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Hack WatchNewsletter | November 17, 2023

Don’t Roll The Credits On Hollywood’s Labor Uprising Yet

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Don’t Roll The Credits On Hollywood’s Labor Uprising Yet

Thoughts on the summer of strikes, the rise of the machines, and coming attractions.

This article originally appeared in Hack Watch, our weekly newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

After 118 days, the longest strike in SAG-AFTRA history is over. The union representing actors and on-screen performers (whose walkout overlapped with the equally historic 148-day writers’ strike) have reached a tentative deal with the AMPTP, the trade association representing the major Hollywood Studios. The end of both strikes follows a disgraceful anti-worker smear campaign waged by studio bosses, aided and abetted by the industry’s trade publications.

The end of the SAG-AFTRA strike has also raised larger questions about the future of the entertainment industry. Guild members have raised profound questions about streaming and generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies—and whether the proposed SAG-AFTRA contract goes far enough to hold power-hungry Hollywood executives accountable. Given how previous battles over home video and streaming technologies ended in lopsided victories for the AMPTP, workers are rightly wary of ceding too much ground to their greedy billionaire bosses. 

Regardless of how SAG-AFTRA members end up voting on the contract, there’s one thing we can say for certain: Hollywood’s labor uprising isn’t over—this was just the first act. 

SAG-AFTRA vs Strike-Busting Stenographers

The concurrent actors’ and writers’ strikes are a valuable case-study in how corporations use the media to carry water for management. 

Throughout both strikes, studios used underhanded tactics to try to break workers’ resolve (NBCUniversal, for example, obstructed sidewalks with construction equipment and pruned trees to expose picketing SAG-AFTRA members to the searing Los Angeles sun). One prominent tactic favored by the AMPTP was leaning heavily on the entertainment media’s power to frame industry conversations (or to quote the Animaniacs, using “Variety Speak”). Management-friendly outlets like Deadline and Variety often served as studio bosses’ stenographers, leading their strike coverage with AMPTP talking points. They also provided anonymous cover for executives to peddle nasty personal attacks against SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher and pressure striking workers to cave. One unnamed studio honcho (who will forever be looking over his shoulder for Ron Perlman) threatened the strikes would drag on “until union members start losing their apartments.”

As part of this strategy, the AMPTP did what union-busters do: hire strike-breaking consultants to do the dirty work. In late August, they hired The Levinson Group, a “crisis PR” firm rich in revolving-door political talent (staff have previously worked for Bill Clinton, Maxine Waters, the FDA, and the DOJ) and which has spun for some of the worst clients imaginable (including Live Nation/Ticketmaster, predatory lender Better Future Forward, and Theranos fraudster Elizabeth Holmes). By hiring Levinson, the AMPTP hoped to repeat history: in 2008, ex-Clinton aides Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane used campaign-style oppo attacks and media spin to force striking writers into accepting a lopsided contract. 

But strike-busting in 2023 is not as easy as it was 15 years ago. Not only is public support for unions at a 50-year high (meaning Americans are, as strike polling confirmed, more inclined to support workers over management), but social media has given workers a powerful platform to directly respond to strike-busting lies. “Fake Carol”, a viral Twitter parody of AMPTP president Carol Lombardini, regularly turned the studio bosses’ strategically-leaked Variety quotes and puff piece interviews into a laughing stock. Writer David Slack likewise published viral Twitter threads rebutting the “steaming pile of studio spin” in trade publication strike coverage, on topics ranging from management scare tactics to attempted scabbing

Slack’s threads also speak to another of SAG-AFTRA’s assets in this strike: cross-union support. Writers and actors—by virtue of being on strike at the same time—had each others’ backs throughout the AMPTP’s smear campaign against both groups. So did the Teamsters and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), who admirably stood behind their fellow workers (at a significant personal toll) during production shutdowns. Their solidarity is a powerful sign that Hollywood is still a union town, and that worker power can overcome the bosses’ propaganda. 

Contract Judgment Day & The Rise Of The Machines

SAG-AFTRA members will vote on contract ratification by December 5th, and based on what we know so far, they’ll have a lot to consider.

On several fronts, SAG-AFTRA’s tentative contract makes gains that the union would not have achieved without a strike. Among the hard-fought wins in the proposal are substantial pension and health cap increases (which would address many members’ coverage problems) and disclosure of viewership statistics for high-budget streaming productions (a key metric that studios have long kept confidential to underpay streaming residuals). Actors also notched stronger protections for virtual and self-taped auditions (which became increasingly common during the pandemic), advancements in racial equity (including a crucial hair and makeup policy addressing the needs of Black actors), and protections against sexual harassment

On other fronts, the fight against corporate greed continues. In an interview on The Majority Report, SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee member Shaan Sharma noted that the contract’s streaming compensation proposal has been pared back from the Guild’s previous 1% revenue share ask (studio bosses ferociously opposed this offer, smearing it as a “tax on subscribers,” despite the actual cost being pocket change for these multibillion-dollar companies). The compromise is for a “streaming bonus” limited to certain made-for-streaming shows, where actors will receive a “success payment” if 20% or more of a streaming platform’s domestic subscribers view their content within the first 90 days of release. While this final language still gives actors a greater cut of streaming revenue than they receive today, Sharma notes that streamers could “change [titles’] thumbnails or bury it off the front page” (à la Barry) to avoid hefty payouts. 

