Let the unpacking process begin.
After a record-long work stoppage, SAG-AFTRA and its largest employers have made peace. Hollywood’s television and film production machines are about to be dusted off after a more than six-month break that has taxed every sector of the entertainment economy, from union members to local corporations to the largest media conglomerates.
So what have we learned after the long march of a hot, working summer turned into an angry, exhausting fall? In fact, we’ve learned a lot.
The industry’s problems with overproduction and the disconnect between capital expenditures and audience revenue were evident on the SAG-AFTRA and WGA picket lines. Actor after actor who walked the picket lines in Los Angeles and New York came back to it diverse The experiences of nickel-and-diming, evading and sometimes outright cheating while working in the kind of day job, recurring work and guest star work that had previously allowed experienced, well-connected actors to earn a solid living in film and television work, without achieving marquee name status. This year, actors, holding picket signs with long lists of credits, described instances of business affairs executives begging for their fees and relying on SAG-AFTRA staff to help enforce their contractual rights. The same was true when we talked to regular WGA members, at all experience levels. Shorter episode orders, fewer seasons per series, and a large income gap between above-the-line and below-the-line players made Peak TV an obstacle course for working in Hollywood.
These were human stories of how studio, network and streaming executives were trying to manage an unprecedented tsunami of original content production. The pressure on actors and writers on workdays has been particularly upsetting for veterans because it comes after years of major-label talent earning record salaries for limiting TV series and streaming movies. Now, the industry will get back to work in a more sedate market for content spending. A large number of projects that were greenlit before the WGA strike began on May 2 have already been canceled by broadcast companies and other outlets. And the shaking isn’t over yet.
Another important outcome of the contract cycle was to ignite dialogue about the legal and ethical lines around generative AI techniques. Instead of talking about the technology in amorphous terms, the anger and rhetoric unleashed by the strikes has forced Hollywood into a detailed discussion of how AI will impact the employment picture of creatives who work in copyright-based industries. The details of SAG-AFTRA’s AI terminology will no doubt be studied as guideposts in the sea of litigation and public policy making now underway in the United States and around the world.
But the most important thing is that the process of negotiating employment contracts in Hollywood needs to be dismantled and rebuilt to suit the modern era. The rituals and brinkmanship of when negotiations start, when priorities are narrowed, how economic terms are calculated and even the nomenclature around “last, best, final” offers need to be rethought, outside of the pressure-cooker environment of contract talks. Tight deadline.
The WGA ceased operations for 148 days before reaching an agreement. SAG-AFTRA was out of work for 118 days, a union record for a television and film strike that included traditional television and film production (in 2000, the then-separate union SAG and AFTRA launched a joint six-month strike against commercial producers). It was the result of untenable industry conditions that accelerated in 2015 and reached a boiling point in 2022 as the significant downturn in content spending began.
Labor and management should commit to appointing something like a bipartisan industry commission to do some real study into a better process that can avoid another six-month shutdown that blows a hole in Hollywood’s production pipeline. (We featured this case in a cover story a few weeks ago, ICYMI.)
But before that can happen, business leaders’ focus must shift to IATSE. The union’s main contract, which covers the crew, tech workers and craftsmen who contribute vitally to every film and TV show, is set to expire on July 31.
IATSE, as the industry recalls, came closer to success during the 2021 round of contract negotiations than it had in decades. Hollywood’s essential workers have also endured the sacrifice of a protracted labor struggle. The widespread pain caused by production shutdowns only reinforces how the Hollywood business is woven by many hands. It is time to leverage the many hard-learned lessons and new contract precedents set this year to find a fallback path for IATSE and the rest of the business to bring back this year’s dysfunction.
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