Q&A: The Hollywood Strikes

This post is by Iain Anderson from ProVideo Coalition

If you work in Hollywood or on larger productions anywhere in the US, then of course, you’ll know all about the strikes that have brought the industry to a halt.

While not everyone in the post-production landscape is affected, a great many have been, so let’s take a Q&A-style trip through what’s happened, the reasons why, and what the likely outcomes are.

Who exactly is on strike?

While the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has been on strike for 100 days, the Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) joining the strike about four weeks ago has made this strike even more significant, and has had world-wide impact.

So what happened first?

The WGA went on strike as they couldn’t come to an agreement during contract renegotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The biggest issue is the small size of residuals paid by writers on streaming productions compared to traditional network TV productions.

How much less money do streaming companies pay writers?

A lot less — think a five-figure check for work on a popular network show, and a three-figure check for work on a popular streaming show. While payments have increased, they’re still way below what networks used to pay, for many reasons. There are typically fewer episodes than on network TV, and payments are based per subscriber, not per show watched — at least partly because streamers don’t share viewing numbers in the same way that networks did. Here’s an explainer.

What else does the WGA want?

There are concerns about the rising use of AI to replace at least some work done by writers, as well as job security and the size of writers’ rooms, which have been shrinking. There’s a whole lot more detail in this great article from Vox.

Why did SAG-AFTRA join the strike?

Similar concerns over residuals are a big part of it, as actors also see far lower payments for streaming than they did for network syndication re-runs. On average, an actor’s income is so low that 86% don’t earn enough in a year to qualify for the union’s health insurance. 

And I heard something about AI in relation to actors too?

Yeah, that’s a big one. A proposal from the studios would pay a background actor a single day’s wages to have their face and body scanned, and in exchange, their digital double can then be used in perpetuity by the studios. While clearly this would result in fewer extras being hired, the flow-on effect would mean there are fewer wardrobe and make-up staff needed to dress them, fewer craft services needed to feed them, and so on.

Isn’t this just “progress”?

No, this has the potential to become a much bigger change. If a studio owns a background artist’s complete likeness, this would mean that if they someday become a star in their own right, they wouldn’t then own their own likeness. If digital doubles are good enough to pass for human, this could allow studios to make movies without any actors at all. Coincidentally, this was the plot of Joan Is Awful, the (terrific) first episode of the latest season of Black Mirror.

There have been strikes before, what makes this one different?

There hasn’t been a simultaneous strike of writers and actors in 60 years. It’s entirely possible that the strikes are being used as an excuse to be able to cancel shows the studios couldn’t cancel under normal circumstances, though I couldn’t possibly comment.

How are the strikes affecting the rest of the industry?

Hollywood is mostly out of work right now, and most big productions across the US (New York, Atlanta, and elsewhere) have stopped too. Note that while production has largely shut down, not all post-production has shut down. Some editors, those working on a movie that had finished shooting when the strikes began, may still be editing. They’re not crossing picket lines, and the Editor’s Guild is not on strike. Some post-production is still happening.

However. Because writers and actors are often needed throughout the editorial process (rewrites, reshoots, ADR) a lot of post-production just can’t continue. At the end of the day, you need writers and actors to finish a film. And you need them to promote a film too — no writers for late-night TV shows and no actors to talk to anyone… not the way to launch a movie.

If you’re a smaller player making corporate or social videos, you may not be affected, but for an awful lot of post professionals, things are getting really tight. Wherever films are regularly made, catering, prop houses, camera rental companies, and every other business who sells products or services to video production companies is affected.

Q&A: The Hollywood Strikes 1
A SAG-AFTRA picket line in NYC

Do you have a concrete example of the impact?

An assistant editor in Hollywood finished up a job in late April, the week before the WGA strike began. Normally that would mean a few weeks off before the next movie, but there has been no next movie, with nothing on the horizon. There are very few jobs out there, and those which are available are very low budget.

Yikes! What’s the impact internationally?

Wherever US films are made, they’re no longer being made. Canada is widely affected, as are Australia and the UK; filming of Mortal Kombat 2, Wicked, Beetlejuice, Deadpool 3 and others has also been shut down. An adaptation of Metropolis for Apple TV was in pre-production in Melbourne, but it’s been cancelled altogether. There’s now a very large virtual LED “volume” screen without the show it was made for, and over 3000 jobs that won’t be created.

Can any productions continue?

Yes! Some lower budget, independent (think A24) and international productions have been given interim agreements, affirming that they’re agreeing to the union’s terms and can continue production. These productions aren’t being given an exemption, they’re just agreeing to terms before the big studios do. But these productions aren’t enough to keep all of Hollywood employed.

What are the studios doing?

It seems that the studios plan to simply wait out the union members. A viral quote from July in Deadline: “[the] endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses”. Here’s a treasure trove of back-and-forth analysis for you.

Surely the studios are at least willing to meet with the unions?

There’s hope, maybe. Just recently, Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, has said he’s “personally committed” to ending the strikes in Hollywood. Negotiations have finally resumed with the WGA as of last Friday (11 August) and are scheduled to continue this week.

What’s the likely outcome?

The strikes will, inevitably, end, because the studios will recognize when their pipelines are getting too empty. There’s likely to be some compromise, but I suspect the studios are going to have to shift some way from the status quo to reach an agreement on residuals.

When the strike does end, there will be a huge push to get back to work as soon as possible; there’s a massive backlog of work that’s been postponed. Hollywood’s post-production professionals won’t be short of work when the strike eventually does end.

But when?

I wish I knew. I wish we all knew. Good luck everyone.

Thanks to an established Hollywood editor for input on this piece.
Images (A) and (B) thanks to Phil Roeder (CC BY 2.0)