Hollywood Is on Strike Against High-Tech Exploitation

As both writers and actors are on the picket lines in Hollywood, the stakes couldn’t be higher: Will average entertainment workers be able to eke out a living in an industry awash in cash, or will studio executives use new tech like AI to gobble up all of it?

Members and supporters of SAG-AFTRA and WGA walk the picket line at Disney Studios on July 20, 2023, in Burbank, California. (Tommaso Boddi / Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Before she appeared on HBO’s White House Plumbers and Fox’s New Girl, Stevie Nelson hosted a television show on Nickelodeon. On Crashletes, she and her cohosts, along with an audience of kids, reacted to viral videos of people failing at sports. The production ran for three seasons, wrapping at the end of 2020 with a total of sixty episodes.

Nelson worries that soon, a studio could use that body of work to train artificial intelligence (AI) to create a likeness of her to be used in perpetuity: a digital Stevie Nelson, doing things that she has never done, saying things that she has never said, yet indistinguishable from the real Stevie Nelson, based on her past on-screen work.

“There’s enough footage of me that they could technically have me host other shows for the rest of my life without ever having done it, and I’m sure I would not be fairly compensated for it,” said Nelson. “The idea of not a real person hosting shows is scary. The magic of acting, and of hosting, is its impromptu nature. I can’t imagine how soulless it all would be to replace it with AI.”

Nelson and I were speaking on Monday, July 17, a few feet from the picket line outside of Netflix’s corporate office in Los Angeles. She’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), one of 160,000 such members who were then on their second day of a nationwide strike. In walking out, the performers joined roughly 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), who have been on strike since May 2. The last such double strike was in 1960, when Ronald Reagan was SAG’s president.

Unlike less accessible studios in the Los Angeles area — the standout being NBC Universal, which currently lacks pedestrian walkways and shade thanks to studio machinations — Netflix is in the heart of Hollywood. On Monday, morale was high: hundreds of union members picketed while music that sampled news coverage of the strike blasted from stereos and union staff supplied workers with beverages, snacks, and sunscreen as the temperatures soared above 90 degrees.

Nelson’s fears that an avatar of herself will host television shows indefinitely in a digital purgatory might sound far-fetched, an idea more fit for a Black Mirror script than the real world, but such a possibility is central to what is now the largest strike in the United States. In negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) for a new three-year TV/theatrical contract, SAG-AFTRA is seeking to regulate the use of AI to protect performers like her.

Writers want to regulate the usage of AI in their own negotiations with the studios, but the technology poses an even more immediate threat to performers. SAG-AFTRA proposed provisions that would require the studios to get informed consent from a performer before using her likeness and fairly compensate her for that use. They also offered proposals concerning the use of generative AI for training purposes.

The AMPTP didn’t agree. While the organization called its AI counterproposal “unprecedented,” SAG-AFTRA’s national executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland characterized the studios’ offer as unacceptable.

“In this ‘groundbreaking’ AI proposal that they gave us yesterday, 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,” said Crabtree-Ireland at a press conference on Friday, July 15, announcing that the union’s board of directors had voted unanimously to call a strike. “If you think that’s a groundbreaking proposal, I suggest you think again.”

“The companies have responded to a number of the proposals we put on the table, but the problem is that the devil is in the details,” explained Crabtree-Ireland on The Town, a podcast about the entertainment industry. “We had reached some agreement on there being a requirement for consent but from our point of view, it has to be informed consent. Consent is not a boilerplate provision at the time you’re first hired on a project that says, ‘The company can create a digital replica of you and use it for whatever purpose they want, forever.’”

Under such an arrangement, a performer would have little leverage to hold out against an AI clause — the studio could simply replace them with another, more desperate performer willing to agree to it. The issue will be central for members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) in their contract negotiations next year too: if producers cut down on the number of real performers in a project, they’ll want to cut down on costume designers, hair and makeup artists, and other below-the-line workers also. Actors fear that without sufficient protections, they will effectively lose control of their faces, their voices, and their bodies.

“I keep thinking of that concept from Succession, ‘not a real person,’’’ actor Kate Comer told me as we sat in a spot of shade outside of the Netflix office. She was referring to a phrase the show’s ultra-wealthy characters use to refer to workers at their company; Nelson had used the same phrase when describing her concerns about AI. “The thought of not having control over yourself and allowing other people to do whatever they want you and your voice is terrifying. We just want regulations. We just want to have power over our own bodies.”

