Home TV News The US Actors Strike – Why Is It Happening & What Effect Will It Have

The US Actors Strike – Why Is It Happening & What Effect Will It Have

Explaining the 2023 SAG-AFTRA Strike action

by Dave Elliott
The US Actors Strike - Why Is It Happening & What Effect Will It Have

The US Actors Strike – Why Is It Happening & What Effect Will It Have

Recently, SAG-AFTRA, the main actor/performers guild in the USA, voted on strike action, paralysing tv and film production which was unfortunately already crawling due to the ongoing Writer’s Strike, as both groups fight for fair contracts and remuneration from the Hollywood studios. For those of you outside of the industry, I thought it might be helpful to explain why it is happening, what they are asking for, and what effect it may have on you as a viewer.

It is the first time since 1960 that both the writer’s and actor’s guilds have been on strike at the same time. These strike actions tend to occur when there are major shifts in the landscape of broadcastings. The 60s strikes were related to residuals (the money paid to writers and performers for repeats) for movies being aired on television. There were then strikes in the 80s relating to the sales of home videos, and again in the 2000s for DVD residuals and the newly emerging “digital media”. These latest strikes also relate to some systemic shifts in the entertainment world and are vital to protect the future of the industry.

Why is SAG-AFTRA striking now?

SAG-AFTRA represents about 160,000 people including actors, broadcast journalists, announcers, hosts, stunt performers, and other media professionals. They were in negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, who represent the major Hollywood studios, to agree on a new contract for their members. The broad issues on the table include:

  • An increase in minimum pay rates, improvements to pensions, health insurance etc…
  • Improved working conditions, and rules on self-taped auditions.
  • An increase in streaming residuals.
  • Protections and guarantees from studio and production companies about how artificial intelligence will be used in projects, and compensation when their work is used to train AI.
  • Protect of actor’s voice, likeness and performance.

The increase in pay rates, pensions, and health insurance, are pretty straightforward requests. You would expect this in any contract negotiation. The same goes for issues with working conditions.

The self-taping auditions issue is one the guild says is “unregulated and out of control.” The problem here is that actors are expected to record pages and pages of scripts, spending hours and hours of uncompensated time recording themselves for productions. Whilst some of that is expected, in recent years, the practice appears to have become the default for production companies, putting a huge amount of pressure on the lives of performers. SAG-AFTRA understandably want to agree on rules and options for production companies to follow to make sure performers are not being exploited.

Now we come to the last two points… and this is where things get really tricky…

Streaming Residuals

Streaming residuals (the money paid to performers) are more of an issue, as streaming services are extremely secretive over exact streaming numbers for shows, and how much a show is making for the service. This is further complicated by the fact there is no one way this is calculated. For years, if you wanted to know if a movie was successful, you looked at the box office figures. For TV, you looked at the Nielsen ratings (a common, standard rating format for US network TV.) With subscription streaming, due to the various revenue models, the value of a show to, say, Disney+, and how Disney calculate that value, could be wildly different to how Netflix calculate a show’s value. And all the streaming services are… extremely reluctant… to give away any secrets as to how their algorithms operate and their exact subscriber numbers.

The streaming residuals issue is complex, but I’ll try and give you a simple overview. Currently, streaming residuals are calculated based on the amount a performer was originally paid for the role and the number of subscribers on the streaming platform, not the number of people watching the show itself. This raises a couple of problems. Firstly, the streamers don’t want to share that exact subscriber data, which makes it very hard for the actor and SAG-AFTRA to verify if the residuals they are getting are correct. Secondly, you could be on a show which is watched by millions or billions of people around the world, but, the actor’s initial fee on that series or movie was low, meaning their residual is way lower than it really should be, as it isn’t based on the show’s popularity. Under this model, a high-paid established actor in a series which is a flop would continue to get massively more residuals than a less well-established actor on a smash hit series. It’s a wonky and unfair model which needs correcting. However, some transparency is going to be needed from the streamers to break the strike, and the streamers do not want to give up the information.

AI & Digital Actors

The other major issue relates to AI and the use of “digital actors”. SAG-AFTRA is seeking better protection for the use of an actor’s voice, likeness and performance moving forward. This is really the “emerging” issue for this strike, much like the internet was for 2000s strikes and VCR was for the 80s.

Whilst not 100% there yet, we are fast heading towards a point where an actor’s entire likeness,  voice, and performance could be captured to make entirely new content. We’ve seen some of this with the Star Wars franchise, with a de-aged Mark Hamill and a digital recreation of his younger voice. Whilst that instance was done in conjunction with Mark, SAG-AFTRA rightly wants to get ahead of the issue and have rules in place.

