Everything You Need To Know About the Hollywood Strike and How it Affects What You Watch
SAG-AFTRA actors and Writers Guild of America (WGA) writers walk the picket line in front of Paramount Studios in Los Angeles July 17, 2023. (OSV News photo/Mike Blake, Reuters)
Hollywood has gone on strike. Two of the biggest labor unions in entertainment joined forces last week to stand up against what they decry as unfair treatment by a multi-company conglomerate who holds the purse strings of their industry. The last time there was a dual strike in Hollywood was 1960, led then by multi-time SAG-AFTRA President and eventual President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. It’s extremely rare for a strike of this scale to happen, but the stakes couldn’t be any bigger. This has the potential to be a game-changer for Hollywood, but for outsiders looking in, it’s definitely a lot to unpack.
Here’s what’s going on with the strike, and how you and your family’s viewing habits will be affected by it.
Who is on strike?
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) began their strike in May, and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) joined them in mid-July.
The WGA represents approximately 20,000 writers working in TV, film, radio, and forms of new media. On-screen actors, stunt performers, voice-over actors, recording artists, dancers, radio personalities, and even some internet influencers fall under the SAG-AFTRA umbrella, among other media professionals that brings their number to around 160,000 union members.
This combined front negotiates with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a trade association of around 350 companies, comprised of movie studios like Paramount or Universal; TV networks like ABC, FOX, and NBC; and private production companies, like Disney, Netflix, Warner Bros. Discovery, Apple, and others.
Why are they striking?
There are a few key reasons these unions are on strike, sharing similar demands. Both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are seeking regulations on how Artificial Intelligence (AI) affects their respective industries. Writers are concerned over studios using AI tools to craft scripts instead of hiring actual humans, and the performers are worried over the potential use of AI to replace people with digital likenesses. While AI is currently incapable of producing results like that, executives intend to train it for this very purpose.
If this sounds like over-reacting, a proposal was made, which suggested digitally scanning background performers, and paying them for one day’s work, while signing away their rights to be used again and again without additional compensation. This means a studio can reuse one person in perpetuity however they please, paying the smallest amount possible while also eliminating the need for other people to fill these jobs later. This already happens in video games with motion-capture performers, so it’s not farfetched to see this expand into TV and movies. AI was also recently used in The Flash to use the likenesses of actors who played DC characters without their permission or reimbursement, and has been a contentious topic on social media lately.
The unions are also seeking an improved living wage and better pay structure regarding residuals, in part thanks to the rise of streaming services. Platforms like Netflix and Disney+ don’t use the same metrics as network or cable television to determine what’s being watched, nor do they share that info in detail, and union members are suffering from that lack of transparency.
Additional points include guaranteeing a minimum number of writers in the writer’s rooms, reimbursement for self-taped auditions and loopholes in what qualifies as an audition, pension benefits, and other aspects which affect their livelihoods.
Why does any of this matter?
Strikes don’t just come around haphazardly. They are the last resort of a lengthy negotiation process which ultimately couldn’t reach a conclusion. Some of the issues presented by the unions have been problems for a while. Headlines were made months ago when many major networks and streaming platforms began pulling content from their own platforms in order to not pay residuals, including a ton of animated kids programs on Max.
This strike isn’t about the A-listers, whose agents can negotiate far better rates than the unions could dream to offer. This is about the remaining 99% who contribute to the entertainment industry and struggle to survive. Going from a Hollywood set to waitering in a restaurant is a classic trope, but there’s truth to the number of day-players and writers who require a second job to make ends meet. With the current model, many of these union members don’t even earn enough from their gigs to qualify for health benefits.
The Hollywood Strike is a small part of a bigger picture in America. Making a livable wage shouldn’t be such a contentious topic, but here we are with another group fighting for this right.
What does that mean for movies & TV?
Strikes in the entertainment industry have a trickle-down effect that begin as an inconvenient drip, but quickly turn into a flood. What those on strike can and can’t do is a long and nuanced list, but here’s the TLDR version.
While major films like Barbie, Elemental, Oppenheimer, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and a few others made it into theaters just under the wire, others in production will shutter their doors until a resolution is reached. This list includes Beetlejuice 2, Wicked, Deadpool 3, the next Avatar films, and dozens more.
Promotional activity is also affected by these strikes, meaning red-carpet premieres for Disney’s Haunted Mansion or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem will be missing their stars. Comic-Con appearances like “San Diego Comic Con 2023” are murky waters, in that union members are not allowed to promote current projects they’ve participated in. The highly anticipated Ahsoka Tano show on Disney+ debuts in August, but there won’t be any interviews with Rosario Dawson talking about it until the strike ends. Many panels and signings have already been cancelled at SDCC this year already. If it falls under the category of a personal appearance not tied to a specific work, this seems open to interpretation, as well as the comfort of the performer.
The effects of this massive strike won’t be truly felt until early 2024, when studios run out of new content. Even after a resolution is agreed upon, it could be another six to twelve months before new shows and movies are ready for the public to watch. Hollywood strikes in the past resulted in a glut of reality TV shows, since those involved on-screen are not professional actors, or union members. Content produced overseas by foreign creators is also unaffected by this, so programming from other parts of the world may suddenly start popping up on television down the line.
How does this affect what my kids watch?
Live action shows will go dark until an agreement is reached, but it goes well beyond that.
According to the official SAG-AFTRA Strike Notice and Order, voice acting and puppeteering are included in services withheld, as well as motion capture work. This adds up to shows like Sesame Street, The Muppets, and anything with puppets disappearing for a while, as well as upcoming animated projects with union members performing in them. The hybrid Lion King film would be on hold, since this falls into the mo-cap category.
Animation itself is a different story. The Animation Guild is independent of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, and can continue operating, so long as they are not performing duties on a project related to the striking unions. Animators are encouraged not to cross picket lines, but the workflow of animation is not prohibited within their own group.
Most animated works record their actors well in advance, so there shouldn’t be too many dips in the cartoon pipeline. Shows like Phineas and Ferb, or movies like Frozen 3 and Toy Story 5 won’t stop (especially since Pixar isn’t unionized at all), with the only exception being their voice talent. This strikes resolution should certainly draw eyes from TAG members, who renegotiate their own agreement in 2024.
Bluey, Peppa Pig, and other series made by non-American companies won’t see any interruptions, although the Heeler family is taking a well-deserved break on their own accord.
What can me and my family do while the strike continues?
The lack of new content shouldn’t be noticeable until many months from now, but it never hurts to get ahead of the situation by preparing some alternative means of entertainment.
Although streaming platforms are part of the issues being negotiated by the unions, they offer plenty of options. Neither union has asked their members to pull the plug on streaming services, but some have already done that on their own accord in solidarity.
Physical media will never go away, so break out the DVDs and Blu-Rays, or go retro with VHS tapes. Visit the local library to check out some books, or enjoy the live entertainment options many of these institutions offer. Now is also the perfect time to start kids down the path of comics, with plenty of titles for all ages easily accessible in book stores or online, or revisit some more mature classics for yourself.
Since there are some big hurdles to work through, there’s no telling when the strike will end. The AMPTP has not resumed negotiations with the WGA since their strike began in May, and are likely to make both unions sweat it out until their strike funds start to deplete. The magnitude of these events remains to be seen, but rest assured, the outcome will change the way entertainment is made in America for decades to come.