AI as an experiment to help him write an outline of a time-travel movie idea. He claimed that it would’ve taken him a week to write on his own, but, with significant editing and proofing, he got it finished in about two hours. Clearly, AI tools are powerful, but they’re not omniscient genies. Greedy, shortsighted studio goons believe this tool will replace writers entirely. It won’t–but, were the WGA not currently forcing studios’ hands, writers in Hollywood would be starved out by the time execs figured out the truth.
Visual effects generators like Midjourney or DALL-E can amalgamate drawing styles or features based off a simple prompt. Like ChatGPT, these AI tools are powerful and helpful. They’ll save effects artists hundreds of man-hours when digitally painting backgrounds or extras in a large crowd.
…Or, if the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) had their way, actors would be digitally scanned and recorded, their likeness used in perpetuity without the actor’s say on how it’s used. Also, they’d only be paid for one day’s worth of work and receive no residual compensation when their likeness appears on screen.
Equally skin-crawling is that AI can’t yet convincingly automate these likenesses, so affects artists–a notoriously underpaid, non-union profession–have to spend thousands of hours to make the result believable. Even the latest Indiana Jones movie, with its ample source material of young Harrison Ford, needed hundreds of artists to de-age him in the opening flashback.
The ripple effects of such a business practice would be catastrophic to the art department as well. Goodbye, hair, make-up, and costumes; hello, outsourced computer worker making less than minimum wage running on two hours of sleep!
This means current and upcoming movies can’t use actors to market their work. Late-summer movies like Haunted Mansion, Blue Beetle, and The Equalizer 3 won’t be able to promote themselves the traditional way.
No new movie scripts or actors means that theaters will look pretty empty six months from now. Many top YouTube channels will be starved for content as well because there will be nothing and no one for them to cover.
Blockbuster films, many this summer already struggling to connect with audiences, may earn even less money at the box office due to lack of promotion and subsequent lack of awareness. Many movies that you may be anticipating (Deadpool 3, Mission: Impossible 8, and Lilo & Stitch) have already stopped filming and will likely have their release dates pushed back.
(Update 9/30/23): Weep, sci-fi fans, for Dune Part II has been pushed to March 2024.
No new episodes are being written and no actors are performing, so network TV will be a desert come September. Talk shows won’t air because they can’t plan segments or have guests.
Reality TV will be fine for a little while, but many recurring reality stars are in SAG, so content will eventually dry up here. Award shows may also be scrapped or filmed unrehearsed. Streaming platforms, depending on how far out they film, will either be visibly hurting soon (they’ve barely bounced back from COVID-19) or will be the last to sweat. Depending on how long they’re deprived of content, however, streaming may still be limping months after the strike is over.
(Update 9/30/23): The Emmys have already been postponed to next January. Many reality stars, meanwhile, have joined the picket line in solidarity with the SAG.
Reruns–so many reruns. Networks and streamers may also put more marketing into what they DO have so that consumers will watch a higher percentage of remaining content. My pipe-dream, however, is that streamers that have deleted content will not only reupload worthy shows, but they’ll also market them again since the country now has time to catch up on content.
Expect nothing much to change for completed games, save for minor marketing hurdles. Live games, however, may feel the heat quite soon if they’re American owned and operated.
Voice work and writing will be absent, so many AAA releases will likely be pushed back by months or years (again, only if they’re made in America).
(Update 9/30/23): SAG has overwhelmingly voted to strike against the video-game industry, citing many of the same concerns they had with film/TV studios.
Honestly, unless your game of choice gets hit by these specific circumstances, not much. You may scratch your head in a year or two as to why so many games are being delayed yet again, but that’s a “future you” problem.
Many top influencers are SAG members while many top informational channels, podcasts, and radio shows hire WGA writers, so none of them will be able to produce new videos or segments.
A new wave of talent, bolstered by a grassroots fanbase, may fill the void. That, or channels and influencers unaffiliated with unions may take even more of the pie.
Instagram, YouTube, and Spotify (their podcast arm anyway) will be hit hard, so you might see your content suggestions wildly shift.
(Update 9/30/23): Last night, YouTube recommended that I watch a 10-year-old behind-the-scenes cast recording of Disney’s stage version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was glorious… though quite a bit outside my wheelhouse.
Bizarrely, Hollywood may be headed for a first-ever triple strike. Over on the east coast, the Teamsters, a union that encompasses blue-collar workers and transportation employees, is nearing a strike against UPS. If this strike widens its scope to all truckers, Hollywood will be without sets, building materials, and catering.
These strikes are certainly indicative of a larger employment issue. Cost of living and inflation have sharply risen, yet so have corporate profits. Under these conditions, if wages from one’s job can’t cover the cost of living–much less living with dignity–massive injustice and greed is occurring. Fran Drescher’s statement regarding solidarity with ALL labor may just be a future history-textbook catchphrase.
(Update 9/30/23): While this strike was resolved quickly, the United Auto Workers have walked out on Ford, GM, and others in what promises to be a lengthy battle. Separately, VFX workers from Marvel have voted to form the first union for effects workers in Hollywood history.
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