Hollywood’s Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) claims it offered the guild “a groundbreaking AI proposal”… However, when the SAG-AFTRA leadership held a press conference announcing the strike, they claimed the proposal would allow background actors to be paid one day’s work to be digitally scanned for a project, at which point, the company would then “own that scan, their image, their likeness and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation.” AMPTP refute this claim, saying that the proposal “only permits a company to use the digital replica of a background actor in the motion picture for which the background actor is employed. Any other use requires the background actor’s consent and bargaining for the use, subject to a minimum payment.”

I mean… assuming that is correct (and looking at this as a layperson) it still does seem to still rather screw over the background actor meaning they would only be paid one day on a movie or show when previously they would have been paid multiple days. So, not quite as bad as the leadership claimed in the press conference, but still really not good, and you can see why SAG-AFTRA would reject it.

AI has also been a major issue for the striking writers too. With systems like ChatGPT able to knock out scripts for tv shows (not necessarily good scripts, but scripts nonetheless), the writers are rightly concerned about studios attempting to replace them with digital copies. It’s worth pointing out, these AI systems learn how to do this by “devouring” content from the internet and other sources. This has recently resulted in a lawsuit by a group of novelists over their books being used to “feed” the AI. If AI is used to create a script for a show such as ‘NCIS’ for example, the AI has learned how to do that by eating up previous scripts from the series. Whilst the new script is created by an AI, it is only able to do that by building on the work of the original writers, and they should be compensated for that.

As the tech grows, AI is being seen as an “existential threat” to both writers and performers, which needs strict rules in place over its use. That is what SAG-AFTRA are fighting for. If you’re wondering what this dystopian nightmare might look like, I would suggest you go and take a look at the recent ‘Black Mirror’ episode, “Joan Is Awful”

What does this mean for you as the viewing public?

Right now, you may not notice much difference. Films and TV shows which are already completed and “in the can” will be released over the coming months. It’s going to be when we hit the USA “Fall” Season in Sept/Oct you’ll really notice the difference.

Regular network shows such as the various ‘FBI’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Law & Order’ and other big franchises will not film in time to return in their usual Autumn timeslot. In fact, if you look at the US network schedules for the Fall Season, almost all of them have booted their scripted dramas to next year, replacing them with Reality TV, game shows and animated series.

This obviously will play havoc on the UK schedules as well, with gaping holes for Sky when these big network shows don’t return. On the plus side, it does increase the possibility of series which have yet to be aired here landing in the UK to help plug those gaps (Fire Country anyone? Alert: Missing Person’s Unit maybe?)

We have already lost most of the US late-night chat shows due to the writer’s strike, however, even if they were running, they would have been lacking in guests. The SAG-AFTRA strike rules forbid performers from doing any press promoting TV/Theatrical projects made under SAG-AFTRA contracts. That means no chat shows, no press junkets, premiere appearances, or podcasts promoting that work. This applies not only to things such as upcoming shows and films, but any previous projects made under a SAG-AFTRA contract. That brings us to…

What About Comic-Cons and the SAG-AFTRA strike?

Comic-Cons appearances are… tricky… Technically, actors can appear at Comic-Cons, but they can’t promote any of their past or present SAG-AFTRA work… So, Anson Mount could go to a Comic-Con, but couldn’t talk about ‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’… or even ‘Hell On Wheels’… A performer could go and talk about something else, such as an album if they are an actor/musician… or, just talk about the weather and life in general… They can also talk about projects made outside of SAG-AFTRA, such as a UK project done under the British acting union Equity – although it should be pointed out, Equity UK did release a statement saying it “stands in unwavering solidarity” with its US counterpart. Performers just can’t be seen promoting past or present SAG-AFTRA work, which is most of the major US TV and films.

For example, actors from the shows ‘House Of The Dragon’ and ‘Industry’, which are filmed in the UK and Ireland under Equity, could technically talk about them at a Con… It’s really whether the actor themselves feel that is okay. It isn’t breaking the SAG-AFTRA rules and could be used as an opportunity to bring more attention to the strike itself. Or the performer may feel it crosses the line, and they would rather not take part. It’ll be a tricky line for the actors to walk. What you might see is actors still doing signing and photos, but not doing stage panels. Whilst that is possible for “general” Comic-Cons like SDCC in the USA, and MCM Comic Con or Wales Comic-Con in the UK, it’s potentially much trickier for specific fan events focused on specific shows, such as ‘Supernatural’ or ‘Star Trek’. You may find those events being moved or cancelled.

How long will the SAG-AFTRA and Writer’s Strikes last?

That is (quite literally) the million (or billion) dollar question. The SAG-AFTRA president, Fran Drescher, has stated “Right now, we discussed what it would cost if it went for six months, so we’re looking for the long haul. The gravity of a commitment like this is not lost on any of us. It’s major. But we also see that we have no future and no livelihood unless we take this action, unfortunately.” So don’t expect it to end anytime soon…

If there were some shows you’ve been putting off watching, now might be a good time to break out those box sets. We’re going to be in for a long and bumpy ride.

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