Picture: Allison Zaucha/The Washington Post/July 14, 2023 – Gregg Donovan outside of the SAG-AFTRA offices on Thursday. Hollywood writers and actors say their demands are meant to protect their members in an era of rapid change and uncertainty for the entertainment industry, the writer says.
Video: The Washington Post – Fran Drescher – The Jig is Up SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher spoke in Los Angeles on July 13 after negotiations ended with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).
By Kim Bellware and Ben Brasch
Hollywood is facing its largest labour action since 1960 as actors began a strike Thursday, joining the tens of thousands of entertainment writers who have been on the picket line since June. The Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America say their demands are meant to protect their members in an era of rapid change and uncertainty for the entertainment industry, brought on by factors like the proliferation of streaming, collapsing box office returns and artificial intelligence.
Here’s what to know about the biggest issues on the bargaining table.
Both writers and actors are pushing for changes in compensation to account for rising inflation, shrinking residuals – the money earned when a work is reused, such as in syndication – and the pared-down TV season lengths favoured by many streaming platforms. (For instance, NBC’s penultimate season of Friends which ran in 2003, had 24 episodes; Netflix’s 2020 smash hit Bridgerton had just eight.)
- For writers: Pay issues largely dovetail with concerns over streaming and the use of “mini rooms” (more on those below), but the WGA’s demands also seek to boost protections and compensation for writers who are increasingly hired on shorter seasons with pay stretched out over a longer period of time. The Guild wants to see industry minimum rates, known as MBAs, applied to writers who work on comedy-variety programmes “made for new media” and restrict the use of excerpts, which writers don’t get paid for.
- For actors: A combination of outdated contract terms and a rapidly changing media landscape means shorter season orders and longer hiatuses between seasons. All of that “makes it increasingly difficult for our members to achieve and maintain a middle-class lifestyle working as a performer,” according to SAG-AFTRA’s website. There are also concerns about how to fairly compensate actors for the use of their likenesses created by AI.
Limiting the use of artificial intelligence
The use of AI has rankled both writers and actors, who see unchecked use of the technology as an “existential threat,” according to Andrew Susskind, an associate professor in the film and TV department at Drexel University who previously spent 30 years in the industry as an independent writer, producer and director.
“The writers’ stance has been that no narrative material can be by AI, and the producers’ stance was ‘let’s meet once a year and talk about the status of AI and see where we are,’“ Susskind said. “But writers know the moment AI can be used, it’ll be used to replace them.”
Susskind said that while studios have generally been more willing to negotiate on pay, AI is one area where writers and actors can’t afford to sell themselves short, saying the unions had not set a hard enough line when home video, DVD and streaming upended the model for residuals.
- For writers: The WGA is broadly seeking to limit the use of AI to preserve the number of opportunities for writers – and to ensure AI can’t be used to create uncompensated content off a writer’s original work. Filmmaker Justine Bateman previewed that scenario in a recent op-ed for Newsweek:
“You can also expect to see the training of AI programs on older, hit TV series in order to create new seasons,” Bateman wrote, referencing the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties,” in which she starred. “‘Family Ties,’ for example, has 167 episodes, comprising seven seasons. An AI program could easily be trained on this to create an eighth season.”
- For actors: SAG-AFTRA is seeking protections for their members from having their likeness, voice or performances used without their consent or without compensation. In an FAQ about the strike authorisation, the union said AI ability to mimic these creative expressions has already proved to be a “real and immediate threat to the work of our members”.
Additionally, the guild wants to prevent studios from being able to train AI to create new performances from an actor’s existing work.
“AI is obviously a potential existential threat for actors, depending on how it’s going to be used,” said Susskind, the Drexel professor. “Studios might say, ‘Ey, what’s the harm in doing a new Cary Grant movie, who is it hurting?’ But maybe it’s hurting his reputation.”
Changing how self-tape auditions work
The actors union is concerned about the practice of self-taped auditions that has rapidly replaced the long-running audition system.
Self-tapes, in which performers record themselves, flourished during the lockdown portion of the coronavirus pandemic, with many saying it was about as comfortable as any virtual job interview.
But as the pandemic dragged on, some actors upped the production values of their self-tapes, spending money on things like high-end lighting, rented-out spaces and professional services. The union worries a new standard is being set where actors will have to pay increasingly exorbitant sums.
“The shift to burdensome and unreasonably demanding self-taped auditions means that our members are working harder than ever, forced to take on audition costs that have always been the responsibility of casting and production,” according to the FAQ section of the SAG-AFTRA website.
Stopping the use of writing ‘mini-rooms’
In Hollywood, the term “mini-room” describes the increasingly common practice of using a small core of writers to shepherd a show along while hiring other writers for a handful of weeks at a time. This approach keeps fewer writers on the long-term payroll, while leaving more of them in jobs without much security.
In the broadcast heyday when shows often spanned 20 to 24 episodes per season, a staff writer would effectively be guaranteed roughly eight to 10 months of work, Susskind said. “And being around for all the episodes, it offers writers the opportunity to grow, because they’re there for script writing, they get to see preproduction, maybe get to see postproduction; so they get to learn production and maybe one day get to be producers or showrunners,” he said.
In the case of mini-rooms and shorter-run streaming shows, a writer’s employment may last only weeks rather than months, forcing them to scramble for a new gig multiple times a year.
“If you’re only 10 weeks on a show you used to be eight months, what kind of career can you have?” Susskind said.
The Washington Post analysed Writers Guild of America data in May that showed that staff writers – the lowest title for a writer – work a median of 20-25 weeks per year, guaranteeing a $4,546 minimum weekly income. They take home about two-thirds of the pay after fees and taxes.
Game of Thrones creator George RR Martin called mini-rooms “abominations’ in a blog post: “The refusal of the AMPTP to pay writers to stay with their shows through production – as part of the JOB, for which they need to be paid, not as a tourist – is not only wrong, it is incredibly short sighted.”
Scott Rowe, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, told The Post in May that the union’s request “is in reality a hiring quota that is incompatible with the creative nature of our industry”, adding: “We don’t agree with applying a one-size-fits-all solution to shows that are unique and different in their approach to creative staffing.”
Kim Bellware covers national and breaking news for The Washington Post. She previously worked for City Bureau, the Huffington Post and as a nationally focused freelance reporter. Ben Brasch is a General Assignment reporter for The Washington Post