Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I spent my childhood watching and being influenced by hundreds of Hollywood movies. The Karate Kid (1984), the Back to the Future trilogy (1985-1990), Stand by Me (1986), The Goonies (1985), James Bond, Star Wars and Superman movies to name a few. A child’s imagination fuelled by the stories of filmmakers, writers and thousands of other people involved in creating the art. Each person contributing something to the final product. These films made millions and billions of dollars at the box office, on video sales and merchandise, and then licensing them to numerous television stations in the years that followed. It never occurred to me that the people that stared at a blank page, and then turned that page into magic were some of the most underpaid in the business. Yes, the big studios need to make billions per year to produce products that cost millions and continue to do so. Is it fair that the CEO’s of these businesses reap the benefits whilst people in lower positions struggle?
The SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) strike has been ongoing for the past month, with the writers’ (WGA) strike starting in May 2023; but strikes are nothing new to Hollywood. The first, in 1936, was in response to the use of the military in filmmaking. The 1980s had several strikes involving directors, writers and actors. The 2007 Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, lasting fourteen weeks was notable for having a lasting effect, particularly on television show quality and episode length, and was the last strike in Hollywood until the now SAG-AFTRA strike of 2023.
What makes this strike different to any in the past ninety years is the threat of ‘AI’ and the popularisation of streaming. SAG-AFTRA is negotiating with AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) regarding “pay raises, viewership-based streaming residuals, the
“preservation of the writers room” through minimum staffing and guaranteed days of employment, and guardrails against the use of artificial intelligence to write scripts.”Deadline
This issue doesn’t start and finish with the writers. SAG-AFTRA members are looking to be paid correctly for the work that they do, to receive correct residuals, which with streaming has been completely overlooked, or ignored. Now with the threat of AI, the fear that it could replace screenwriters by studios goes further. Supporting actors and extras are worried that full body and face scans that would require them to work one day, and then their image is then used for future projects could be the new norm. Some studios, most notably Disney, have already been rumoured to have started doing this.
Actors and writers collecting correct residuals is also a notable factor. Netflix, for example, is projecting a net profit of $1.3 billion for the third quarter of 2023 (Variety), whilst actors and writers on shows licensed by Netflix, but not created by, are not receiving residual checks like they would have when previously shown on television. This is a large oversight that has allowed streaming services to reap the benefit, and the little man (or woman) to miss out.
Some positives of the strike are that studios are starting to see the negative effects. Most notably Sony has said sales from its movie business will now be lower than it forecast in April, and
“the three-month period to June 30th…suffered a 6% decrease in sales and a 68% decrease in operating income”IGN
VFX workers at Marvel Studios have opted for unionisation, which could lead to all VFX companies forming a union. We might finally see more realistic deadlines and fairer pay for VFX workers. Hopefully, that will put an end to rushed CGI and compromised quality, and lead to workers being paid for all of the hours they spend creating.
Negotiations are ongoing, with news that a deal could be made sometime this week. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO, David Zaslav believes the strike will be over by the beginning of September, however some analysts have predicted it to continue into early 2024. Zaslav is also on the record stating that Warner is “in the business of storytelling” and that the studio is essentially stuck “without the writers, directors, editors, producers, actors, the whole below-the-line crew.” From a man that is typically paid 384 times more than that of an average Hollywood writer, we would hope that he puts the money where it needs to go.
When the strikes will end remains to be seen. The possible outcomes are varied. The threat of AI for all who work in the film industry is there and it is not going away. How long before a 100% AI studio or streaming platform is formed, requiring no one on the payroll? How long before we see a demand for such content as Friends Season 11, without any need for the original cast or crew? Will workers finally receive fair pay, a deal on residuals and job security, or will greed eventually win?