Ensconced within ivory towers and perched loftily upon their thrones, the major motion picture studios (i.e., Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros., Walt Disney Studios, and Sony Pictures), streaming services (i.e., Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video), and broadcast television networks (i.e., ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX) that form the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) look on as members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) trade their pens and costumes in favour of pitchforks and torches. But, who will win this war?
Lights, Camera, … Strike!
Thanks to the rise of streaming services and artificial intelligence (AI), Hollywood isn’t the way it used to be, and this spells trouble for writers and actors. So, when the deadline for a new contract passed, the strike that had been brewing for the last couple of months finally erupted on the 2nd of May, and writers took to the streets to seek greater compensation and protection from AI, amongst other things. On the 17th of July, SAG-AFTRA joined their attack against AMPTP, grounding Hollywood to a virtual halt. This marks the first writers’ strike since 2007, and the first joint strike since 1960. Although negotiations have been underway for the last couple of months, little progress has been made and there is no clear end in sight. So, join us as we take a closer look at the events that started this war, and examine the resounding impacts of the strikes.
The WGA began negotiations on a new contract with the AMPTP as their previous agreement expired on May 1.
In an article by Variety, initial phases of the negotiation primarily involved delivering speeches, with limited progress made on significant issues. This led to concerns that there might not be sufficient time for negotiators to come to an agreement on all the important matters.
The writers have emphasised several important issues in these negotiations, such as regulating the use of artificial intelligence, as well as pension and health contributions. However, fair compensation remains as the utmost priority.
As the contract approached its three-year deadline, the WGA conducted a strike authorisation vote. 97.85% of eligible members of the guild voted in favour of the strike, giving the union the power to call a strike once the contract expires. The vote was 9020 in favour, whereas only 198 members opposed.
Consequently, the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) and Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) made a concordant decision to begin the strike on May 2, 2023 at 1:00 p.m. PDT. Notable locations where the WGA conducted picketing activities included various industry giants such as CBS Television City, Disney, 20th Century Studios, Lionsgate, Netflix, Paramount, Sony, Universal, HBO, and Warner Bros.
The Hollywood Reporter outlined that the WGA had set a list of rules for writers during the strike, stating that “writers cannot do any writing, revising, pitching, or discussing future projects with companies that are members of the AMPTP.”
Some of the strike rules of the Writers Guild include:
- Writers are banned from “attending meetings, or engaging in conversations as a writer concerning new, pending or future projects or writing assignments with producers, directors or other representatives of any struck company.”
- Writers are to “inform the Guild of the name of any writer you have reason to believe is engaged in scab writing or other strikebreaking activity.”
- Writers are obligated to picket as assigned unless they have an accepted medical exception, personal circumstance or other employment.
The Writers’ POV
“I stand with all my fellow writers because they deserve what they are asking for and none of it is unreasonable. All the profits are in streaming and we are not sharing in that wealth,” said John Leguizamo, an actor, writer,and producer.
“The future of writing as a profession is at stake. My life has been shaped by stories – created by writers. And it’s my job, and I love it, and I want this to keep being a viable career for future generations,” said Charese Castro Smith, writer of “Encanto”.
The newer generation of story editors and staff writers are encountering a lack of on-set and on-the-fly experience during production, which is crucial for advancing to roles such as showrunner and executive producer. In instances where scripts are written in advance and completed before filming commences, very few writers need to stay on the payroll throughout the physical production phase. Additionally, the trend of producing shows with fewer episodes per season have left many writers seeking alternative jobs or remaining unemployed for most of the year. To address these challenges, the guild is pushing back with a proposal to set minimum staffing requirements for television productions. This will also provide younger and less experienced writers with the opportunity to enter the industry.
“I thought we’d be closer on the negotiations even if we had to strike, but the AMPTP basically told us to piss off with no counter of their own on SO MANY important issues,” said Bryan Cogman, an Emmy-winning writer for “Game of Thrones.” “I fully support the strike and the WGA. This is an inflection point and we have to stand together on this.”
