Fri. May 17th, 2024

Photo credits: Eden, Janine and Jim from New York City and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sixty three years ago, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) voted for a strike. Their president was a 49-year-old actor and former president Ronald Reagan, a highly-touted negotiator who had previously secured television actors the right to collect residual payments for reruns of their shows. As described by an article from the Atlantic, by 1960, film actors were not getting the same treatment. When full-length motion pictures began to air more frequently on television, the actors who helped create them received none of the profit. A little over five weeks later, the steadfast Reagan would agree to a deal with the hard-nosed studios that was accepted by SAG members in a 6,399 to 259 vote. From that point onward, in perpetuity, film actors would receive residuals for television airings of their movies, finally seeing the profits that were rightfully theirs.

According to an article from the History Channel, 21 years later, President Ronald Reagan would fire 11,359 air-traffic controllers who were exercising their right to strike. He deemed the strike illegal and forbade the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), from rehiring anyone who had participated in it. It is interesting how Reagan acted when the shoe was on the other foot.

Anti-labor politicians and greedy corporations are nothing new in America. These issues were being legislated as early as Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, over 120 years ago. Throughout our nation’s history, the labor movement has faced an uphill battle. Money is power in the U.S., and executives be damned if they’ll let their workers receive a fair share of the profit. As we progress into the 2020s, it has become increasingly clear that the issues facing American workers today are unprecedented, and that we are going to have to come to terms with those sooner than we would like. It is due to rapid technological progress that the writers and actors are currently striking for their fair treatment and compensation.

As of mid-September 2023, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has been on strike for four-and-a-half months, while the aforementioned SAG has been picketing since July 14. Considering the interdependence of the unions, the demands they are making are similar to one another. As noted by Rolling Stone, compensation is, of course, a central issue, concerning how residuals from streaming services are paid out. The prominence of streaming services and the content produced exclusively for said services has muddied the waters of what “fair” compensation should be for writers and actors. Rolling Stone explains that, with inconsistent and not-easily-available data surrounding subscriber count and stream totals, the workers behind these productions are being paid miniscule amounts of money for films and series that are actually quite successful. Payments are furthermore not as regular, since these services rely on subscriber memberships, rather than DVD purchases or ticket sales. Television series on streamers are additionally, on average, running fewer episodes per season in comparison to the cable network era, lowering the compensation writers and actors receive even further.

Another issue that the writers and actors are demanding protections against is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the industry. At this point, I’m certain that we have all had our honeymoon period with the advanced programs that have recently risen to prominence. Sure, it was cool, and maybe a little impressive for a while, but there’s a reason that stories and art spat out by an algorithm have no staying power: It’s because… it’s a computer. No grand revelation to be had here, sorry. Stories are human experiences that can only be told by someone who has felt the emotions they convey. An AI could probably scan the internet for keywords on what it feels like to love, hate or be hurt, but it can obviously never understand, let alone express, these experiences in original or touching ways. So, the idea that there is serious consideration towards implementing AI technology in the film industry is a baffling misunderstanding of what makes art so powerful. You may have been impressed by an artificially generated image, but did you ever really feel anything? There’s a certain soullessness to it, probably because there is, in fact, a distinct lack of one. When it comes to art, there is no room for artificial intelligence. To anyone who disagrees, I ask that you kindly reassess how you interact with the stories you experience. 

In the absence of career writers and actors, as expressed by New York Times, filmgoers can expect delayed or flat-out canceled releases, while television viewers will see an uptick in reality shows and game shows. So unless you’re a “The Masked Singer” superfan, there’s not much good news on that front.

It should be noted, and crucially so, that the vast majority of actors are not Brad Pitts or Emma Stones. The acting industry is like any other in the sense that most of these workers are average, middle-class, Americans who need to make a living and get by. To write off the WGA and SAG because of Hollywood preconceptions is a very surface-level viewpoint. It is incredibly important to stand with the strikers right now, even if your favorite movie franchise or television series is put on hold. If the writers and actors are successful in eventually agreeing to an amicable set of terms, it will only serve to boost the power held by unions everywhere. As workers, it is our right to hold bargaining power, protect ourselves both physically and financially and receive a fair share of our labor’s product. Or, if you still feel otherwise, I suppose you can side with the Hollywood executive who, according to Deadline, said that the studios’ goal is to hold out “until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.”

Feel free to support who you want, friends. Just consider the following: Are the studio executives the ones crafting the stories we love? Or, is it the writers who weave heartfelt and sincere stories? Is it not the actors who bring those roles to life with the full spectrum of human emotion? To support the WGA and SAG is not just to stand up for the integrity of art, but to advocate for the rights of workers everywhere.

Carlo Constantine is a second-year Political Science major.

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