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SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild Have Another Chance to Change Hollywood for the Better

The last time the two unions struck together, they overhauled the industry. And they can do it again.
  • SAG-AFTRA and WGA members on strike (Courtesy Zoë Hall/Instagram)
    SAG-AFTRA and WGA members on strike (Courtesy Zoë Hall/Instagram)

    As has been anticipated for weeks, the vast majority of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) membership went on strike at midnight on July 14, 2023, just over 24 hours after the Emmy nominations. The approximately 160,000-member body joins the thousands already on the picket line from the Writers Guild of America (WGA), with both unions fighting for a fair deal in their new contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

    It has been decades since the last time more than just the commercial actor's arm of SAG-AFTRA struck and a full 63 years since SAG and the WGA stood together as one against the production studios. The last time the two unions struck together, they changed the industry for the better. Now they have a chance to do that again.

    There are few alive today who remember when Hollywood faced a double strike in the middle of the last century or the crisis that led to it. But, in a parallel to the current situation, the industry had just undergone a decade and a half of radical change. In 1948, the Supreme Court found against the studios in the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. In what became known as “The Paramount Decree,” the original Hollywood setup of vertically integrated companies was declared a monopoly and broken up. Studios that once both made the films and the theaters that screened them (and everything in between, including writers and actors) were forced to spin off their theaters, while actors were able for the first time to work for whichever studio wanted them.

    However, the subsequent unraveling of the “studio system” soon left actors without benefits, retirement, or security. Worse, television had arrived, and suddenly films were no longer exclusively on the big screen. Actors and writers were watching their work broadcast worldwide, lining the pockets of studios, while they made nothing. Television reruns played endlessly, with all the revenue from advertising going to the studio executives while those who worked so hard to make them went broke.

    The double strike of 1960 didn’t just drive the studios to the table to reach a landmark deal to fix those issues. It created the industry as we know it today. Everything, from the residuals that actors live on to how the unions structure benefits, was hammered out that year. The deal was so forward-thinking that when cable television arrived in the late 1970s, the old rules only needed minor modifications to include the expanding channel lineup. It wasn’t until the next big jump in technology, home video, that the unions began to have to push for new rules, and even then, those labor actions never came to the point where two guilds struck together.

    This should all sound familiar: The rise of Peak TV in the 2010s served to mask an ugly reality behind the scenes. Netflix came in determined to be a disrupter in the entertainment space. While the company has thus far failed in its public aims of ending the tyranny of weekly released television or the practice of canceling/memory-holing shows for not being popular enough, it was far too successful in destroying the profit model that had kept the majority of Hollywood solvent for half a century. (That the Paramount Decrees were rolled back in the middle of this, as companies reformed new vertically integrated monopolies, was merely the ironic icing on the cake.)

    One has only to look at the demands made by the actors and writers to see how much the behind-the-scenes residual system that kept those who worked in the industry financially stable has been decimated. Moreover, the refusal by companies like Netflix and Amazon to admit how many (or how few) people tune into their bloated budget follies for fear of shareholders dropping them like hot potatoes means that the artists who make the shows have no recourse to prove how much they should or shouldn’t make.

    And that’s before one considers the looming threat of artificial intelligence. Writers from all industries are facing a crisis of machine writing as it is. (If an AI-generated listicle gets a thousand bot clicks, did it really go viral?) Hollywood is already de-aging elderly actors rather than attempting to cast real ones as younger versions of the character. Disney is reportedly asking background actors to submit to body scans to be used in perpetuity for no pay. Acting and writing are two of the oldest professions known to man; how long until a few greedy white men slaughter the goose for the eggs they think are inside? And how long until it’s not just actors and writers being replaced?

    SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher alluded to as much in her barn burner of a speech announcing the strike. Both the IATSE and the Teamsters Local 399 unions are set to renegotiate their contracts in 2024, so whatever gets decided here will be what they have to work with. Despite the DGA taking small gains to look like the adults in the room, the writers and actors have a real chance to remake the industry to match the way streaming has reformatted how viewers consume it.

    The actors recognize this moment is theirs for the taking. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter on the morning Emmy nominations were announced, multiple actors cited this as a chance to lift each other up and to save the industry for those who are just now entering it or aspire to joint. As actor Anthony Carrigan told THR, “I’m really hopeful that the actors and the writers will be able to reach deals that make them feel like we’re being protected, that we’re being compensated and that we’re human beings — real, live human beings that create this art are being valued. Because there’s nothing like the real thing.”

    By working together, the actors and writers guilds can create something forward-thinking, a model that can be followed to ensure that the humans behind every discipline in art are respected and recognized as irreplaceable by robotic imitations. As one of the last shows to be a hit on linear basic cable said, “All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again.” When creatives collaborate, new ideas spring forth, and some of the most famous creators in the industry are about to stand together and demand that mega-corporations and monopolies figure out how to treat those they depend on like human beings. This is a chance to lay the groundwork for a fairer, better, and brighter 21st century for entertainment and artists around the world.

    Ani Bundel is an entertainment writer covering everything from celebrities to movies to peak TV when she's not tweeting or Instagramming photos of her very fuzzy cats. Her other regular bylines can be found at PBS/WETA's Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by anglophiles for anglophiles, CNN Opinions, and MSNBC Daily. 

    TOPICS: SAG-AFTRA, Strike, Writers Guild of America