Lessons from the Last Time Actors Went on Strike

Movies,TV
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The only other time members of both the actors and writers guilds were simultaneously on strike was in the first half of 1960. For context, this was around the same time that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was unleashed on cinemas, the biggest movie stars of the screen were still Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe, and the actors’ union was led by someone named Ronald Reagan.

In other words, members of what we today call the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) rarely take their bargaining power to the picket lines. When they do, it’s often at major inflection points for the industry, such as the one laid out by SAG President Fran Drescher in a speech Thursday afternoon.

Confirming that the more than 170,000 members of SAG are on strike as of yesterday, Drescher stressed in fiery remarks that “the eyes of the world, and particularly the eyes of labor, are upon us. What happens to us is important. What’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor…. because it is a slippery slope into a very dangerous time, and a real dystopia if big business, corporations, think they can put human beings out of work and replace them with artificial intelligence.”

Indeed, the way SAG leaders see the issue at hand, their joining the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which has been on strike since May 2, will mark a coordinated effort to force modern film studios and streaming services to make concessions for how success is measured and resulting profits are distributed in the streaming market, as well as crucially install guardrails for an industry that apparently is looking seriously at the applications of using artificial intelligence to create “content” for consumers.

The choice to go on strike, which Drescher told USA Today more than 90 percent of SAG voted to authorize, has already had immediate implications for the industry, with Disney officially pausing production on Deadpool 3, which is due out next year. Other films in production expected to see pauses (although nothing is confirmed) include Beetlejuice 2 and Gladiator 2. Hence why the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the organization that represents the bargaining interests of movie studios and streaming services, has been so immediately vocal against the strike.

“AMPTP member companies entered the negotiations with SAG-AFTRA with the goal of forging a new, mutually beneficial contract,” the organization said in a statement. “The AMPTP presented a deal that offered historic pay and residual increases, substantially higher caps on pension and health contributions, audition protections, shortened series option periods, and a groundbreaking AI proposal. A strike is certainly not the outcome we hoped for as studios cannot operate without the performers that bring our TV shows and films to life.”

Yet SAG leadership has already fired back, challenging the conceit that AMPTP’s artificial intelligence proposal was “groundbreaking.” According to chief SAG-AFTRA negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (via CNN), “They propose that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay, and their company should own that scan, their image, their likeness, and be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want with no consent and no compensation.”

All of this frustration with studios and streaming services echoes the WGA’s grievances with an industry where a writer on a hit streaming series like The Handmaid’s Tale can still wind up driving his executives around as an Uber driver, and which likewise sees the approaching sea change of A.I. technology as an existential threat.

Curiously, it also echoes the last time SAG and AFTRA went on strike, actually paving the way to the merging of those then-separate organizations. It was also the last time actors tried to substantially reshape the Hollywood business… with mixed results.

While the WGA has gone on strike eight times, the actor’s guild only went on total strike twice before 2023. The first is the aforementioned 1960 incident, but perhaps the more noteworthy for 2023 is when the actors went on strike a year before writers did in 1980. This was the year where actors attempted to negotiate how profit-sharing would work in the age of home media—which gained them small concessions while still arguably losing the war.

The 1980 actors strike lasted from July 21 until Oct. 23 of that year. It’s estimated the labor dispute cost the industry $40 million a week (about $148 million in 2023 dollars). And the root cause for the strike is remarkably similar to our modern perspective as well: it was a fight over how residuals might be shared in a new revenue stream called home media. In 1980, the advent of videocassette tapes, including VHS, was still a relative novelty, and it was due to this fact that studio representatives maintained there was not enough money in the burgeoning market to share yet. At the time, the studio management insisted that only two percent of American households owned VCRs, and thus it was impossible to anticipate a large revenue stream out of this niche market.

In an open letter at the beginning of the 1980 strike, then-SAG negotiator Chester Migden said, “The rights of actors to power participatory share must be established early in the game… [it’s] essential that the necessary principles be created to insure the future.” In the ensuing strike, film and television productions shut down, including the film 9 to 5, and the Emmys were an outright disaster, with only one nominated actor showing up to the awards ceremony: Powers Boothe.

It ultimately ended in a compromise. While the then-separate labor unions of SAG and AFTRA failed to get their original demand of six percent residuals on home media grosses, the studios did settle on sharing 3.6 percent of revenue, but only after the project had played for two years on Pay-Per-View or was released on videocassette.

What’s illuminating about this previous actors strike is that it was initiated largely due to fear and anticipation of a new era in the entertainment industry, and how, in retrospect, the studios still essentially created a precedent and ceiling for a home media market that average consumers were then barely aware of.

In the decades that followed, the home media boom of first VHS and then DVDs created a second revenue stream almost as lucrative as the theatrical business model. One of the reasons studio output was so much more daring and diverse (at least in terms of genre and storytelling risk-taking) in the 1990s and early 2000s is because studios knew that even if they didn’t find an audience on the big screen, their films might do so on home video.

Yet the 3.6 percent residual agreement SAG and AFTRA obtained in 1980 placed actors (never mind other creatives) in a box. Whereas actors could get rich off backend deals negotiated on theatrical releases, just as a television series going into syndication until about 10 years ago could set up cast members and writers for life, the golden years of the home media market never paid the same kind of dividends to creatives.

Which is why the current SAG and WGA strikes in 2023 have seemed a longtime coming. While this is the first time the entire SAG group has gone on strike in 43 years, the last WGA strike was a lot more recent, occurring between the fall of 2007 and early winter of 2008. And during that strike, writers pushed for concessions on a new technology: streaming. Streaming services have since completely upended the entertainment industry, with major tech giants like Netflix (which was only a mailing service in 2007), Amazon, and Apple dwarfing the traditional movie studios. And yet, they have all come together as members of AMPTP in order to resist labor demands about talent getting to enjoy some kind of residual success for streaming hits.

To be clear, there is a current, but fairly minimal, residual system in place at most streaming services. But it is so obfuscated, and untethered from whether streaming content like say, Wednesday or Bird Box, are major hits with viewers that success does not trickle down to the talent who worked on those projects. Hence the current position of both WGA and SAG-AFTRA for streaming services to either share their streaming analytics data or accept a third party metric to determine potential residual benefits for the shows and movies that are hits.

Consider that the reason Scarlett Johansson famously sued Disney in 2021 is because the the company put Black Widow on Disney+ behind an added paywall, and then attempted to not share any of the revenue that paywall generated, even as the simultaneous streaming release essentially tanked the film’s theatrical performance (where Johansson did have a backend residual deal in place). When Johansson sued the company, however, Disney was initially and publicly vicious toward the star, seemingly resolute in a desire to not share in any streaming revenue.

Of course Johansson is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet right now, and the company and actress settled their differences out of court, but the less famous stars of streaming shows on Disney+ or Netflix, or Amazon Prime Video, cannot afford lawyers who earn eight figures a year—never mind the writers. 

That appears to be the present concerns which picketing SAG actors and WGA writers are pushing back against. And just as the 1980 actors strike anticipated the advent of home media, and the 2007/8 writers strike saw the streaming storm coming, the new concern is artificial intelligence—with studios and streamers apparently adamant that they maintain the ability to use A.I. to write content or even hold onto the likeness of an actor in perpetuity.

It sounds like something out of Black Mirror in 2023, but it may determine what the future of Hollywood looks like in only a few years.

The post Lessons from the Last Time Actors Went on Strike appeared first on Den of Geek.

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