As of Thursday, July 13th, SAG-AFTRA is on strike, joining the WGA, which has been on strike since the beginning of May. Considering I posted about that strike, it made sense to post about this as well, but boy howdy has there been a lot in the past 10 days or so.
In terms of overall covereage, Alissa Wilkinson, over at Vox, has one of their excellent explainer articles. Kim Masters and Matt Belloni banter about the strike on last week’s The Business for a more industry perspective.
Thursday, July 13th was SAG-AFTRA’s press conference announcing the strike, helmed by their union’s president, Fran Drescher, and their chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland.
You can also see the video via a context article from PBS News Hour. There were a number of statements of solidarity from fellow unions and related guilds — and the general consensus is that Drescher delivered the fire required for this situation (WGA members certainly approved).
Much like with the writers’ demands, the studios appear dead against anything that might put guardrails against the use of “A.I.,” which I’m putting in quotes because the number of computer-driven automation methods are quite vast. Importantly, in this instance (it’s mentioned in the video above), one of the studio asks was that they be able to hire a background actor for one day (some accounts say just a half day) so the background actor can be scanned and then their likeness can be used for any project whatsoever for eternity. Eternity!
(If you haven’t seen such contracts, yes, some really do have licensing language to cover all of planes of existence, known and unknown, as well as a time duration of all eternity).
Why would any labor union specifically agree to a method to ensure some, perhaps many, of their members would be put out of a job by that? And it’s not just TVs and Film. Actors earn money from modeling and advertisements as well. Their likeness has value. This is not an unreasonable thing for SAG-AFTRA to be concerned about.
There’s also the fact that SAG-AFTRA wants to have a raise in their base rates that accounts for inflation so that they are not being paid less in real buying power compared to the past. This too is not an unreasonable thing — and would be incomprehensible for a labor union to not to be concerned about.
Another studio attitude revealed in the video above was that they felt that striking was “uncivilized” and would damage negotiating efforts. I mean, I suppose there aren’t any studio executives longing for union negotiations, but complaining about the very legal act of labor unions being able to call a strike is ridiculous. Do they play poker and get upset when other players get cards?
It’s times like these you might wonder what studio executives are thinking (Youtuber Steve Shives has some ideas there). Certainly they’re thinking of keeping costs down. That’s their job, in part. At the same time, it’s not the job of a labor union to agree on being the main locus of cost-cutting measures. That’s absolutely not their job.
As happened during the start of the WGA strike, John August has some good perspective on the reasons for the strike and how SAG-AFTRA’s reasons are different. Mark Evanier, another writer, has some nice perspective as well including a post right before the SAG-AFTRA strike announcement and the Saturday following.
There’s also been some renewed scrutiny of some of the bizarre aspects of Hollywood economics, from bona fide blockbusters like Forrest Gump technically not being profitable to residuals to actors of hit streaming shows being insanely low. This latter article has been making a lot of rounds because it illustrates why the SAG-AFTRA wants the calculus changed. Interestingly, residuals for films playing on that newfangled thing called TV were some of the concerns back with the 1960 SAG strike (Variety has a nice look at that history).
Naturally, many an Internet contrarian looks at the broken residual model and asks, “Why should residuals exist anyway?” Also, why don’t the crew get residuals? I often wonder if this second question shouldn’t be asked more, since feature film and, increasingly, TV productions, seem to have that startup energy. You know: where no one quite knows how good it’ll turn out, but they all want it to do well. Why not lean into that and have everyone earn a piece of the action? I am confident that the people getting lots of ducats now will figure out a way to still get lots of ducats. Alas, that kind of performance-based compensation for streaming would depend on a level of transparency the streamers desperately do not want (for Netflix, it’s a longstanding secret and their attitude has not changed). And so the strikes continue.
There’s been conversation amongst us indie creators about what this means for us. Frankly, I believe we want and need the unions to succeed in a major way here.
First, if we’re thinking of just in terms of a buyers and sellers’ markets, the AMPTP represents media conglomerates that have accrued a huge amount of power skewing things to be a buyers’ market. Indie creators have had to get increasingly creative in terms of financing and distribution over the past few decades. A studio win here further erodes the power of production companies, actors, and other folks that might be part of the packaging that enables those financing and distribution deals. Basically, the more power and fewer the studios, the harder it is to shop a project around.
Second, the studios would like nothing better than for us to compete their way. We can be just as annoying to unions, but we’ll never be able to be as ruthless and rapacious. Much better to see how we can start testing some of those start-up, raise-all-boats models mentioned previously.
One silver lining in that vein: Variety reports that SAG-AFTRA has come to agreements with dozens of independent film productions who have not found the union’s demands “unreasonable.” This is great news for all the cast and crew on those projects — and undercuts the AMPTP argument in a most delightful way (cue Mary Poppins). It actually reminds me of what went down between the WGA and the agencies a couple years ago (Vanity Fair has a nice piece about it). The big agencies refused to deal with the WGA’s demands (and even admit that writers could fire their agents), so the WGA slowly and methodically made their deal with the smaller agencies, who –surprise, surprise– were cool with making good money versus none at all. Eventually, all the big agencies followed suit.
People like to say these sorts of conflicts are “David vs. Goliath” battles, forgetting that the AMPTP who, despite their hubris, are no fools. They do not want it to be David vs. Goliath. They want this to be a “Plastic Tanks vs. Godzilla” kind of battle. Lest we forget: Goliath did not fare well in the battle.
Ready that sling, David.