Long gone are the days of Blockbuster and in came the era of Netflix and Hulu. As these streaming giants quickly began dominating how we consume media, questions of how employees of these entertainment projects would be compensated arose. As a result, the Screen Actors Guild’s American Federation of Television and Radio Artists division — better known as the SAG-AFTRA actors’ union — has been on strike as executives renegotiate their contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which expired on June 30. For those in the industry or with hopes of joining the industry, this is monumental. Seeing the process happen in real time makes it glaringly obvious that major corporations don’t see the value in the talent that brings them money and are consequently unwilling to compensate them properly.
In the previous model, where DVDs and downloads were prominent, actors and writers would receive payments in what were known as residuals. The numbers would be calculated depending on how much time the actor spent on set and how many downloads and DVDs were sold. Eventually, when networks began airing movies, a new layer was added to the formula. The problem arose when streaming services were thrown into the mix because they offered unlimited views of movies and shows on a subscription basis. The calculations became more complicated, essentially wiping out the residual checks.
For many in the entertainment industry, those checks were essential parts of their livelihood that helped them meet their basic needs. Often, we imagine movie stars living in big houses and walking red carpets every other weekend. However, the reality is that those A-listers are the exception among many. Most actors and writers, especially those supporting the strike, are background extras or small roles. Consequently, the residual checks are what make them a living until they finally get their breakout role. Unfortunately, the way that streaming services have continued to pocket their profit while undermining the creatives involved has brought the starving artists trope a little too close to reality — being a small-time actor is no longer sustainable.
For avid film enthusiasts and industry professionals alike, the strike means that their passions are being temporarily shut down. It has been interesting to see press tours such as those for “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” end due to the strike. From the outside, it seems like the whole situation is just prolonging your anticipated releases, but when you dig deeper, it is easy to realize how much weight this strike holds. Especially since it’s happening simultaneously to the Writers Guild of America’s strike over similar streaming-era wage concerns, an entire industry seems to be coming together to fight for what is right, which is inspiring to see.
As someone who has been involved in various writing projects, from summer work to writing for The Mercury, I cannot stress the importance of fair compensation enough. It is often frustrating and exhausting to produce work, and I cannot imagine doing that full time in addition to a lack of compensation. The streaming services that are currently pushing back on the requests of actors and writers make me question the morality of such successful corporations. With the amount of revenue they are constantly raking in and the constant increases in subscription prices, it seems almost cruel to deny paychecks to artists. Though being far removed from the industry may make it seem like this strike is simply disruptive, looking deeper makes me realize that it is exactly the point. These workers have pushed so hard for compensation changes, but no one seemed to listen. Stopping their work entirely was the only way to show how much their work is valued. No AI can replace the emotions a writer imbues into the script or that the actor enhances their role with. Acting and writing may not be a highly demanded career such as doctors or engineers, but that does not mean that the work does not carry weight. Their work is important and valuable — art is an integral part of our society, and always has been. Everyone deserves to be able to meet their basic needs through their chosen career path, but the current state of residual checks denies that right to millions.
Furthermore, this strike brings up the larger idea of what computerization and automation means for different industries. Amongst the talks of negotiations, many have brought up the topic of replacing writers with advanced AI technology. This seems like a dumpster fire waiting to happen. Good movies and series exist when the material connects deeply with the audience, whether that connection be a moment of laughter or one of heartfelt understanding. Those moments are derived from experiences of the writers that sit in rooms and passionately craft stories for audiences to consume. Without that genuine emotion behind each word, it simply seems that the quality of entertainment will inevitably deteriorate. As much as I think interrogating ChatGPT is hilarious, I do not want it to write my next favorite romantic comedy for I fear that I will end up watching a bad parody of “Wall-E” with two robots in love. As a viewer, I want to see the people who make my favorite shows compensated and as a writer I want to see those who I look up to continue to carve paths and make strides.
As exciting and interesting as it is to feel like I am living through history, it is equally as terrifying to think of the possibility of failed negotiations. With Hollywood on hold and streaming services hesitant to comply with SAG-AFTRA requests, it seems that the situation is at a standstill until someone finally gives. I do not know how long the negotiations might take or what they will hold for the future of entertainment, but I do know that no amount of grief over my anticipated releases being pushed back will measure up to the amount of empathy I feel for the members of the union fighting for livable wages.