Actors’ strike shuts down major Hollywood studios


July 15, 2023


Actors’ strike shuts down major Hollywood studios

Writers and actors picket outside Paramount studios in Los Angeles. This was the first day actors formally joined the picket lines, more than two months after screenwriters began striking in their bid for better pay and working conditions/Photo: AP

HOLLYWOOD: Thousands of actors, from A-list celebrities to those struggling to break into the entertainment industry, voted to go on strike this week, plunging Hollywood and the broader film and television industry into what seems likely to be a lengthy work stoppage.

The board of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) ordered the strike, demanding a new contract that takes into account the new technologies — particularly video streaming and artificial intelligence — that have already transformed the industry and appear likely to drive even more change in the future.

Previously, 98% of the union’s members had voted in favor of authorizing the strike if negotiators could not reach a deal.

The members of SAG-AFTRA join the members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), who have been on strike since May, with similar demands for an updated contract.

The last time writers and actors went on strike at the same time was in 1960, when actor and future U.S. President Ronald Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild.

On the other side of the dispute is the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), representing major film studios, streaming services, and other outlets, including Amazon, Apple, Disney, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Paramount, Sony and Warner Bros Discovery.

Negotiations between the alliance and SAG-AFTRA broke down this week.

Battle lines drawn

While there are a number of issues the two sides need to resolve, two of the largest are residual payments and the use of generative artificial intelligence.

The term “residuals” refers to payments that actors receive when a production they took part in is broadcast again.

The current system does not account well for the phenomenon of on-demand streaming of films and television shows, and does not include enhancements for movies and shows that become very popular.

Actors want a “success metric” that raises the payout for popular content.

Additionally, actors want compensation and protections surrounding the use of generative artificial intelligence.

For example, if footage of their performances is used to train AI systems, which can then artificially produce new content using an actor’s image and voice, they want to be paid for that content.

Structural problems

James McMahon, a professor at the University of Toronto and the author of The Political Economy of Hollywood: Capitalist Power and Cultural Production, told VOA in an email exchange that the sticking points between actors and the studios are structural and will be difficult to overcome.

“The decline of box-office receipts and the rise of video streaming are, I believe, two sides of the same problem,” he wrote.

“The major studios have (a) struggled to get more people to watch more movies, especially in theaters; and (b) have struggled to produce filmed entertainment profits that are competitive to the profits of other large multinational firms. Video streaming seemingly comes to the rescue of declining box-office receipts. However, user growth in streaming is not infinite, and when growth slows, firms will find additional profit from streaming by raising prices and cutting costs.”

He said that studios have been able to extract more revenue by raising the price of streaming services, keeping residuals low, and hiring fewer writers.

“[T]hese are the ways, up until these strikes, the major studios have found additional opportunities to cut costs. These strikes feel ‘existential’ because the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are saying that these cost-cutting benefits have not been sufficiently negotiated, particularly for the welfare of the average actor or writer.”

Huge impact

The combined effect of the two strikes will be to stop production of most feature films and scripted television programs.

The writers’ strike had already forced many productions to close down, but now even films and shows with completed scripts will be affected.

However, the strike’s impact will go deeper than halting production.

The members of SAG-AFTRA will be barred from promoting any films in which they appear, including campaigning for honors such as the Academy Awards for films and the Emmy Awards for television programs.