Fortunately, writers facing financial hardship during the strike can apply to the Entertainment Community Fund. The fund is a nonprofit that provides emergency financial assistance to workers in the entertainment industry with financial trouble. According to the WGA, more than $1.7 million has been pledged by writers to the Entertainment Community Fund.
WGA Negotiating Committee co-chair Chris Keyser said, “This is a time for our entire industry to band together. Withholding our labour has proven to be the only way we can force the studios to give us a deal that allows writers to earn a fair, sustainable living at our craft.”
“That said, the WGA is not insensitive to the toll that his work stoppage will take on the entire industry. Our guild’s strike fund is available to help WGA members, but other workers need assistance too.”
The American actors’ union SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) joined the WGA in a strike.
Weeks after the WGA went on strike and ahead of a renewed contract, SAG-AFTRA’s board of directors agreed to pursue a strike authorisation vote. In an article by Deadline, the union stated that several issues in negotiations such as “economic fairness, residuals, regulating the use of artificial intelligence and alleviating the burdens of industry-wide shift to self-taping”.
Like the WGA, SAG-AFTRA has established a set of rules for its members during the strike:
- All covered services and performing work under the TV/theatrical contracts, such as principal on-and-off camera work, promotions and publicity services, and negotiating or consenting for agreements to performing and merchandising projects in the future must be withheld.
- Members must not cross SAG-AFTRA picket lines.
In response to the SAG-AFTRA strike, the AMPTP issued a statement outlining:
AMPTP member companies entered negotiations with SAG-AFTRA with the goal of forging a new, mutually beneficial contract. The AMPTP presented a deal that offered historic pay and residual increases, substantially higher caps on pension and health contributions, audition protections, shortened series option periods, and a groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses for SAG-AFTRA members. A strike is certainly not the outcome we hoped for, as studios cannot operate without the performers that bring our TV shows and films to life. The Union has regrettably chosen a path that will lead to financial hardship for countless thousands of people who depend on the industry.
Although the strike has shut down late-night programmes and put highly-anticipated movies such as ‘Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two’ and popular TV shows like ‘Stranger Things’ on hold for more than four months, the conflict is no closer to being resolved. This can be attributed to both sides remaining deeply divided over the issues at the core of the strike as well as the AMPTP’s financial leverage, which gives them the ability to let the strike drag on and wait for union members to bleed out, before resuming negotiations.
“The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” an unnamed studio executive told Deadline.
Writers and actors
However, despite the unprecedented solidarity shown by union members thus far and the $15 million raised from donations from A-List stars such as Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio, most writers and actors are beginning to feel the financial pinch. They have no choice but to rely on their savings and take up gigs that pay next to nothing, such as dog-walking, nannying, and filling out online surveys. Thus, it’s no surprise that many Hollywood professionals are feeling anxious about their future, and disheartened by the need to pursue banal side hustles in the meantime.
“I wrote on an award-winning show last year and I’m literally picking up dogshit right now.” a writer told NBC News.
So, what keeps the actors and writers from crossing the picket lines? What drives them to stand in the sweltering heat day in and day out? Well, believe it or not, many writers and actors who support the strike aren’t exactly the biggest fans of the current situation, but view it as a necessary evil in pursuit of the greater good – where they can receive proper compensation and keep AI from taking their jobs. So, when times get especially tough, all they can do is weather the storm and remind themselves who the real enemy is.
“People are tired of being on strike but are not wavering in their demands. None of us want to be out there, but none of us want to give up either, ” says Nicole Conlan, who worked on The Daily Show to Vox.
Hollywood studios and streaming services
But, in spite of the brave front the AMPTP has been putting on, the companies aren’t coping too well with the strikes either, and things are bound to deteriorate as the clock ticks. Although networks and streamers have stockpiled month’s worth of content to stave off a content drought and retain their audience, band-aids don’t fix bullet holes and their stores won’t keep them afloat for long. Although new seasons of shows like ‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ and ‘Only Murders in the Building’ were released this summer, we’ll likely see a rise in unscripted programming such as game shows, talent shows, and dating competitions, as these shows don’t involve union members. In fact, if the 2007-08 writer’s strike is any indication, shows like ‘The Kardashians’ and ‘The Real Housewives’, may just be the saving grace of networks and streaming services.
