SAG-WGA Strikes: A Summary
Matthew Bowden offers a summary of the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, including why the strikes are happening, and the potential impact on audience viewing.
It has been labour strikes in a way that only Hollywood could conceive: the entire cast of Oppenheimer dramatically departing their own premiere in solidarity with the timing of the Screen Actors’ Guild’s (SAG-AFTRA) shutdown; performers such as Brian Cox and Susan Sarandon leading from the front on the picket lines; organisers devising themes for individual strike days which has seen protesting actors wearing full Bridgerton-esque dress in 100F weather. But this combination of levity and show should not detract from the unfortunate reality; there is a serious schism taking place within the film industry, unprecedented since the 1960s.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors’ Guild have instigated a combined, indefinite strike action to protest against what they feel are significant injustices within Hollywood and its current financial framework. It boils down to the simple truth that, in our newly established era of streaming hegemony, writers and actors correctly claim that they are being left behind. This materialises itself in a number of different ways. One major issue is compensation – individuals who have been part of successful shows on streaming services like Netflix or Disney+ do not feel that they are being adequately rewarded for their creative efforts. A stark example involves The Bear writer Alex O’Keefe (a show that has been universally regarded as a smash hit), who was forced to borrow a tuxedo for the Writers’ Guild of America Awards, as he could barely afford to pay his own rent on the returns he was making from the show. This echoes the general feeling within Hollywood that acting/writing from the ground-up is being slowly squeezing into the status of gig worker, whereby creatives feel like they cannot make a stable living solely through their profession.
It boils down to the simple truth that, in our newly established era of streaming hegemony, writers and actors correctly claim that they are being left behind.
It can also be linked to a concurrent issue that compounds the problem: the fundamental changing of the Hollywood business model. Whereas 10/20 years ago, when the industry was inherently reliant on box office returns and people seeing movies on opening weekend, the recent influx of newly released content being pushed onto streaming services means these giants have become the dominant force, and less and less people are actually going to the cinema. The concern for fledgling actors is that their contracts have not caught up in line with the new model, so their dues are still largely based on box office intake and haven’t been properly adjusted to include money made from streaming revenue. Take the new Indiana Jones film, which has somehow bombed at the box office, due to a combination of Barbenheimer fever and poor word-of-mouth. Any other year, this movie would be the blockbuster event of the summer, but instead after less than two months on the big screen, it is being unceremoniously shuffled onto Disney+, where it’ll probably make a bunch more money. This state of affairs is a symptom of the changing face of the industry: Netflix, Disney and Amazon are the new studios, and cinema seems to be constantly banking on Tom Cruise’s ageless stardom to save itself from financial ruin.
This state of affairs is a symptom of the changing face of the industry: Netflix, Disney and Amazon are the new studios, and cinema seems to be constantly banking on Tom Cruise’s ageless stardom to save itself from financial ruin.
Another grievance actors and writers share is the indubitable rise of A.I. within the process of film-making, to the extent that they have genuine fears of being replaced by technology that won’t trouble studios with its required cut of the profits. It is easy to see why – the prominence of Chat GPT means Warner Bros can slot any basic movie premise in (“write me a film about a washed-up detective who reacquaints himself with an old flame…”), the AI will bash it out, and then they can hire at most a couple of writers to tidy it up and make it slightly more human. For actors, especially background ones, it is even more outrageous – directors frequently have used A.I. scanning technology to take a stock image of their face and multiply it for use in numerous film projects, so you get the absurd situation of actors seeing themselves in films that they didn’t actually know they were in. From the studios’ perspective, if these actions seem shameless, their response to the proposed strikes is positively repugnant. Rumours are that executives plan to play the waiting game with the unions, not offering to come back to the negotiating table with the ultimate intention of bleeding them dry, so they have no real position to barter from. For them, this has the risk of developing into a David and Goliath situation; the public outcry would become an irrepressible tidal wave, potentially reaching the level of government.
Rumours are that executives plan to play the waiting game with the unions, not offering to come back to the negotiating table with the ultimate intention of bleeding them dry, so they have no real position to barter from.
In terms of impact on audience viewing, at this point it is difficult to definitively say how much content will be delayed, as there is no timescale that the strikes are operating within. There will be the dual effect of production and promotion shutdown – new seasons of shows such as Stranger Things, Andor and Cobra Kai have been put on hold, while massive upcoming Hollywood movies like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune sequel would have been released completely unpromoted – unconventional to say the least. As a humble audience member, all I can hope for is that the studios emerge from their Scrooge-like mindset and pay hardworking creatives, both on screen and behind-the-camera (VFX workers included), what they undoubtedly deserve.