Amidst the sea of black and yellow, you can feel a passion and an intensity surrounding the group. The sense of purpose is strong. If you get close, and you see some faces, you may say, “Hey, didn’t I see you in that Strangler film?” or, “Weren’t you in the horror series on Amazon?” Yup, you probably did. Who is this gaggle of folks dressed in bumblebee colors, donning #Unionstrong signs and emitting a very strong sense of righteous indignation?
These are the actors of SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), the union for professional American actors. The ones I picketed with in Providence on July 25 were mainly New England-based SAG members, some of our NY brethren, too. Stunt folks as well as non-union actors, cinematographers, directors, costumers, cameramen, set dressers, and hair stylists/makeup people also came to show support.
A lot has changed in entertainment over recent years – namely the creation of streaming behemoths such as Netflix, Apple, Disney+, etc., and the advent of AI.
Since 1982, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) has been the trade association responsible for negotiating virtually all industry-wide guild and union contracts, including those with American Federation of Musicians (AFM); Directors Guild of America (DGA); International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE); International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW); Laborers Local 724; SAG-AFTRA; Teamsters, Local #399; and, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) among others. The AMPTP, the entertainment industry’s official collective bargaining representative, negotiates 58 industry-wide collective bargaining agreements on behalf of hundreds of motion picture and television producers. The actors, about 160,000 of ’em, went on strike at noon on July 14 against the AMPTP after talks with major studios and streaming services failed. This comes right on the heels of the writer’s strike – 11,000 members of the WGA have been on strike since May 2, and have already halted production of most movies and scripted TV programs. A writers and actors strike running concurrently is historic, and has only happened once before – 63 years ago.
While on strike, actors showing solidarity with the union won’t be able to film any struck projects, attend premiers, festivals, or award shows, (all of which are considered forms of publicity), audition, or promote projects that are under the AMPTP umbrella. Some films and/or series have been given a waiver to continue, either because they have already agreed to the terms of the contract when the strike is done, or they are shooting in a location where the local union laws permit them to do so, as in HBO’s House of the Dragon, which is filmed in the UK. (This last development is causing some dissension among actors, but that’s another story.)
“So – what is this actors strike about?” asks a gentleman driving by City Hall last Tuesday. “Millionaires striking for MORE money?” Nope, not even close. We wish it was that problem. Roughly 87% of SAG-AFTRA members earn less than $26,000 a year from acting, according to figures widely cited by members, making them ineligible for health coverage through the union. Nationally, actors’ median pay last year was nearly $18 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – meaning half of all actors earn less, and half earn more. In California, average hourly pay for actors is $27.73, while in New York, it’s $63.39.
Actors are asking studios for two main points: higher pay, and to tighten regulation on the use of artificial intelligence, or AI, in creative projects. Actors want an 11% raise to baseline rates this year and an 8% raise over the following two years – to make up for the heavy inflation of the last two years, according to a document shared by SAG-AFTRA.
The studios have countered with an offer of 5% this year and 7.5% in the next two years. Actors also want to make up for what the union has called an erosion in residuals payments — pay that performers receive when a movie or TV episode they appear in re-airs, which in previous decades has supplied steady incomes to actors who aren’t big stars. Streaming services have upended those payments, endangering what was once a stable career. Streaming services don’t pay actors each time an episode of a show or a movie they appear in is viewed. Instead, performers are paid a smaller amount to have shows or movies available on the platform. Consequently, actors earn far less for streaming work, even when starring in prominent roles on hit series.
Our current contract devalues our members and affects our ability to make ends meet in an already tough, uncertain, and highly competitive industry.
Brandee Evans, who appeared on 17 episodes of the Starz series P-Valley, recently shared a TikTok video showing three residuals checks that together totaled $8.67. Actor Mark Proksch recently told TheWrap, that he makes more in residuals from his guest-star role in 19 episodes of “The Office,” which ended in 2013, than he does after four seasons as a leading cast member of FX’s “What We Do In the Shadows.” Mandy Moore, who starred in the hit NBC show “This Is Us,” said she’s received streaming residual checks as low as a penny.
We aren’t the big stars – we are the rank and file: The guest stars, the co-stars, the supporting actors who make it possible for the leads and main stars to do their fine work. The name actors who make the millions are worth their paychecks – they are usually very talented people and have been in the trenches for years before they hit the big time. But even these big names are out on the picket lines with us. The Times Square rally was a regular celebrity parade with a lot of impassioned voices.
Above all though, is the astounding issue with AI – it’s where we, both SAG-AFTRA and WGA, stand so far apart from the studio heads. The AMPTP wants to be able to scan a person and use their image and their voice in perpetuity. This means an actor can shoot a scene, then a change in dialogue or the scene itself can be totally changed without a) the actor’s knowledge, b) their consent, or c) payment. It also means all background actors would be scanned and used in perpetuity, essentially canceling them from any other jobs. For writers, this means feeding some guidelines into a computer, story elements and situations, and letting AI create a screenplay, for anything – TV, films or series pilots/episodes, etc.
There’s a lot I do not know, but I DO know that art, any art, is a reflection of what and who we are in this world. Our pain, joy, experience, and the rich history we carry has made us the keepers of the hearts that we either wear on our sleeves or hide deep in our souls. Story is released on a cathartic journey that only the loneliest writer or actor knows, whether it is comedy or drama. In the creative sense, AI is a thief – seeing and learning – quite quickly what has been written already.
This is the Summer of Strikes – a thrilling and very unsettling time, a battle for the ages. And I hope with all my heart that data consumption and machine learning is used for those very important things like science, health, agriculture, Earth preservation, etc. but ultimately, it is our hearts that curate when and how we create stories from our own personal journeys.