The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists went out on strike against the major Hollywood studios on Friday, joining the Writers Guild of America, which has been on strike since the beginning of May. The two unions cite some of the same issues in their decisions to strike after contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers failed: pay and residuals, especially on streaming productions; the use of artificial intelligence; and shorter television seasons with longer breaks between seasons, leading to struggles making ends meet.
Both unions are fighting some of the same public impressions of the conditions their members face: namely, the idea that people in Hollywood are highly paid and living glamorous lives. While that’s true of a few people at the top of these professions, most TV and movie actors and writers are working job to job and paycheck to paycheck, struggling to get by. And the rise of streaming services, with their pitifully small residuals, is making it harder.
One critically important thing to understand, though, is that the unions are not asking for a consumer boycott of the streaming services at this point.
In recent months, two pretty big stars have shone a light on just how stressful it is to patch together enough jobs to qualify for health insurance as an actor. Before “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was released and he became an Oscar winner, Ke Huy Quan was trying—and failing—to stay insured.
“I was about to lose my health insurance,” Quan said on “The Late Late Show.” “So, I called my agent and I said, ‘Can you please get me anything? It doesn’t matter, I just need one job to make the minimum requirement so I can qualify for health insurance the following year.’ And I could not get one single job. Sure enough, 2021 came and went [and I] lost my health insurance.”
Shannen Doherty, who has starred in hit shows like “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Charmed,” lost her insurance when she was unable to work during cancer treatments.
The struggle to work enough to qualify for union health coverage is huge for actors, as the responses to a tweet by WGA member Caroline Renard highlight. Renard pointed out that it takes $26,000 a year in earnings on SAG-AFTRA jobs to qualify for insurance, and 87% of members don’t qualify in any given year. There were plenty of working actors ready to tell their stories.
Arif "Felonious Munk" Shahid:
Other actors have separately chimed in to talk about how hard it is to make a living given low streaming residual payments. “I haven’t acted much as an adult, but I WAS on a recurring character on one of the most critically acclaimed animated shows of all time, as well playing an actual Disney villain,” former child star Mara Wilson tweeted. “But thanks to streaming, I have never once made enough to qualify for SAG-AFTRA healthcare.”
Meanwhile, Hollywood executives are being paid tens of millions of dollars as they fight to keep actor and writer pay low.
What’s important to remember as you think about who is on strike with SAG-AFTRA is that while the stars get the attention, they’re rarely the only people in a movie or TV episode. And just about everyone else who appears is in this category, trying to string together enough jobs to qualify for health coverage and make a living. Go to IMDB and look up the last thing you watched. Click on the names of the actors who come just after the top-billed cast, and count up how many entries they have for each of the past five years. Maybe there was a year or two they were a regular on a show, even if you never heard of it, and had 20 or more episodes. But maybe the year after that ended, they only worked once. Pay attention to the years they took on some voice work or did a bunch of shorts, in between their stints as “oh, him/her” actors semi-recognizable from all the big-name shows they’ve done one or two episodes on.
These are people with speaking roles on a show or movie you chose to watch. They’re getting work. But is it enough to get by? SAG-AFTRA rates sound pretty good until you consider that the people getting them first had to prepare an audition, do the audition, and then do what you see on camera. And that may have been one of only a few significant jobs they were able to book in a year. Those actors are important in the productions they appear in, and the studios should want to make this a sustainable way to live. But they don’t. They’re trying to squeeze actors and writers, portraying them as greedy even as studio profits have soared.
The unions should “be realistic about the business environment, and what this business can deliver,” said Disney CEO Bob Iger, who stands to make up to $27 million this year. To him, realism is that top executives make big bucks, and the working actors and writers who create the content on which the studios profit should shut up and take crumbs. Those actors and writers and their unions, though, are saying not today, not this year. They’re demanding their due.