AI is just one of the points of disagreement between the actors and the studios. On wages, SAG-AFTRA has proposed an 11 percent raise in the first year of the contract to catch up after years of inflation; the studios countered with 5 percent per year, which would amount to a pay cut. There’s also the need to fill a significant hole in the health and pension fund. The union proposed raising the contribution caps by an amount equal to inflation — the caps haven’t been increased since the last actors’ strike in 1980 — and the AMPTP countered with a much smaller, $5,000 increase.

And there is the issue of self-taping for auditions, which has become the norm during the pandemic. The shift has saved producers untold hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and SAG-AFTRA is proposing regulations to the practice. The studios responded by insisting that such protections would not be subject to grievance and arbitration, making them effectively toothless. (The AMPTP contests SAG-AFTRA’s characterization of several of its proposals.)

Then there are residuals, payments that have historically kept performers afloat during slow months or years, first won as a result of the 1960 actors’ and writers’ strike (that action also won workers their health and pension fund). Cable and broadcast residuals — distributed for reruns and when a show is licensed for syndication — are considerable, sometimes comprising the majority of an actor’s income. That is not the case on streaming platforms, which do not typically license or sell their shows.

Comer, who has appeared on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Office, The Reboot, and The Dropout, used her own pay to illustrate the distinction. For her guest-star role on Hulu’s Emmy-award winning The Dropout, she was paid the highest tier of residuals. Had the show aired on network television, that would have amounted to $3,664 for the first rerun, with continued payments with each subsequent airing. But because it ran on a streaming platform, she says she instead received around half of that amount — $1,863 — for Hulu making it available on an unlimited basis for a year.

On day one of its negotiations with the AMPTP, SAG-AFTRA proposed a new form of residual that would amount to 2 percent of subscriber revenue. Such an approach touches on a peculiarity of the streaming model: box office earnings and television viewership numbers made it easy to see just how much money a television show or movie made, but how do you calculate the number of subscribers a particular project brings to a streamer? The studios refuse to help answer that question by sharing their numbers with the unions. Creators are left in the dark as to how many people watched their show; no one knows what constitutes success.

In the face of studio stonewalling, SAG-AFTRA proposed using a third-party success metric, created by a company called Parrot Analytics, to approximate streamer data; the AMPTP responded by raising questions about the company.

WGA and Teamsters members rally together during the joint WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike. (Alex Press)

“It’s not about Parrot Analytics,” explained Crabtree-Ireland on The Town. “The only reason Parrot Analytics is in that proposal is because we know how these companies are about transparency, and we know that it is going to be a major uphill battle to get any of the streamers to provide actual data on viewership. . . . We said to them, ‘We’re not wedded to that one company or that one metric. The point is that we want a share of the revenue from streaming subscriptions, and we want it distributed to members based on the success of their projects.’”

Sitting outside of Netflix, Comer, who has appeared in some of the past decade’s most well-known shows, told me that she currently has around $1,000 in her bank account and can’t afford a needed car repair. Her cat recently died, and when he was sick, she had to ask friends to lend her money to cover the veterinary bills.

“I always believed that as my career grew, as the size of the roles grew, I would be earning the money to reflect that,” said Comer. “But I don’t. I’m still hustling, pinching pennies, and trying to figure it out. Which is why I’m ready to be on strike until we get a fair deal.”

Glamorous Profession to Workaday Job

The transformation of writing and acting from a glamorous profession into a workaday job can be hard to wrap one’s head around. How can it be that Alex O’Keefe, a writer on the hit show The Bear, lived below the poverty line while writing the award-winning show, attending an awards show with a negative bank account? How can a lead performer on a television show receive a residual check for $0.01?

Hollywood has long been a money-printing machine, a site of lucrative, if exploitative and uneven, work. The odds of climbing the business’s ranks have always been slim for writers and actors, but for those who made it, the payout was substantial.

Not anymore. Despite strong unions, the entertainment industry workers who are now on strike have seen their incomes and working conditions deteriorate in recent years. For writers, it’s a textbook case of deskilling, the breaking down of a complex job into discrete tasks for which a worker can be paid less — nearly half of WGA members, no matter how experienced, are now paid at the contract’s minimum weekly compensation level (roughly $4,000 to $4,500 for a junior writer on a show that has been green-lit, and $7,250 for a senior writer), up from around one-third in 2014. And with streaming, neither actors nor writers receive the residuals linear television offered, leaving them without the cushion the industry’s ups and downs require.

That’s why workers say the question of whether they can hold out for a protracted strike reflects a misunderstanding on the public’s part. Many of them have long had other jobs because they already couldn’t live off their industry earnings. Plus these workers are used to waiting years for their big break. They are well-equipped for a few months on a picket line.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Now that a strike is happening, what are you going to do to make sure that you can stay afloat financially?’” said Vanessa Chester, a thirty-year SAG-AFTRA member. “But this is not new. For the last three years and then some, we have been trying to figure out how to stay afloat financially.”