One silver lining in the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes for the companies is that the shutdown has allowed them to save money as they are producing less new content. In fact, Netflix expects its free cash flow to increase by $1.5 billion while Disney predicts a $3 billion decrease in production costs. But, in the long term, once viewers grow weary of unscripted programming and desperate for fresh content, studios and streaming services expect to suffer significant revenue hits.
The only exception may be Netflix, which boasts a vast library of foreign content and old favourites such as ‘Friends’, ’The Office’, and ‘Gilmore Girls’. But, even this won’t be able to keep viewers engaged for long. Yet, the companies don’t seem eager to cave into the desires of the unions, with Disney CEO Bob Iger, who earns an estimated $27 million a year – saying that the demands weren’t realistic. Plus, the discussions that took place between the CEOs of major studios and WGA negotiators in August weren’t very fruitful, with the WGA stating that the AMPTP’s offer was not nearly enough.
Nonetheless, many independent production companies that aren’t affiliated with the AMPTP and smaller studios such as Neon and A24, were allowed to film with SAG-AFTRA actors during the strike after agreeing to terms in the interim agreement. According to SAG-AFTRA, this provides proof that their terms – which include a minimum wage that is 11% higher, guarantees about revenue sharing, and protections against AI – are not only realistic but desirable and usable by producers in the industry.
The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes have also produced a ripple effect in Tinseltown, with those working behind the scenes such as cinematographers, editors, costumers, grips, and caterers being laid off due to the halt in production. But, it doesn’t stop there as almost 20% of the LA area’s income comes from entertainment or entertainment-adjacent roles. And, with more than 5% of California’s workforce being employed in the entertainment industry, the strikes are likely to have cost the state’s economy at least $ 3 billion so far.
Although the average Joe couldn’t feel further removed from the strikes, they’ll undoubtedly feel the effects of them soon enough. After ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ opened to record-breaking numbers in July, and saw people go to the cinemas in droves – a rarity in the wake of the pandemic – audiences will now have to brace themselves for a bleak couple of months – or years, depending on how long the strike will go on- with films being pushed to later dates. It’s also likely that we won’t be able to catch our favourite stars on the red carpet at film festivals or award ceremonies, and that we won’t be able to watch actors promote any upcoming films or TV shows.
From fair compensation and job security to evolving industry dynamics, the WGA and the SAG-AFTRA strikes have casted a spotlight on the multifaceted challenges faced by writers and actors in the entertainment industry.
There have been significant impacts from these strikes, causing a delay or cancellation in productions, and even financial hardships for those working in the industry. In spite of that, the strikes have served as a stage for both writers and actors to voice their concerns, sparking important conversations about the treatment of industry professionals, industry norms and the future of entertainment.
How will this play out?
On September 8, despite negotiations appearing to still be at a standstill, the WGA’s negotiating committee revealed to its members that there are studio executives who have shown a “desire and willingness to negotiate an agreement that adequately addresses writers’ issues.” They added that “Those executives – and others – have said they are willing to negotiate on proposals that the AMPTP has presented to the public as deal breakers. On every single issue we are asking for we have at least one legacy studio executive tell us they could accommodate us.”
Furthermore, Bill Maher, American comedian and political commentator, announced on September 13 that he will resume production of his show, Real Time with Bill Maher. He stated that “the writers have important issues that I sympathise with, and hope they are addressed to their satisfaction, but they are not the only people with issues, problems and concerns. Despite the assistance from me, much of the staff is struggling mightily.” This is the second show after The Drew Barrymore Show to resume episodes.
It appears that negotiations are gradually resuming, and a few live shows are restarting production. However, meaningful progress is unlikely until both parties find common ground and reach an agreement.
How can you support the strike?
- Follow the Guild’s official social media accounts and show support by using hashtags and creating original posts.
- Urge AMPTP and the companies to end the strike by giving writers equitable and fair deals.
- Donate to the Entertainment Community Fund (ECF) or create a fundraising campaign for the cause.
Written By: Chloe and Priyanka
Edited By: Ruby