Los Angeles, a land that demands creatives while simultaneously exiling them.
On July 14, for the first time in 63 years, SAG-AFTRA joined WGA in the fight against AMPTP after agreement efforts between the unions failed. WGA has been on strike for about three months, and as SAG-AFTRA finishes its fourth week, the entertainment industry is in a sort of limbo whose conclusion will impact the future of all creatives in the United States. Firstly, let’s familiarize ourselves with the situation:
What is SAG-AFTRA?
SAG-AFTRA stands for the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. It is a labor union that represents a diverse group of professionals working in the entertainment industry including actors, announcers, broadcasters, singers, voice-over artists, and more. It negotiates with employers such as movie studios, television networks, and production companies to set terms and conditions of employment for members.
What is WGA?
WGA is the Writers Guild of America, a labor union representing professional writers in the entertainment industry working in film, television, radio, or digital media. This union also negotiates contracts with producers and studios that establish the rules and regulations under which writers are employed.
What is AMPTP?
AMPTP, or the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, is a trade association representing major film studios, broadcast networks, and independent producers in the United States. Examples of companies affiliated with AMPTP are Amazon/MGM, Apple, Disney/ABC/Fox, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Paramount/CBS, Sony, Warner Bros., and Discovery (HBO). AMPTP is the counterpart to the various labor unions representing workers in entertainment.
Why are SAG-AFTRA and WGA on strike?
The AMPTP has failed to reach a deal between both unions that adequately addresses the fundamental issues most important to members. These issues include provisions for economic stability and streaming revenue, protections against artificial intelligence, increased freedom under contracts, a much greater quantity of staff in writing rooms, and significantly more time to complete projects.
The labor union’s strike website contains statements about their attempted negotiations with the AMPTP:
"SAG-AFTRA negotiated in good faith with the AMPTP. We said we need a modern contract that addresses modern issues. They countered with business as usual: Income erosion. AI exploitation. Abusive self-tape demands. Our careers as performers are now in jeopardy."
The introduction of streaming has benefitted multimillion-dollar studios while crippling several others. Contracts often trap actors in inactive projects, eliminating large income generation capabilities. Fixed residuals or other forms of income are offered that do not necessarily match a show’s impact–making earnings the same even if published content is profusely popular. For example, Tommy Dorfman, an actress in the viral show 13 Reasons Why, says she was paid less than $30,000 for the first season.
After the emergence of streaming, more writers work at the lowest rate established in the WGA minimum basic agreement, regardless of experience. According to the WGA, between 2013-14, a third of all writers were paid this minimum amount bound by the contract. Currently, it is half of all writers. Screenwriter compensation can also be stretched over many months. Oftentimes, one-step deals–lengthy employment periods for a single draft–hold writers hostage through requesting endless rewrites and withholding payments they need to live off of. Additionally, streaming separates writing and production periods, employing writers for only half of an entire series. The WGA stated that the median amount of weeks worked by staff writers and story editors was merely twenty. Pairing these short periods of employment with a lack of a season calendar, you have an entire sector of entertainment struggling amongst others' stardom.
Artificial intelligence is also a massive area of disagreement between the unions. Both WGA and SAG-AFTRA want to protect the rights to their likeness from generative AI. Yet, companies represented by the AMPTP lean towards keeping their options open. Additionally, studios often employ algorithms to predict a project’s success and decide to greenlight content based on the result. A lot of writing has consequently been rejected, stifling creativity and innovation within entertainment.
A TV showrunner anonymously detailed their experience when producing their own series. When it was nearly done, the studio ceased production not because of budgetary limitations, but because it was projected to not perform well. They said,
"These massive corporations only respond to money. They don't care about the product's quality—they are only interested in soulless cost/benefit analysis."
Another TV showrunner laments about the incredibly small amount of writers for each series. Less minds are able to brainstorm new, exciting plotlines to stimulate viewers as well as prepare the next generation of successful screenwriters for the future’s biggest films. Content spending has been growing, yet both writers and actors are left behind. Examine median weekly writer-producer pay, which at first glance has declined 4% over the last decade. Yet, when adjusted for inflation, the decline is 23%.
How can normal people thrive under systems that exploit their talent without proper payment? Huge studios and streamers extract creativity from artists, yet unfairly compensate them in the name of bottom lines and earnings-per-share.
There lies the strikes’ importance for artists’ future. Greed has controlled the not-so-invisible hand that influences an entire occupation’s longevity. Art’s value is measured by its ability to generate revenue. Money that is, in turn, barely returned to the artists themselves and instead shoveled straight to gluttonous corporations’ mouths.
President of SAG-AFTRA, Fran Drescher, said: "We are being victimized by a very greedy entity...How they plead poverty, that they're losing money left and right while giving hundreds and millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting. Shame on them. They stand on the wrong side of history at this very moment."
Most people can’t imagine a life without their favorite TV shows, movies, or other forms of entertainment, yet the people who produce these creative necessities are largely dismissed by capitalism’s trump card: money. Creative outputs are rendered products, mere cash cow commodities. Profit-driven motivations strip away opportunities for art to further explore the human condition and reduce it to an unappreciated middle-class pastime deemed not worthy of investment.
And these principles have shaped art’s perception in our society. Think about the stigma surrounding art you may have heard: Go get a degree, but not an art one. Practice in what serves capital instead. If artists are truly passionate about what they do, it is OK to pay them low wages and burn them out–they love their job. If they love what they do, they’ll never work a day in their life. Yet, it was not considered that if they’re basically tortured, both fiscally and physically, what they love will turn into what they hate. These experiences artists face reflect a culture that does not appreciate art whatsoever. This is why SAG-AFTRA and WGA must strike. A new precedent for the treatment of artists must be established.
Kathryn Klavana, Washington-Mid Atlantic President within SAG-AFTRA, released a news update that reflects the strike’s impact on the union's website that stated:
"I have no doubt the summer of 2023 will be remembered as a pivotal chapter in the history of our profession. The outcome of SAG-AFTRA's strike against the companies represented by the AMPTP will determine whether the performing arts remain a viable livelihood for current and future generations of actors."
Art costs money and creativity takes time. Art cannot truly reflect society if alienated by capitalist criteria, rushed by the skin of its teeth, and changed by every subjective corporate opinion. Businesses need to pour money back into art if they want to preserve its value. This strike gives businesses an opportunity to protect artists: a new chance to shake hands and celebrate art in its creation.
The problem is businesses don’t care about art–they care about money. Either the AMPTP chooses a solution that takes steps to save art from capitalism’s ravages, or they don’t. And if they don’t, it is a sign-of-the-times moment that would help to define our current era as one that indoctrinates all art’s impact, meaning, emotion, and beauty must lay down and die for the dollar bill.
Penny is a Print and Online Writer for Rowdy Magazine.