Shortcuts / 25 July 2023

Why Hollywood is striking

So many of the TV shows and movies we love come out of America but a writers and actors strike over pay and the use of artificial intelligence is disrupting production schedules. There’s a lot going on… So in this Squiz Shortcut, we’ll get you across what’s behind the dispute, what effect the strikes could have on the industry, and on your viewing schedule.

How did these strikes come about?
They didn’t come out of the blue… Every 3 years, the unions which represent workers in America’s showbiz sector negotiate new contracts that govern how the studios can employ actors, writers, and directors. Those contracts were due for renewal this year, but negotiations didn’t go smoothly…

What happened?
Roughly 11,500 members of the writers’ union (the Writers Guild of America, or WGA) went on strike in May after negotiations fell apart. And this month, the actors’ union (the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA), which has about 160,000 members, went on strike too.

What are they doing?
Now? They’re protesting on the streets of Los Angeles and New York, chanting and holding placards outside studio headquarters. What they aren’t doing is working.

That’s awkward timing…
It is with 2 of the biggest blockbusters of the year – Barbie and Oppenheimer – released just last week. The actors’ strike was actually called at the same time as Oppenheimer’s London premiere, and some left the event early in solidarity.

What’s notable about what’s happening?
It’s the first time the actors and writers have been on strike at the same time since 1960.

So why are they striking?
The first thing to keep in mind is that we’re not talking about huge pay deals for A-list celebrities here – the majority of actors and writers aren’t making the big bucks. The Screen Actors Guild says that half of its members made a salary of less than US$47,000 in 2021.

Pay’s always an issue – what’s different this time?
Streaming has completely upended the industry, including the income that writers and actors are receiving. One way that they get paid is through residuals – the money from the re-broadcasting of material an actor/writer worked on.

Kind of like royalties?
Just like royalties. The idea is that when you create value for a studio, that value is ongoing and you should be paid for it. And before streaming, they would get a cut every time a show was viewed.

What happens with streaming?
Residuals are based on a streaming service’s subscriber numbers. So actors and writers are getting much less than during the pre-on-demand era.

Gimme an example…
Back in 2015, there was a report that reruns of Friends were making Warner Bros $1 billion/year, and the actors each got a cut of that amounting to around $20 million.

That’s a lot of cash. And now?
A good example is Kimiko Glenn – and actors from the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black – she recently said a recent residual cheque amounted to $27.30…

So it’s quite a big difference… And what’s the concern about AI?
Well, another thing actors and writers are worried about is how studios might use generative AI to replace them. So they could use a tool like ChatGPT to generate scripts. And actors are also concerned about the possibility of studios using AI to copy their voices and likenesses to generate performances in the future.

So we might see AI actors on screen one day?
It sounds like science fiction, but it’s already happening… It’s been rumoured that some films including Disney’s Prom Pact may have used AI extras to fill out a crowd scene. It hasn’t been confirmed though.

How are the studios responding to the strike?
The body representing the studios and production companies – the American Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) – hasn’t shown any signs of backing down… An anonymous source said that the studios’ plan is to “allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses”. Publicly, though, the studios have denied that’s the case. Their point is the world is changing, and as the businesses responsible for billions of dollars in investment in the industry, they have to move with the times. 

So what’s the timeline for resolving this?
No one can say how long the strikes will last, but industry watchers predict that it could last until at least the end of the year and potentially into early 2024.

And that means…
It’s likely to impact viewing schedules next year and even into 2025.

But what about my favourite shows?
It depends on the studio and where they’re at on the production timeline, but some that will be delayed are the new seasons of Stranger ThingsAbbott Elementary, and The Last Of Us.

Big shows… 
Soz, you’ll just have to wait a bit longer for them.

I guess I could just catch up on all the content I haven’t watched yet…
Sounds like a plan. 

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Hollywood’s historic double strike, explainedVox

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