But by far the biggest conversation is around AI, control of which is already dangerously concentrated among a handful of Big Tech firms (including streaming giants Amazon and Apple). The AI revolution eerily mirrors the streaming revolution that followed the 2007-08 WGA strike: both are rapidly evolving technologies that studio bosses are stubbornly unwilling to share control of with workers. Today, performers have little to no protections against studios’ use of their digital likenesses in perpetuity, without consent or fair compensation. A particularly ghoulish desire from studios has been to profit from actors’ AI likenesses after their deaths—a proposal that David Slack nicknamed the “zombie clause.” 

A summary of SAG-AFTRA’s proposed contract includes 16 pages on AI guardrails, which establish ground rules on digital actor replicas, consent for use of likeness (including the “zombie clause”), usage restrictions, and compensation. But just like with streaming compensation, it’s the fine details that matter. 

SAG-AFTRA AI advisor Justine Bateman, who has warned that AI could “destroy the entire film industry,” has argued that loopholes in the proposed contract could be devastating. In interviews and Twitter threads, Bateman has specifically pointed to exemptions for character names in AI generation (e.g. “give me a character that looks like John Wick”), digital-double use for works of commentary or parody, post-production dialogue changes, and how AI-trained “synthetic performers” could eliminate work for actors, visual effects artists, and on-set crewmembers. (This last point is particularly well-timed: ex-Dreamworks exec Jeffrey Katzenberg this week mused that AI could eliminate 90% of film animation jobs.) 

Bateman has long warned about how tech is changing the balance of power in Hollywood. As she put it in a 2014 documentary on the last writers’ strike: “technology moves really fast, and entertainment does not look forward.” 

Sneak Previews: What’s Next For Entertainment Workers?

The finale of SAG-AFTRA’s strike is hardly the end of Hollywood’s labor uprising. For your consideration, here are some coming attractions:

  • Scrutiny Into Tax-Writeoffs: Warner-Discovery CEO David Zaslav (a real-life Jack Donaghy) has drawn universal condemnation for shelving the near-completed Batgirl and Scoob: Holiday Haunt films in exchange for corporate tax-writeoffs. His latest victim, Coyote v. Acme, may be his undoing: filmmakers, in a rare display of collective action, canceled studio meetings until Zaslav partially relented, while Congressman Joaquin Castro called for a federal antitrust inquiry into the practice. When the next round of WGA, SAG-AFTRA, and Director’s Guild contracts come up in three years, members could very well push for a “Zaslav clause” to protect their projects from being written-off.   
  • IATSE 2024 Agreement: Behind-the-scenes production workers, who have weathered the brutal downstream effects of the dual strikes, are gearing up for a new round of contract negotiations in 2024 (you may recall IATSE narrowly averted their own strike in October 2021). Labor Notes’ Lisa Xu notes that crew workers are likely to push for higher wages, more reasonable working hours, and increases in employer contributions to pensions and health benefits (crucially, funded by streaming residuals!). [And as this excellent piece by Harold Meyerson notes, American labor law inhibits the associational and speech rights of other unions to engage in sympathy strikes and secondary boycotts; fixing this would help IATSE and other unions draw upon collective worker power to win fair contracts, even after other unions have ended their own strikes.]
  • VFX and Post-Production Unions: Visual effects and CGI artists, facing overwhelming workloads and tighter deadlines amid a glut of superhero and sci-fi projects, are launching historic union drives to fight for better working conditions—most recently at Marvel Studios and Disney. So-too are post-production workers, who want to establish a regulated 50-hour work week, minimum staffing requirements, and health and pension benefits for their field. 
  • Golden Globes Hotelworkers Strike: Unite Here Local 11, which represents hospitality workers in the Los Angeles area, is readying to picket the Golden Globe Awards if the Beverly Hilton hotel’s management does not grant its members much-needed pay bumps to deal with soaring Los Angeles costs of living. Local 11 recently successfully unionized Hollywood’s famous Chateau Marmont—a campaign supported by WGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, and the Teamsters. 

Will Tinseltown bosses use the same anti-worker PR tactics and media propaganda strategy the AMPTP used against WGA and SAG-AFTRA in these coming fights? Only time will tell. 

Either way, we at RDP will be watching through the end credits. 

IMAGE: SAG-AFTRA Picket I by Eden, Janine and Jim (Wikimedia Commons, 7/17/23)

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