Acting Producing Writing

WGA/SAG-AFTRA Strike Update

So, it’s August and both the screenwriters and the screen actors are still striking. The WGA is meeting about returning to the negotiating table this Friday, but that doesn’t mean their strike is ending and, at the time of me writing this, there’s no news on AMPTP talking with SAG-AFTRA (though per that article, they’d be happy to).

I’ve gone back and tagged all my relevant posts about the strike(s) for ease of reference, but the most relevant one to some of you might be my post from just over a week ago which goes into a lot of why the actors are striking. Importantly, it’s for similar, but different concerns.

There have been plenty of articles and perspectives to check out since then.

Amelia Emberwing over at IGN sees the strikes as a crucial crucible to transform streaming into something sustainable (her article is the source of that excellent graphic above).

Xochitl Gonzalez writes in The Atlantic about how the current streaming business was essentially a gamble the entertainment industry leaders foisted on all the creators.

I won’t belabor the whole drama that erupted across a news cycle regarding Sarah Silverman questioning the ethics of the interim SAG-AFTRA agreements, but I will point out that SAG-AFTRA has stated they are important (again, as per my previous SAG-AFTRA strike post, I suspect they’re trying to do something similar to what the WGA did with the agencies a few years ago).

Professor Scott Galloway, meanwhile, finds both the AMPTP and the unions to be ignoring the real enemy they should be uniting against: Big Tech.

Teen Vogue, on the other hand, wants to burn it all down. Okay, it’s an op-ed, but my understanding is the attitude is on brand. Justine Bateman shares that Teen Vogue fury, which somehow feels right for my Gen X sensibilities, and specifically calls out the CEOs for being short-sighted and not like the entertainment CEOs of yore in critical ways.

And CEOs and others in the industry need to worry about how long these strikes will go on. As Pamela McClintock notes in The Hollywood Reporter, Barbenheimer won’t sustain the industry into the Fall.

However, if you check out just one article, you may want to check out one by futurist and writer Madeline Ashby for Wired: “Hollywood’s Future Belongs to People – Not Machines.” She interviewed a host of people across the entertainment industry and therefore gives multiple perspectives about the once and future industry. I found myself stopping and re-reading many points including:

  • William Goldman’s maxim that “Nobody knows anything” still holds true.
  • Via Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale: value is created by bundling things and by unbundling them. One example given is that a newspaper had added value by bundling personals and want ads with the news, but then Craig’s List added value by unbundling said want ads (and personals).
  • “Hollywood is the most capitalist place in the world.” Boy does this resonate. All the films and TV shows start as entrepreneurial ventures if not outright start-ups. And as storyteller Javier Grillo-Marxuach points out, the studios, on one level, are banks which the creatives go for for funding based on their script/pitch.
  • Once you put studios in the framework of being banks, the arrival of the tech bros makes more sense. I mean, these are the folks who would happily disrupt banks if “disrupt” means “can we have less regulation and oversight?”
  • The Principle of Least Interest: “The one who cares the least always has the most power. In a financialized creative environment, it is impossible to care less than a view-counting algorithm does.”
  • “But in a world where everyone is a brand, no one can be a star… Platforms are fickle. Content guidelines, corporate ownership, and payment structures can change overnight, without explanation.”
  • AI will allow censorship and “selective editing” at a heretofore unimaginable scale. For instance, if you read the article, you’ll note that I selectively edited a sentence out of the quote in the bullet above. Did I have a good reason? Did I not? Will you even notice when a hundred small changes are made to a film, tailored by an algorithm just for you? After all, it almost certainly won’t inform you it made a unique version of the film.
  • Above all people creating entertainment want to be able to make a non-poverty living creating entertainment as has historically been the case.

If you either want to ease into the article (it’s a long read) or get some of the same points in audiovisual form, she was on the show Offline recently:

The interview does not go on for the full time, so may want to bounce after it’s over at about 36 minutes.

That Offline interview was the first of two, as Jon Favreau interviewed Adam Conover the following week not only because he’s quite the entertaining guest, but he’s a very vocal member of the WGA negotiating committee.

This one goes the full hour and, as you may have guessed from the previous Adam Conover videos I’ve linked to, the video is peppered with NSFW language amid the trenchant points.

He is far more sanguine than Galloway (“Frenemies”) about the outcome of the strikes (though he sensibly has no idea when) and is very confident that the studios will come back to the table because he does not think AI will replace creative humans. The business model the studios want will not hold.

This is something Ashby talks about in her article above and Conover definitely touches on in his interview: the studios and streamers have drastically changed the business model to an unhealthy degree.

That’s not to say they can’t change the business model. In many ways, it’s more their job to update and change business models what with being “the bosses” and all.

However, what I see in so many of these articles and videos is that the streaming business model is not sustainable for the people making the product for the business. (In fact, several of the articles I linked above dive into it at length).

Not only that, the previous business model, which did not result in a chicken in every pot much less a Bentley in every driveway, still allowed for a middle-class or even respectable working-class existence.

And that really shouldn’t be an unrealistic goal for any industry, let along an industry that makes so much money and is a major export product of the country. And did I mention the money? These companies have publicly available annual reports: they make a lot of money from these products.

And the demands of the unions seem in line with the whole notion of, well, wanting to be able to make a living making these products that make so much money.

Rick Kain is a SAG-AFTRA member and, as you might expect from an actor who’s a stunt coordinator, he’s very methodical. He lays out the current wage requests from SAG-AFTRA in a short video. (Sorry, the embedding doesn’t seem to be working).

That’s the math. It’s just that simple. SAG-AFTRA doesn’t want their members to make less money for the same work. They are the people who are part of making profitable products.

I get that the AMPTP is pursuing this pipe dream of creating product without people. I also understand that businesses will want to optimize operations and cut costs, but for any industry, there’s a decision point about the quality of the product and customer satisfaction vs. maximizing profit. I know Big Tech doesn’t care which side of the equation the entertainment industry has fallen for the past few thousand years. But they, and it would appear Wall Street, don’t seem to have any concept of “enough.”

I do not trust such people. Let such people take their obsessions of efficiency and profit über alles to a non-creative industry. Say, figuring out how to more efficiently mine palladium or other precious metals. Or, I dunno, spreadsheets. AI-powered pivot tables in spreadsheets that show their palladium mining efficiency. Or they could just make sure their cars don’t catch fire.

I know it won’t be easy. The unions have stated this is an existential make-or-break point in history for them and, if the AMPTP weren’t so busy trying to make light of it all with terrible optics, they’d agree. As I said before, they want to be in the role of Godzilla vs. the plastic tanks. Enough power is never enough.

But I also remember Ursula K. LeGuin, who, although she was referring to books and publishing, had words that seem apt here:

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

~Ursula K. LeGuin, accepting a National Book Foundation Medal in 2014.

Slight correction above in the second sentence (especially as this post got a non-trivial amount of traffic) where I said the WGA was returning to the negotiating table: the WGA was meeting about meeting.

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