Chester got her start as a child actor, appearing in The Lost World: Jurassic Park and A Little Princess. While many workers with three decades of experience might expect job security or the ability to own a home, she says that those expectations are not borne out in the entertainment industry.

“People say, ‘You’re a veteran, you’ve got the stripes, you’ve seen it all,’” explained Chester. “Great, but I want to see the cash as well. Enough with the penny pinching and digging one hole to fill another. We know what we contribute, we know what we bring to the table, and we want the profits to be shared.”

The question of profits looms over the strike, permeating conversations across a city that relies on the industry. (Even before SAG-AFTRA joined them, the WGA estimated that its strike was costing the California economy some $30 million per day.) The studios have cried poverty in response to workers’ demands, insisting that the industry is in a downturn, that these are hard times for everyone. The day before the actors joined writers on the picket lines, Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger decried the strike during an appearance on CNBC, characterizing the workers’ demands as “not realistic.”

The lament is hard to accept given the messenger: Iger made the statement while attending the Sun Valley Conference in Idaho, known as “billionaire’s summer camp”; a mountain was visible in the background as he spoke. He made $15 million last year, down from $46 million in 2021. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav received $39 million in 2022, down from a mind-boggling $247 million in 2021.

“There he is, sitting in his designer clothes, just got off his private jet, at the billionaire’s camp, telling us we’re unrealistic when he’s making $78,000 a day,” said SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher of Iger in a conversation with Senator Bernie Sanders earlier this week. “How do you deal with someone like that who’s so tone deaf?”

The streaming model may well be unsustainable. Studios tried to imitate Netflix, but that company’s ten-year head start meant Netflix ate their lunch, building a subscription model off the backs of their old shows, which it bought for cheap. It was the easy-money era, and Wall Street plied the studios with cash, helping them build faulty platforms. Shows proliferated, their number nearly doubling in a decade.

Now shareholders are demanding profits rather than subscriber growth, and the studios are responding to the pressure by squeezing labor. But workers, particularly ones as well organized as those in the film and television industry, can only be pushed so far before they fight back. To expect otherwise is unrealistic, even downright delusional.

Adam Conover on the picket lines. (Alex Press)

“They all chased Netflix, but Netflix lied to the public about what was possible,” WGA negotiating committee member Adam Conover told me while walking the Netflix picket line. “Netflix said, ‘For $15 a month, you can cancel your TV subscription and have every show ever made, forever, with no ads.’ That was a lie. We know now that they can’t build a business that way. But all the other companies chased it, and it destroyed a very successful industry that people loved.”

The workers don’t see that error as reason to accept the studios’ refusal to pay livable wages and benefits. The $134-billion industry remains profitable. While Moody’s Investors Service warned that the cost of the new WGA and SAG-AFTRA contracts, along with the recently ratified Directors’ Guild of America (DGA) contract, could cost the studios $450–600 million per year, that is roughly equivalent to what Zaslav alone made over the past five years.

“David Zaslav knows how to make a fucking buck,” said Conover. “Both things are true: the business has been profitable the whole time, and they’re also in the process of realizing their folly and reinventing cable. It’s a mistake to claim that the streaming experiment and its failures should have any bearing on our negotiations.”

“It’s as if Everyone Is Part of a Machine Assembly Line”

Upon arriving at Paramount Studios on Tuesday, July 18, day seventy-eight of the writers’ strike, day three of the actors’ strike, I met writer Rachel Alter. She has worked on shows that include Starz’s Heels, Netflix’s The Society, and Marvel Studios’ Loki. When the strike ends, she is supposed to return to work on season four of Netflix’s Outer Banks. But on Tuesday, she was more concerned with her role as lot coordinator for the Paramount Studios picket line.

“There are some safety worries in terms of the critical mass of people,” she told me, referring to the influx of strikers the picket has seen now that the actors have joined the writers. “But that doesn’t make us unhappy; it just puts us on our toes to make sure people aren’t getting hit by cars and are safe crossing the street.”

Alter joined the WGA in 2016, meaning that she entered the industry at a time when the squeeze on labor was already afoot. Successful shows for which she wrote employed the “mini-room” model for writers, in which a showrunner is tasked with relying on fewer writers who are restricted to shorter contracts. In negotiations with the AMPTP, the WGA is seeking guarantees for the minimum numbers of writers employed by a show, proposals the studios say are “incompatible with the creative nature of our industry.”

