On Thursday, the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists officially approved a strike vote for the first time since 1980. The union, which represents approximately 150,000 actors, announcers, dancers, stunt performers, and other artists, has now joined the Writers Guild of America in an effort to force television and film production studios to negotiate seriously toward contracts that address issues that are already threatening to destroy the lives and careers of many in the industry.
As the leadership of SAG-AFTRA put it,
… negotiations with studios over a new contract collapsed, with streaming services and artificial intelligence at the center of the standoff. On Friday, the actors will join screenwriters, who walked off the job in May, on picket lines in New York, Los Angeles and the dozens of other American cities where scripted shows and movies are made.
In addition to that short statement, SAG President Fran Drescher made an impassioned speech about the future of the entertainment industry and the people who work there. It’s a speech that really needs to be heard because not only does Drescher point out the importance of these events for the members of her union, she correctly and powerfully identifies this as a labor issue affecting everyone.
Drescher: “The eyes of the world, and particularly the eyes of labor, are upon us. What happens here is important. Because what’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor.”
What’s happening with entertainment media is twofold: First, the traditional means of transmitting entertainment by films shown in theaters and television shown on broadcast channels and cable are breaking down.
That means residuals that were once paid out when a film or show was re-aired or released to home media have all but disappeared. Production companies, operating with the near-monopoly powers of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, have used this opportunity to restructure the contracts for writers, actors, and others in a way that channels much more money back to studio executives. In the past, being part of a hit show like “Friends” or “Seinfeld” could mean those involved would enjoy a revenue stream that continued over years, but studios have used the streaming pivot to turn most productions into something closer to “work for hire”: They get a single payment with little or no residuals, no matter how popular the resulting work may prove to be.
Both actors and writers are also facing a threat from AI tools that is not just looming over the future, but deeply affecting the income of many right now. Contrary to the impression generated by reports of big paydays for well-known actors in major films, most actors—including actors you know and enjoy in major productions—have a very hard time making even a minimal living in the industry. Many never get there.
Not only are the stories of actors who spent their time waiting tables while hurrying out for increasingly desperate auditions absolutely true, for many the auditions they are chasing are for small parts, with little or no dialogue. Those smaller roles have helped many actors break into the industry or provided critical bursts of cash that sustained them as they waited for a breakthrough opportunity.
And that’s the second big problem. Those jobs, the jobs that make the life of an actor possible, are going away thanks to AI.
Actors in these kinds of roles are finding that studios want their one day on set to include some time being scanned, along with sometimes having their voices recorded. There are stories of actors in Disney series who have had their likenesses recorded and licensed “in perpetuity” for as little as $100. Those actors are never going to get another call to audition for a small role. Why should they? The studio can always put them in the background of any production, running them like a puppet over and over again. For comparison, Disney chief Bob Iger’s reported net worth is $690 million, earning $65 million in 2018 alone.
Industry reports show that the studios already have their strategy in this strike. That strategy is based on knowing that writers and actors already live on the edge. That’s why the studios are unwilling to negotiate realistically about the concerns of actors and writers. They think they can simply starve them out.
Where actors and writers used to see a paycheck—generally a very small paycheck—whenever a show they acted in or scripted reappeared on the air, now they’re getting a one-time payment. That one-time payment is often smaller than it was two decades ago.
Actors who do manage to get a small role in the background or as a minor character in a production are being pressured to accept having their images scanned so that studios can use them again in other works.
The whole restructuring of the industry around streaming services is resulting in huge paydays for investors and executives even as actors, writers, and all the workers involved in making entertainment media possible see their paychecks eroding by the day.
What’s happening now isn’t just another strike. It’s an existential fight to maintain an industry where most workers have never been anything close to wealthy and most were already struggling.
The members of SAG-AFTRA and the WGA deserve the support of everyone. Not just those who enjoy their work, but everyone who is concerned about how the constant streamlining of processes made possible by technology will affect their job.
That’s why you should consider being part of an entertainment viewer’s strike. Starting on Aug. 1, pick one of the streaming services or cable services you currently pay for and drop it. If the studios haven’t reached an equitable agreement with writers and actors by Oct. 1, do it again.
If you don’t subscribe to any of these services … good for you, you’re already doing what you can. But for those who do, now is the time to show which side in this existential fight has your loyalty.
Drescher: “It is sad that it came to this crossroads, but we have no choice. We are the victims here. We are being victimized by a very greedy entity. I am shocked by the way the people we have been in business with are treating us. I cannot believe it, quite frankly. How they plead poverty, that they’re losing money left and right, while giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting. Shame on them. They stand on the wrong side of history.”