The 2023 Actors and Writers Strikes
Your TV and movie entertainment options will be severely tapering off in the coming months. Here's why.
Technology changes a lot of things and the entertainment industry is certainly not immune. Especially where money is concerned. On May 2, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which represents over 11,000 screenwriters, went on strike over an ongoing labor dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Last week, after many weeks' deliberation, the American Actors' union SAG-AFTRA, representing 160,000 performers, joined them. (In contrast, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) avoided a strike when they ratified a new labor contract with the AMPTP in late June, but it won't affect the huge work stoppages taking place.)
So exactly what technological changes are the unions up in arms about? And how do they affect how actors and writers are paid? And is money the only thing at stake?
Technology is the driver, but wage protection and safeguards ungainst the unregulated use of generative AI is the destination,
What Writers Want
The WGA wants improved payment contracts, which include mandatory staffing of a minimum number of writers per project and guarantees of weeks of employment for those projects. The studios, they assert, are pushing a "gig economy" on them that greatly undervalues their services and income potential, while eliminating the benefits of full-time employment.
They also want greater residuals from digital streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, which have grown to be major players alongside the broadcast networks and theatrical outlets. The lion's share of content now is with streaming services, yet writers (and actors) see only pennies in residuals from those projects, in contrast to those provided from traditional sources.
(For those wondering what constitutes a residual: Residuals are additional compensation paid to performers when a production is shown beyond the original use covered by the initial compensation. For example, for a theatrical film, residuals would be triggered once it is released anywhere other than theaters, such as on DVD, TV and new media.)
What Actors Want
SAG-AFTRA is calling for fair wages on union projects, transparency in viewership numbers for streaming, residuals on streaming comparable to what they earn with network TV, a streamlined audition process, and protections against the use of their image (without pay) by AI.
The specifics call for an increased base compensation, regulated use of artificial intelligence, better benefit plans, and money for self-taped auditions. Until the pandemic, Hollywood and most regions of the US saw actors audition in-person. Now, actors are almost always expected to produce and digitally submit tapes of their auditions, which requires either a significant investment in time, money, and equipment to provide or to hire an outside self-taping service to do it for them. Essentially, actors are finding themselves spending money to apply for jobs.
Actors also want to be compensated for streaming TV shows and movies based on the performance of those titles. The problem there is that streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Max do not share metrics with the public, or even with the creators of their films and TV shows. SAG is pushing for analytics from a third party to help determine payment.
Studios are using artificial intelligence to reduce their costs, but it often comes at the actors' expense. De-aging actors or even reviving images of deceased ones may be seen as less expensive than hiring flesh-and-blood living individuals to perform those roles. More to the point, digitally duplicating background actors allows the studios to use and re-use images of these people far beyond the one day's work they were hired for. No actor, background or otherwise, would knowingly agree to having their images used in perpetuity without additional pay or consent.
Why is SAG-AFTRA going on strike? “We need a contract that will increase contributions to our benefit plans and protect members from erosion of income due to inflation and reduced residuals, unregulated use of generative AI, and demanding self-taped auditions.”
How Studios are Responding
The rise of digital streaming services and the challenges created by the pandemic have stressed the studios, many of which are facing financial challenges. They say that producing so much new content to meet the demands of their viewers has significantly impacted their profits, incurring losses that have result in layoffs of thousands of employees. AI is seen as a saving grace, allowing them to significantly cut costs especially when filling in a background scene; it's easy to duplicate and manipulate images of non-speaking actors as needed.
Rumor has it that studios are in no hurry to make a deal, and that they might wait until mid-autumn before returning to the negotiating table. There's even talk that they'll let writers (and actors) go broke before resuming talks in late October.
Whether or not these rumors are true, it's clear how they're proceeding: fall schedules are filling with unscripted reality series and game shows. Going forward, they may decide to keep production costs lower by filming internationally, and thereby bypassing the American unions. Or they may decide to look for new foreign-produced films and TV shows to introduce to their (now bored) viewers.
What it All Means to Audiences
Where's it going? As of now, don't expect to see too many new original TV series appearing in fall schedules. There won't be any more promotional events, either; union actors can't appear in red carpet events, talk shows, premieres, glossy magazine covers or interviews, or conventions where popular actors, writers, and directors pitch their movies and TV shows to thousands of fans. It's said that 80% of production has shut down, with the remaining 20% close behind.
As an actor myself, it's quite apparent that most work is coming to a standstill. Even non-union projects have slowed. Of course, summer is typically a very quiet time, but it's especially noticeable now. Still, there is work to be found. Commercials, non-broadcast projects like corporate industrials, and most voice over work are unaffected, as are any non-union productions. Still, non-union actors have to be careful what work they accept. SAG-AFTRA has made it very clear what actors can do, what they can't, and that any non-union actor who works in any struck production will never be permitted to join the union in the future.
It's a serious situation that will undoubtedly take months to resolve. Expect the fight between unions and studios to be long and bloodied. In the meantime, if you're craving entertainment, enjoy some of those earlier shows you've always said you'd get around to watching. And read a good book or two.