“There’s pressure to create a system that produces the same product but requires less money to produce it,” explained Alter. “Instead of having a twenty-week writers’ room where you write ten episodes of television, and those episodes are broken up so that it takes two weeks to write each episode — a week of brainstorming and outlining, a week of delivering the script — they’re now asking for ten episodes of television to be created by a room in ten weeks. And everyone on the staff except the showrunner is let go after that ten-week mark.”

Such an approach has one purpose: reducing production’s labor costs. Television writing is a collaborative process, requiring a sense of security for writers that is precluded by gig-like conditions that force an overworked showrunner to produce what will almost inevitably be a poorer final product. That required sense of security to produce quality writing cannot be accounted for on a balance sheet, so it is ignored.

Teamsters president Sean O’Brien speaks to union members at the SAG-AFTRA/WGA picket line at Amazon Studios on July 19, 2023, in Culver City, California. (Michael Tullberg / Getty Images)

“Art suffers when you’re overworked and taxed this way,” said Alter. “It’s as if everyone is part of a machine assembly line: you give your contribution, and then you’re cut out of the process.”

“They chose to break the model and create this new one and now they’re telling us, ‘Sorry, we don’t have the money to pay for it,’” WGA negotiating committee member Mike Schur told me when I pulled him off the Paramount Studios picket line. “Plus, that’s not true: it’s not that they don’t not have money — it’s that they don’t want to give it to us.”

Schur created The Good Place and cocreated Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He’s a prolific writer who has been in the WGA for decades, but this is the first year he joined the union’s negotiating committee. He says the reason for that is simple: the industry’s new model will prevent writers from enjoying the opportunities he had, and he can’t countenance that.

“I would not have a career at all if the system that exists now were the system that existed when I started,” said Schur. After working as a writer on Saturday Night Live, he landed a job writing on The Office. He says that Greg Daniels, The Office’s creator and adaptor, took him, Mindy Kaling, and B. J. Novak, three writers who then had little experience writing long-form television, and painstakingly walked them through the process.

“‘Writing’ is a complete misnomer for this job,” said Schur. “That is where the companies are completely missing the mark and are ignorant of what it takes to make television. The job is not sitting at a computer, clickety clack. That’s 10 percent of the job.”

When I asked what the other 90 percent consists of, he offered a crash course in the profession. There’s brainstorming and rewriting, or realizing that a script sucks and throwing it away and starting over. There’s bringing the script to set and working with the actors and directors. There’s getting to know the set decorators and art decorators and production designers and grips and electricians and Teamsters, figuring out what they do and how they do it. There’s knowing when to delegate and when to take responsibility. Then there’s the process of getting notes — from studios, from networks — and knowing when to pick your battles.

All of that requires mentorship. Daniels walked Schur and Kaling and Novak through the job, and it allowed them to go on to become showrunners and in turn teach more people how to do it, who then went on to do the same, passing the knowledge down through generations. The mini-room makes all of that impossible. If studios no longer budget to have young writers like Alter on set, those writers will never see what it means to take words on a page and translate them into a television or film scene.

“The thing that drives me nuts is that this system has worked incredibly well for seventy-five years, and it has made these companies tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars of pure, unadulterated profit, because they have a free training system,” said Schur. “When the studios say, ‘You don’t need this many writers, the writers don’t have to be on the set, the writers don’t have to be in post[production],’ they are completely and ignorantly missing the whole point of how this machine has worked.”

“It’s Jerry Maguire: ‘Help me help you!’” he continued. “We are saying to these companies, ‘Do you not understand what happens to this machine if the writing is walled off from all the other aspects of production?’ Either they don’t understand it or they don’t care, and either one of those scenarios is too horrifying to contemplate.”

As if turning away from the thought, Schur looked over to the picket line: “Whatever the model is, you have to account for money to pay writers, actors, directors, and everyone else who works on your shows. Because if you don’t, it is not a viable model. Because we’ll do this: we’ll stop working for you, and we’ll wait until you figure it out.”

“The Writers Are the Most Militant in Hollywood”

“Call us back in, have a real conversation with us, and get these proposals passed,” said SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee member Sean Astin, standing on a makeshift soapbox outside of Amazon Studios in Culver City on Wednesday, day seventy-nine of the writers’ strike, day four of the actors’ strike.

Astin, of Lord of the Rings, The Goonies, and Rudy fame, is the son of a former SAG president, the actor Patty Duke. Holding a copy of the union’s proposals in his hand as he spoke to the crowd about the negotiations, he mentioned his mother.

