By HERMAN MORRIS
On May 2, over 11,000 workers from the Writers Guild of America (WGA) walked off the job and initiated their second strike of the 21st century. At stake for workers in the industry are streaming residuals, minimum staffing requirements, and AI automation of work.
Writers from across the country are picketing at studios and shooting locations in the Los Angeles and New York City area. As of July 14, over 160,000 actors represented by SAG-AFTRA also joined the picket line in protest of the unfair deal being offered by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). This marks the first time since 1960 that both actors and writers went on strike; their action has effectively shut down the entire movie and television production system that runs Hollywood.
Issues at stake
The key change in the industry of writing and acting since previous strikes is that streaming has completely upended the model of distribution and payments that workers are used to. In the past, residual checks would come in for writers and actors every time a work they produced was re-aired on network television or re-released on physical media. Now in the streaming era, there are no such protections for streaming-only productions. Streamers pay writers a single upfront residual check for domestic and foreign upload of a work to their service that is based on the total subscriber count of the platform. There is no differentiation made for shows that are bigger than others.
In addition, shows that go to streaming services often have shorter episode counts, with seasons lasting 8-10 episodes as opposed to 20-30 for network television. Each episode qualifies for its own residual payment. By reducing the number of episodes and not rewarding successful shows that drive subscribers to the streaming platforms, streamers are able to milk the maximum amount of value out of working writers and actors while giving them a fraction of what they would have owed them had their show been on network television or a movie instead.
This means that writers who work on prestige wide release streaming shows such as “Stranger Things,” “The Mandalorian,” or “The Handmaid’s Tale” are often making comparable or less money than a writer who works on a small-budget TV police procedural, which can provide several months of writer and actor pay on the set or in the room and several more residual checks as the longer shows air on network television. When the WGA negotiating team brought forward the proposal to pay out residuals based on viewership per show, it was rejected with no counteroffer.
Additionally, writers are being faced with staff positions being cut. Many network shows are bringing in a full initial staff of writers to shows and then cutting the amount hired to the bone after the pre-production for a season is completed, leaving only a handful of the initial staff to complete the job. Writers have demanded a minimum staff requirement and a minimum guarantee of 10 weeks of work for a show hire; but both demands were rejected, with no counteroffer.
Lastly, the writer’s guild is concerned about generative AI. White-collar employers have a high amount of interest in AI like LLMs and image generation software to begin increasing the pace of work and to automate away jobs. A similar issue stands for SAG-AFTRA members, who are concerned over how actor likenesses will be used by AI for re-purposing—an issue that the AMPTP reportedly won’t even agree to put firm language on. The WGA presented a demand of not using AI to write or rewrite material and to prevent the source work of the writers it represents to be fed to AI to generate work. This demand was rejected, with no counteroffer.
All in all, the WGA is asking to get an additional $429 million a year in pay and benefits for its members. Hollywood is offering back $86 million. In the years 2018-2022, David Zaslav (CEO of Warner Bros Discovery) alone made $498 million . The fact is, even with the current financial woes that Hollywood faces with streaming losses and declining ticket sales following the pandemic, the studios make more than enough money to give the WGA every cent they are asking for and more, but they want to squeeze workers for every penny they’ve got.
Producers gut the industry, workers bear the cost
In the time since the last writers’ strike of 2007, streaming has grown to dominate the movie and TV industry. Nearly every TV network and movie studio is now either part of or owns its own streaming service. As part of these streaming investments, the number of shows being produced has skyrocketed, going from 210 total TV shows produced in 2009 to 599 in 2023. Along with production budgets ballooning, studios have used cost-cutting measures such as reducing the amount of writers kept on the job for a season of TV, replaced expensive (union-made) sets and props with CGI and digital effects produced by largely non-union artists, and the financial trickery of putting a show or movie onto a streaming platform over other release models in order to avoid larger residual payments.
Despite all these measures, there is still the fact that streaming services are not yet a proven model for being substantially profitable for studios. Disney has lost over $10 billion on streaming so far and doesn’t project being net profitable until 2024. Warner Bros Discovery’s platform Max (formerly HBO Max) also isn’t profitable, only now aiming to hit profitability by the end of 2023 as it culminates a series of mergers that in part were meant to boost the number of shows on the service.
Now that the Hollywood machine and the Wall Street bureaucracy that governs it are facing the reality that they have made bad investment decisions within the industry, they return to the only way to raise profits that they have left. This has been and always will be the attempted immiseration of the working class that is the lifeblood of the industry that these people govern. SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher was right to point out that this fight is much bigger than just actors and writers, stating, “What happens here is important because what’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor, when employers make Wall Street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run.” Attempts at automation and labor disciplining are coming for the working class everywhere as the possibility of a major recession looms. Even keeping all these financial woes in mind, the WGA strike alone still asks for about half of what eight Hollywood CEOs made last year, totaling $773 million.
The only real tool that the working class has in these situations is to turn to their militant organizations of self-defense and to strike. Further than that, though, there is a need for this struggle to break out of the confines of a trade-union fight. So long as workers are stuck laboring under a capitalist system in which the rate of profit has a tendency to fall as industries mature, they will be fighting a battle on capitalist terms and in bourgeois courts. Only a revolution and the abolition of the capitalist wage labor system, replacing it with one that is organized by and for the working class, can deliver an end to the constant attacks on the livelihoods of working people.
Workers Voice stands with SAG-AFTRA and WGA in their fight against the greed of Hollywood and Wall Street. We encourage all who live near a picket line in New York, Los Angeles, or other cities to go out and show support to those protesting for a fair wage and contract. Solidarity with actors and writers!
Photo: Writers picket Disney Studios on May 2. (Robert Hanahiro / USA Today)