No Endgame

Actors join the Hollywood picket lines as the studio heads twirl their mustaches

The Hollywood writers’ strike just got hotter, in three different ways.

First, the actual, like, heat heat. After a bizarrely cool June, record-high summer temperatures are suddenly hitting Los Angeles, turning the screws on a labor action that depends on “walking around outside.” That plus the now more than 75 days without a contract or even offer of negotiations from the AMPTP (the studio-streamer consortium) has thinned out the picket lines. It wasn’t reasonable to expect the party to last two+ months, but nowadays when I’ve been out on the line it’s been a bit more of a plug-in-the-airpods-and-grind affair.

Fortunately, this thermal uptick comes just as an entirely welcome source of hotness also joins the strike: SAG-AFTRA, the actors, all the A-to-Z-list beautiful people who would have never spoken to us scrivening trolls in high school – but who are now our labor BFFs.

All this is happening because, just as with the WGA, the studios underwent weeks of negotiations with the actors’ guild, only to final-offer them tinkerings that don’t address either guild’s foundational issues.

I never thought I’d say this, but to quote Fran Drescher (president of SAG-AFTRA, announcing her union’s strike): “We’re not going to keep doing incremental change on a contract that no longer honors what is happening right now with this business model that was foisted upon us. What are we doing? Moving furniture around on the Titanic?”

If I may “Fran-splain” a little, essentially, the decades-old studio model paid actors and writers their fees, but then also gave them a percentage of any properties (“residuals”) that they sold or licensed again–essentially, when our work made them more money, we shared in a little of the profit. Residuals are critical to surviving in a volatile, project-to-project, field like entertainment, because they enable actors and writers to be able to pay the bills between jobs, which can sometimes be months or even years apart.

But then the streamers came to town. Full-tech ones like Netflix, Apple, and Amazon and the ones that spun off from legacy companies like Disney+, Paramount+, and Max, presented a new model of compensation: buyouts. They paid one upfront fee, then nothing after. Mostly because – in a constant effort to fool investors that they were super-successful instead of just experimental – they refused to reveal their actual viewership numbers. Those numbers are how you calculate the residual – the measurement of “success” that writers and actors used to participate in.

On the other end – also aimed only at flexing to investors that “we’re cutting costs!” instead of actually making entertainment – they’ve sliced and diced actors’ hours and commitments just as they have with writers, to the point where a sustainable living is almost impossible.

And finally, A.I.! Both writers and actors asked for robust language that the studios wouldn’t replace their work and likenesses with A.I. The AMPTP offered nothing more than “annual meetings to talk about it.”

More shockingly, as SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, described their “best and final” offer: “They proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get one day’s pay, and their companies should own that scan, their image, their likeness and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation.”

That’s right. Netflix (et al.) literally offered the playbook from its own show Black Mirror’s episode, Joan Is Awful.

So the actors’ contract ended, and they too exited stage left. And the hope is that, given their numbers and much-wider pervasiveness in ongoing production and promotion (and yes, hotness), our combined forces will prove an unmaneuverable wedge that forces the studios back to the table.

The arrival of the actors on the picket lines also comes as a major morale boost, and an even bigger numerical one (there are 160,000 of them to the WGA’s 12,000). Thursday, the day after the SAG-AFTRA contract ended, I was both excited and a little nervous of the mob scene I expected at my favored picket place, CBS Television City. However, as I learned from others, the real action was at Paramount, where President Fran dramatically (who could have guessed?) brought an army of them by bus to march in front of the paparazzi cameras.

And finally, there’s the heat of friction provoked by a number of stunningly tone-deaf statements emanating from the AMPTP. This smoking gun of a piece in Deadline Hollywood from last week featured multiple executives, off the record, claiming that the studios’ endgame was to prolong the strike until October or maybe even Christmas, until “writers start losing their homes,” so they could break the WGA and force us back on their terms. Another called it “cruel but necessary.”

And the hits kept coming! Disney CEO Bob Iger – a recent returnee to the job whom many had considered a more sensible alternative to his predecessor – called our demands to earn a living wage “unrealistic.” He made this remark from a billionaires’ retreat at Sun Valley where they announced an extension of his $47 million pay package for another two years.

Disney CEO Bob Iger, announcing the extension of his pay package.

The upshot of all these cartoon-villainously direct views into the way the C-suite views labor in every industry now is that the AMPTP just made it way harder for outside parties to “both sides” this dispute. It’s almost like they needed better… writers?

So in a word, it’s on. Tempers are flaring, beautiful famous people are suddenly idled from the set and getting a big platform to tell the public about studio greed, and–as the strike bars actors from promotion–they are cancelling film festivals, premieres, and next week’s high-profile panels at San Diego Comic-Con.

What happens next? Obviously a fools’ game to guess, but essentially, the studios have to figure out what business they actually want to be in. Mostly, they need to accept the deeply uncool-to-Wall-Street notion that you can still consider a business successful when it “only” reaps in double-digit billions in profit, but still allows the very people who make the product to make a living.

Then again, if today’s hedge-fund-addled studios were capable of making actually smart business moves, we wouldn’t be on strike in the first place. But let’s hope, as we hit mid-summer, it’s finally the studios’ turn to sweat.


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Rob Kutner

Rob Kutner has written for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Conan, and is also the author of the books Apocalypse How: Turn the End Times into the Best of Times, and Snotgoblins.

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