Hollywood just can’t stop itself from burning.
Having barely escaped a years-long shutdown of cinemas, during which impatient gatekeepers decided to bet the industry’s future on the knowingly unworkable faux-fortunes of streaming, America’s film and television honchos have decided that the creative forces whom they rely upon should again bow down to leaders who have repeatedly proven that their only loyalties are to false promises and smash-and-grab economics.
Welcome to the Summer of the Strike, a season that has substituted content for discontent.
Late Wednesday night, talks broke down between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents Hollywood studios and streamers, and the 160,000-plus members of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). With the union’s three-year TV and theatrical contract having expired at midnight – and the two sides reportedly miles apart on issues ranging from streaming residuals to the use of artificial intelligence – U.S. film and television productions not already affected by the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike are now set to completely shut down.
Actors, ranging from the highest-paid stars to armies of working-class stiffs, will no longer be able to step onto a film or television set, take part in any press junkets or film premieres, or really promote any of their projects, even if they are already completed productions.
The shutdown – the first time that both writers and actors have been on strike at the same time in more than 60 years – will deliver huge ripple effects across the world, including Canada. For instance: if the SAG-AFTRA strike runs as long as the WGA’s – which is now in its second gruelling month – this September’s Toronto International Film Festival will effectively be star-less, if studios don’t decide to pull their titles from release altogether. (Even if the strike is resolved by mid-August, it will still likely cause massive travel and talent-scheduling complications for TIFF.)
So: who is to blame? It is easy to lack sympathy for superstars such as Tom Cruise or Margot Robbie – to name two stars who just raced around the globe promoting their respective summer movies before the strike deadline hit – but the issues at play here are larger than any one celebrity.
As Matt Damon pointed out this week, while racing ahead of his own strike clock to market his new thriller Oppenheimer, SAG-AFTRA is fighting for issues including base pay and residuals – the latter being money that traditionally arrives for a performer as their project continues to earn revenue through secondary routes such as television syndication. Many streamers, however, keep their content confined to their own services instead of licensing them out to other broadcasters, preventing or severely diminishing residual payouts. ”There’s money being made,” Damon said, “and it needs to be allocated in a way that takes care of people who are on the margins.”
This is a battle for the very future of creativity-based labour in the new global entertainment landscape. It is about getting paid your fair share for work that generates billions for shareholders and the executives who answer to them.
Over the past half-decade, the Hollywood ecosystem has been undergoing a tectonic shift in order to please Wall Street, “disruption” being the key word of the era.
That traditional theatrical model that has been working so well for so many decades? That’s been thrown out the window in order to juice subscription numbers for nascent streaming services that were once believed to be the future of content delivery, but now have been all but proven to be economic mirages. The same situation is happening with the way that television series are now produced, with shorter episode orders that require fewer writers and actors, and remain walled off within one company’s streaming garden.
“Studios and streamers have implemented massive unilateral changes in our industry’s business model, while at the same time insisting on keeping our contracts frozen in amber,” Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator, said in a statement Wednesday.
Meanwhile, data on just how well movies and shows are performing in the new digital realm is essentially kept under lock and key, so secret that not even the stars or directors of productions often know how many people are watching what they created, and thus how well their success should be financially rewarded.
And then there’s the threat of AI, which many fear will further erode their livelihood.
In true Hollywood fashion, though, the AMPTP has cast easily identifiable heroes and villains for its own drama.
Unless you were running a Fortune 500 company, who would you side with? Would it be someone like Disney CEO Bob Iger, who on Thursday – the day after it was revealed that his contract had been renewed and his annual target bonus raised from $1-million to $5-million – said that SAG-AFTRA is not being “realistic” and that any labour action will “have a very, very damaging effect on the whole business”?
Or maybe your sympathies lie with Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav, who decided in the midst of the labour turmoil to jet off to boutique investment bank Allen & Co.’s annual “summer camp for billionaires” retreat in Sun Valley, Idaho?
Ultimately, it comes down to whether you appreciate watching movies and series made by artists who are respected and fairly compensated for their work – or whether you would rather studios and streamers, who through a series of miscalculations and misadventures landed themselves in hot water in the first place, continue their quest to boost their own bottom lines.
I will choose the storytellers, rather than the story-sellers.