“I’m proud to be standing in her . . .” Astin said, pausing to find the right word.

“In her high heels,” offered one woman in the crowd.

“In her legacy,” he concluded.

In addition to picketers, many of those listening to Astin had come from a rally outside of a United Parcel Service (UPS) hub near downtown Los Angeles, the latest in a series of rallies the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) has been organizing as the July 31 expiration date for its contract with UPS approaches. WGA and SAG members turned out to the morning picket in droves alongside Teamsters to hear from speakers representing workers across Los Angeles, as well as IBT president Sean O’Brien, who updated the crowd on the fight at UPS.

“UPS is trying to get support in the community but that’s not happening,” said O’Brien. “They’ve asked the president to intervene. But we’ve been very clear. We’ve stated our intention with the White House: in the neighborhood that I grew up in, when two people are fighting in the street, you have nothing to do with it and keep walking.”

Entertainment industry workers’attendance at the UPS rally was a sign of the strengthened ties among the unions: the Teamsters’ motion-picture division has provided invaluable support to the writers by respecting the latter’s picket lines, effectively bringing production to a standstill. At the rally, the actors and writers vowed to return the favor should the Teamsters’ 340,000 members at UPS go on strike.

“The entertainment industry is with you,” SAG-AFTRA’s executive vice president Ben Whitehair told the crowd from the stage. “Wall Street would love for us to think that factory workers, that delivery drivers, that hotel workers, that writers and actors have nothing in common. But you all know that is not the case.”

Outside of Amazon Studios, the Teamsters emphasized those similarities, from gigification to the threat posed by technology, all the way down to a shared corporate foe in the form of Amazon, whose workers the union is hoping to organize. Some of the Palmdale, California, Amazon drivers who joined the Teamsters in April, becoming the first Amazon drivers in the United States to unionize, attended both the UPS rally and the Amazon Studios outing. They were joined by not only other rank-and-file Teamsters, but also O’Brien and the Teamsters’ Motion Picture Division head, Lindsay Dougherty, too.

“You guys are leading the charge: the writers are the most militant in Hollywood,” said Dougherty. “You showed up strong, day seventy-nine, and I know you can go many more days. We have to get what you deserve, because you’re also making history for SAG-AFTRA and all the other unions that follow you. Our contract is up next year, and we’re going to need you because we’re dealing with the AMPTP. The goal is to divide them like they wanted to divide us.”

“No One Is Running Hollywood”

It’s possible that the resolution of the current double strike in the entertainment industry will come as a result of the AMPTP collapsing, with studios individually peeling off and reaching agreements with the unions. After all, the AMPTP’s members spend much of their time trying to destroy each other; an organization that runs on consensus among the increasingly diverse set of companies, each with distinct interests and business models, is not a stable endeavor.

For now, union leadership is waiting for the AMPTP to agree to new bargaining dates. Meanwhile, the studios expected a writers’ strike but did not foresee the scores of actors and others joining them, and now they are assessing the damage inflicted over the past week. And the members are picketing, working around the clock to continue earning the support they have received from their counterparts across the industry: the Teamsters, IATSE, the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), and the many other workers whose livelihoods have taken a hit because of the shutdown.

“We are a labor pool; we just happen to be performers,” said Chester, the SAG-AFTRA member. “The actors have finally shown up to high-five the hotel employees, the UPS workers, the railworkers, the WGA, women in the exotic dancing industry. We’re saying, ‘I don’t know exactly what your struggle is, but I know someone is not treating you as well as they should. How about as we’re walking, tell me what’s going on so I can show up for you.’ It’s not, ‘I’m getting exploited, so you should be too.’ It’s ‘You’re getting exploited; tell me what’s going on so I can help make sure it doesn’t happen anymore.’ I’m ready to go to bat for everyone.”

“There used to be people running these companies who thought of themselves as stewards of the industry,” said the WGA’s Schur, reflecting on what led to the strikes. “They’d think, ‘I’m sitting in the chair that Jack Warner sat in, and I have a responsibility to the history.’ Now these guys are tech bros in Cupertino. They’re not people who care about Hollywood qua Hollywood. They are people who think that this is an industry with inefficiencies, and if they can eliminate those inefficiencies, they can suck out a bunch of money and then sell and move on in the same way they have with other industries.”

“Hollywood is very good at creating monsters, and people in positions of power very frequently turn out to be monsters. But the one thing those monsters had going for them was they gave a shit about Hollywood,” he continued. “I don’t think that’s the case right now. No one’s running the town. You used to be able to say, ‘Who are the five people that run Hollywood?’ Everyone could reel off those names. But now? No one is running Hollywood.”