Last Friday, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) – a union representing nearly 160,000 Hollywood actors – went on strike. They joined members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) – a union representing 11,000 Hollywood writers – who have been on strike since May.
This is historic. Hollywood writers and actors haven’t been on strike together since 1960, when none other than Ronald Reagan led the SAG as its president. Hollywood has effectively been shut down; productions on many films and shows – including hits like Severance and Stranger Things – have been paused. And while Barbie and Oppenheimer are still coming to theaters this week, don’t expect to see Margot Robbie or Cillian Murphy do any kind of promotional or red carpet events.
The actors’ and writers’ primary demands are very similar: better pay in the new age of streaming and increased protections against artificial intelligence (AI). With regard to pay, actors and writers are fighting for better “residuals” – a type of royalty paid to actors and writers whenever their shows/films are replayed. Before streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu emerged, people consumed entertainment largely through traditional TV networks; the subsequent residual payments were generous and stable. Now, however, streaming platforms go to great lengths to hide their internal data about how popular individual shows are, and actors’ and writers’ paychecks have taken a hit as a result. One actress has gone viral on Twitter for sharing the 13 cents she received from five residual payments from streaming services.
There is a misconception floating around about the striking actors. Anti-union conservative pundits like to criticize wealthy celebrities like Susan Sarandon, Jason Sudeikis, and Sean Astin – not to mention the president of SAG, Fran Drescher – who have joined picket lines as out-of-touch millionaires who have no right demanding better pay. But those actors are, for the most, part, not striking for themselves. They’re standing in solidarity with their fellow union members, most of whom are not very well-paid. In 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average pay for California actors was $27.73, which isn’t much, especially considering that actors have to devote part of their pay to commissions for their managers, agents, and lawyers.
Writers haven’t had it much better than their actor friends. Median weekly pay for writers has fallen 23% over the last decade when adjusted for inflation. Alex O’Keefe, a writer for the hit series The Bear, has gone viral for sharing in a CNN interview that he lived below the poverty line while writing for the show. In short, writers and actors have had enough of the low-pay status quo, and are demanding better pay and changes to the way residuals are calculated from streaming.
Actors and writers also want better protections and regulations against AI. The writers are worried that AI could replace them in writing scripts, and actors are worried that studios could use AI to digitally clone their bodies and faces – yes, you read that right – and then use their likeness for eternity in shows and movies. Both parties have issued demands related to AI in negotiations with studios in order to protect their jobs and livelihoods from being overtaken by robots.
The battle over AI is currently being waged inside the bubble of Hollywood, but it is a harbinger of similar battles that will unfold across different sectors of the economy as AI becomes more commonplace. Experts agree that AI won’t replace all of our jobs, but they believe that AI will take over more repetitive and rote tasks, which will actually make workers more productive. The issue will then be to ensure that workers realize the benefits of their productivity gains. If history is any guide, executives and shareholders usually reap the spoils of productivity gains and don’t pass much on to workers in the form of higher compensation.
Disney CEO Bob Iger has described the actors’ and writers’ strikes as “disturbing” in light of the challenges that he and his industry peers are facing. But make no mistake about it – Iger and his friends at the helms of industry giants like Netflix, Paramount, and Amazon are not suffering. Iger is poised to make $31 million per year, as Disney reported a revenue of over $82 billion in 2022. The only “disturbing” thing here is Iger and his wealthy peers’ inability to see beyond their own self-interests and meet actors’ and writers’ extremely reasonable demands, which they can more than afford.