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Silenced Voices and Empty Stages: The Impact of the SAG-AFTRA Strike

The year is 1920, and Hollywood is a brand new industry which nobody is quite familiar with yet. There is a boost in American income that flows toward the entertainment industry due to heightened prosperity. Next thing society knew, “the popularity of “moving pictures” grew in the early part of the decade [and] “movie palaces,” capable of seating thousands, sprang up in major cities.” Because it was brand new, however, there was a lack of organization and regulation of the film industry; poor working conditions and a lack of job security surrounded most work in the 1920s. Thus, it was not long before SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, was created in “the first successful attempt to establish a motion picture actors’ union which was independent of the Hollywood studios and producers,” and advocated for better wages and fair working conditions in 1933. On top of this historic labor dispute that exists in the film industry, there is a new conflict concerning the use of AI and the potential harm it may cause to actors. SAG-AFTRA, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, is on strike currently in an attempt to alleviate these exploitative conditions that they have had to put up with. This organization revolves around maintaining the best labor and working conditions for actors, radio artists, writers, and more. As of July 14th, 2023, SAG-AFTRA has announced their new strike against AMPTP, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, in an effort to ensure actors today and in future generations continue to be treated fairly. 

The purpose of this strike is most immediately a reaction to an expiration of the Producers-SAG-AFTRA TV, Theatrical, and Streaming Contracts; however, there has also been an ongoing labor dispute with AMPTP that has created the tension leading to the new SAG-AFTRA strike. Though the strike quickly caught the attention of the public due to media exposure from its initial press release, that buzz is beginning to fade. SAG-AFTRA has stated that “Television/Theatrical/Streaming contracts have expired without a successor agreement,” threatening the jobs (hundreds/thousands) of actors, writers, directors, and technical production staff. Society’s interest in the movement has begun to diminish as no negotiations have been made and “the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) remains unwilling to offer a fair deal on the key issues that are essential to SAG-AFTRA members.” As of recently, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has finally “reached a breakthrough agreement after five straight days of negotiations — a tentative deal to end a strike that has halted most TV and film scriptwriting in the country.” Writers through WGA have reached a deal to end their strike, however, the strike through SAG-AFTRA continues on. SAG-AFTRA deserves the same results, to reach a new and fair negotiation with AMPTP to end the strike and give actors the fairness in the film industry that they deserve.

As SAG-AFTRA fights for better residuals – additional compensation from when actors’ works are re-run beyond their initial use – and protection against AI, a stalemate has come about in which no benefits have been negotiated and achieved. AI and Digital Re-creation pose new dangers as they take individuality and human likenesses from actors, threatening their jobs. Actors accuse the industry of attempting to strip them of individuality; for example, digital re-creation can cast dead actors back into films using CGI. The primary concern with AI centers around actors’ consent.

These actors can only go so long on strike before their financial stability becomes jeopardized. As A-list celebrities join in on the strike, people have begun to ask the seemingly simple question: “Why are actors and actresses going on strike when they already make millions of dollars?” Most of society is unaware that only a very small percentage of prominent actors and actresses make abundant amounts of money. Thus, the SAG-AFTRA strike is a relevant and necessary movement toward not only obtaining better conditions, but also fair wages for American workers in an industry that entertains billions.

One of the most immediate and significant issues at hand revolves around the fact that actors lack fair pay and residuals. As an actor, it is already drastically difficult to pay rent or mortgage as those in the film industry face “wages [that] are often low in jobs with inconsistent hours, and whose bases of operation are often in two of the most expensive cities in the country, New York City and Los Angeles.” When working in the film industry, there are a limited number of locations where these actors can reside in order to get jobs – and living in these areas means “you are very easily paying 50 percent of your income toward rent,” states Barbara S. Davis, the Chief Operating Officer of the Entertainment Community Fund. Residuals offer actors well-deserved credit and payment for their work. It is absolutely necessary and fair that SAG-AFTRA has gone on strike to obtain better residuals for their members, and inspire a fight toward fair working conditions globally for all actors and actresses. This decline in residuals is happening at the same time that there is an increased use of streaming services. This puts actors’ careers in grave danger. The income of these actors has dropped significantly, because “before the contract between actors and movie studios officially expired this week, SAG-AFTRA members had negotiated specific minimum rates for performers,” whereas now actors are not receiving full credit for their works. Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV Plus, and Disney Plus have failed to meet fair terms asked by SAG-AFTRA for protection against “using AI to recreate performers’ likeness in perpetuity, fees for late payments made by the studios, and increase in penalties for productions not allowing adequate meal breaks or rest periods while on set.” The worry surrounding AI re-creation is that actors live in fear that they will be put out of business by quickly, cheaply made digital replacements. It is overwhelmingly clear that without AMPTP offering better conditions for residuals, labor economics in the film industry have become a very harmful force. Actors are being exploited every time their work is used and they receive no compensation for it. Improved residuals are both necessary and deserved for actors and other members of the film industry to maintain healthy living and a stable lifestyle. 

