While we plebeians slog away at ordinary, humdrum jobs, it is easy to look at Hollywood actors walking star-studded picket lines and think: this privileged whine-fest has nothing to do with me. (Other than: will there be a dearth of good Netflix material to binge in the coming months?)
Most screen actors and screenwriters in the U.S. are now on strike. They want their pay to catch up with inflation, and they want compensation that reflects the sea-change that has come with new technology, including streaming and artificial intelligence.
This Hollywood issue might feel like a very foreign, elitist fight. Who cares if we’re watching CGI crowds instead of real, live, breathing extras? Who cares if a script was written by ChatGPT, as long as it’s good? (If that’s possible, which, at some point, it probably will be.) But these creatives are on the front lines of a fight many of us are going to face in our own jobs, if we haven’t already. The robots are coming for us, and the actors – true to form – are fighting back, along with the real villain: corporate greed.
Writers walked off the job in May. The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) joined them last week. Their fight is with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), representing studios and streaming services.
A key issue is the payment of royalties and residuals, once the bread-and-butter with which many actors and writers were able to make a living. Streaming has upended this model. Among the union’s proposals, which SAG-AFTRA shared this week, was compensation so that casts could “share in the success of high-performing shows” on streaming platforms. This, according to the union, was rejected.
And then there’s AI. SAG-AFTRA has asked for provisions to protect “human-created work” (oh, that term) and require informed consent and fair compensation when a “digital replica” is made of a performer or when their performance, voice or likeness is “substantially changed using AI.”
Chief union negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland says the studios want background performers to be scanned, receive one day’s pay, “and their companies should 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.” The AMPTP says their proposal only permits a company to use the digital replica of a background actor in the production for which that actor is employed. Either way, this Frankenissue will ultimately not be limited to crowd-scene extras. Canadian filmmaker Steve Kammerer calls them “the canary in the coal mine.”
It’s not just anonymous background performers who are being underpaid. Consider Orange Is the New Black co-star Kimiko Glenn, who played inmate Brook Soso. She posted a video showing her foreign royalty statement from dozens of episodes of the blockbuster Netflix series: $27.30. Actor Mark Proksch made more money from residuals from one season of guest appearances on The Office than he has in five seasons of starring in What We Do in the Shadows, The Wrap reported.
For every Kevin Bacon or Susan Sarandon walking the picket line, there’s a Kimiko Glenn, Mark Proksch, or actor perpetually cast as “Customer No. 2″ struggling to pay the bills. And then, there’s the rest of us.
“What happens here is important. Because what’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labour,” SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher said in a fiery speech last week. People of a certain age know Ms. Drescher as the eponymous star of the 1990s sitcom The Nanny, but last week, she delivered the monologue of her life.
“At some point, the jig is up. You cannot keep being dwindled and marginalized and disrespected and dishonoured. The entire business model has been changed by streaming, digital, AI. This is a moment of history that is a moment of truth. If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble. We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines.” She called performers “the essential contributors that make the machine run.” What would The Nanny have been without the nanny, Ms. Drescher?
The compensation discrepancy between working actors and high-paid studio executives feels grotesque. For instance, Netflix co-CEOs Ted Sarandos and Greg Peters made US$50-million and US$28-million last year, respectively. There is something wrong not just with this industry, but with society, when you’ve got executives making this kind of money, while many of the people working for them struggle to feed their families and make rent.
The system is broken. These Hollywood actors are looking after themselves, yes – and good for them – but they are also taking on the big fight. They’ve shut down the cameras to shine the lights on something that requires action. For us all.