Keep watching: Auburn entertainment experts discuss WGA, SAG-AFTRA strikes
The Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) and Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strikes continue, exceeding 100 days in early August. As the current strikes in Hollywood approach a record length, Assistant Professor of Media Studies Eleanor Patterson and Assistant Professors of Theatre Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha and Andrew Schwartz discuss the historic significance of the joint writers-actors work stoppage and how technology lies at the center of the dispute.
Listen to the full conversation on "The Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know" podcast:
What’s happening in Hollywood and what do we need to know about these strikes?
Patterson: This strike is pretty historic. You officially have two separate strikes going on that are in solidarity, but this is a historic moment in Hollywood and New York and in the entertainment business more broadly because I don't think there's been a strike like this in over 60 years.
Every major strike that the Writer's Guild has done has always been about residuals, often in the face of new technology. Believe it or not, home video was a new technology in the '80s, but they didn't get what they wanted then. The major conglomerates at the time, the big studios, Universal, Warner Brothers, Disney, they sort of said that home video is a new technology and we're experimenting, and so we can't actually afford to give you residuals from these sales yet because we don't know what's going to happen. If that sounds familiar, that's because that's what the tech companies are saying right now. That profit is unknown and negligible at this point because streaming is not yet as lucrative in many aspects of the industry.
It's not just technology as a blanket force, it's the way that these technology companies are changing how media has made, the conditions through which it's made and how it's distributed and how its revenue models work. That has created a new situation that writers and actors find themselves in, and they have a lot of concerns about artificial intelligence, but also about streaming in general.
What is the actors' view of what's happening right now? What's on the line in Hollywood?
Schwartz: It used to be studio heads that ran these studios, and they were usually movie people that had worked up through and became the head of studios, and now they are seen as CEOs of major mega-mergers. They're kind of devaluing the work and the actors start to feel like just ones and zeros as opposed to necessary storytellers and artists.
Murtadha: The idea is spending the billions of dollars or millions of dollars on a television show, for example, and then trying to squeeze out of the people who are making it, the artisans who are pulling it together, trying to cut that so that you can take home the billions. You're pretty much destroying the industry. You can't just cut the human beings, the actors out of it or the writers out of it because you think that's cutting the bottom line.
Schwartz: Something like only 13% of union members qualify for the SAG-AFTRA health insurance. They're earning less than $25,000 a year annually. These are working class people, and I think a lot of people think of SAG-AFTRA and they think of these big stars, but there's a lot of actors that are really just struggling to get food on the table, and it's just getting worse as more and more people are actually watching the content. It is a revenue stream there. Despite the fact that there are record level profits being made by these large companies, they are not sharing it anywhere near fairly with the people that create the content.
How does artificial intelligence play a role in these strikes?
Murtadha: It’s important to look at how technology is continuing to shape the industry and helping the industry evolve. The only thing with that is that you can't take the ideas of humanity or human empathy out of the equation. AI comes in, or AI has been being developed since what the '50s, '60s, what have you. But that doesn't negate us from the equation. I think the healthy and responsible use of AI would be, for example, if it can help me to make a quick outline based on the ideas that I feed it. That's been happening for more than a decade. Now I've got to go back to the outline and work on it. You can't take that human quotient out of it because it devalues the quality of it. It's not just about the quantity. When we come to residuals, you can't just cut the human beings, the actors out of it, or the writers out of it, because you think that's cutting the bottom line. If you want a sustainable business model, then it's important for you to look at the artist as necessary.
Will anyone notice a difference in what they're seeing because of these strikes?
Schwartz: A lot of shows have just wrapped or are in post-production right now. I don't think people will really see a difference in the kind of day-to-day, at least not for a few months. But then after that, it could be a very quick and significant difference. There are some, I think A24 is an example of a company that has been granted the right to continue to produce because they have honored all of the agreements that SAG-AFTRA put forward. Even a small company can make all of this possible and can honor these requests. If A24 can do it, why can't HBO Max do it? I suspect that in about six months, if we don't come to a resolution soon, viewers and people at home will start to notice a significant difference in the quality of what they're seeing.
What do we know about potential resolutions?
Patterson: Everything I'm seeing is that the union is very committed to fighting for their goals. Solidarity between unions and unity within unions bode well. I do think that the Producer's Guild will have to make concessions. They have been reluctant. They have not even come to the table for about a hundred days. This strike is going on very long, but I think there's a lot to lose on the part of the actors and the writers. There's a lot of concern about AI, and I think they are also committed to the strike. There are loans and grants and financial assistance that are available to members of these guilds that I think the unions have purposely tried to create so that people don't want to cross the picket line, so that people can stay strong.
About the experts:
Eleanor Patterson is an assistant professor of media studies who studies everything from the history of television and film, media industry and labor to cultural studies, audience/fan studies and gender and sexuality. She has been featured on NPR and other national media outlets numerous times, and her father was a film editor in Hollywood for many years.
Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha is an assistant professor in Theatre & Dance. Murtadha is an actor and producer known for “J.A.W.,” “In the Wind” and “The Unit.” He recently appeared on “Days of Our Lives” and holds an MFA from the University of California, San Diego.
Andrew Schwartz is an assistant professor of theatre who has ample experience as a director and worker in theaters ranging from Broadway and Off Broadway to The L.A. Shakespeare Festival and the Aegean Festival in Athens, Greece. A member of Actor’s Equity Association, Schwartz has directed everything from “The Crucible” and “Little Shop of Horrors” to “Twelfth Night” and “Our Town.”