As society modernizes and we are introduced to new technology in the 21st century, the creation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has created a large problem for actors/actresses and their careers. In “Writers strike: Why A.I. is such a hot-button issue in Hollywood’s labor battle with”, SAG-AFTRA Member Andrew Dalton states that “AI technology is the wild card in the contract breakdowns that have led actors unions to go on strike.” There lies a collective fear from actors that they will be replaced by AI as machines perform their jobs and AI-generated storylines begin to rise within the film industry – “Unknown actors fear they’ll be replaced together.” Although the development of technology is inevitable, the protection and policies concerning AI need to be negotiated. The strike’s tension significantly increased when AMPTP, furthering this fear, stated, “We want to be able to use someone’s images, likenesses, and performances to train new generative AI systems without consent or compensation.” This drastically harms and damages actors as they retain no protection of their identity while also receiving zero compensation, removing the social joys of filmmaking as actors’ images could be manipulated to create characters without human involvement. It is completely justifiable that SAG-AFTRA thus fights for protection against AI and will not settle for anything below complete reassurance that their identities and careers are not being manipulated. Actors deserve to still have their career and not have it taken by AI technology, as they’re simply “asking for better regulation on how it’s used in the entertainment industry so that they don’t get replaced entirely.”

As the public loses interest in this strike due to its lengthy nature, they have begun to question the strike in general. The Guardian released an article concerning the issue of actors’ pay, stating that “a recent study by Queen Mary University of London referred to surveys that showed only 2% of actors make a living from the profession.” It is easy to picture top celebrities when thinking of troubles in Hollywood, but “while our perception of actors is skewed to the rich, glamorous few that have become mega-stars, they make up a tiny fraction of the 160,000-member SAG-AFTRA union.” The SAG-AFTRA movement represents so many more who are not yet household names, but still an integral part of the industry–there are so many upcoming actors and extras in films or shows, without whom we could not make television. A-List celebrities like Drew Barrymore, who makes millions, have joined the SAG-AFTRA movement, but eventually crossed the picket line in order to continue making money again. If it has been this difficult for a celebrity that makes very wealthy sums, one can only imagine how difficult it is for other actors attempting to continue making money during this time. “The vast majority of the striking actors right now are middle-class performers living paycheck to paycheck and working multiple jobs.” Thus, the vision of SAG-AFTRA can be better understood and inspire action when the public is shown how the majority of those being affected by this strike do indeed need these better conditions, such as increased residuals and protection against AI, in order to have a stable and fair career. 

The film industry significantly affects the national economy as well. For starters, it is relevant to understand that “the strikes aren’t only having an impact in California. Outside of the state, the industry says it employs more than 1.7 million people and pays $158 billion in wages.” The financial effects of the SAG-AFTRA strike have spread far beyond Hollywood. Caleb Silver from NBC News has spoken on the estimated damage from the strike being as high as four billion dollars to the U.S. economy. Ultimately, the longer this strike lasts and the longer solutions are withheld, the more it will affect our economic health as Americans. There is an immense amount of difficulty surrounding this industry; Hollywood, New York, and celebrities are all too often presented to us through rose-colored lenses. We must take off these lenses and see the SAG-AFTRA strike realistically in order to promote the very serious and necessary negotiations needed to amend tensions and restore the film industry back to its equilibrium. Most people fail to realize that this strike goes beyond actors and writers – it involves technical production, makeup and hair stylists, costume designers, foley artists, and more. Big corporations who refuse to negotiate new contracts with actors reflect poorly on the reputation of the film industry. The SAG-AFTRA strike is not only very necessary, but stands to show that in the U.S. when groups are exploited or marginalized, there is still that spark to revolt against systems and fight for well-deserved rights. 

The glamor of cinema and film production from Hollywood to New York has played an immense and very significant role within society for both actors and audiences. Though we may not think too deeply about it, the film industry has influenced all of our lives in large and invisible ways. In our youth, we grow up knowing famous names, and maybe even hoping to be on the big screen one day. This is not reality. The glamorous and shiny life of Hollywood and the entertainment industry is an illusion dictated by big corporations and exploitative networks. The journey to becoming an actor is not easy – cinema, though viewed simply by many as a form of leisure, has much more depth than meets the eye. The percentage of actors who actually obtain the opportunity to call themselves “A-List” celebrities is overwhelmingly low, and the struggles that come with being part of the film industry include a constant fight for fair conditions. Without the fight of SAG-AFTRA, there would be no equality and benefits for all members of the film industry. SAG-AFTRA is the opportunity for actors and writers to have well-deserved rights and benefits within the US.

Featured Image Source: The New York Times

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