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What are the WGA and SAG/AFTRA strikes all about?

It’s September, and Labor Day just passed us this week in the US, so in honor of that, In this week’s episode, I am going to dive into some of the main issues that caused the writers guild and SAG/AFTRA to take to the picket lines, and how the studios have responded to those strikes.

First off, what is the Writers Guild, and what is SAG/AFTRA?

The Writers Guild is a union of approximately 13,000 writers who work on TV and film.

SAG/AFTRA is the Screen Actors Guild, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is about 160,000 TV And Film media professionals, mainly actors and performers.

The Writers Guild started their strike on May 2, 2023, and SAG/AFTRA joined them on strike on July 14, 2023.

And they are in a dispute with the AMPTP, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

So what is the topline of what each union is fighting for?

Well, during a speech released during labor day a WGA negotiating committee member put it this way: “The erosion of pay. The abuse of screenwriters. The failure to protect Appendix A writers in the move to streaming. The dismantling of the writing process in episodic television. The threat of AI. The refusal to provide streaming residuals that grow with viewership. Each of these things is an existential issue for some or all of us.”

Appendix A is the writing credit rules, which has an impact on future payments for writers.

SAG/AFTRA is looking for an increase in base pay; they want an 11% raise to baseline rates this year and an 8% raise over the next two years — in line with overall inflation of living costs etc. They are also concerned about the use of AI, The actors want strong protections against their likenesses being used to train artificial intelligence and reassurance that their work won’t be fed into AI without consent or compensation.

Both SAG/AFTRA and the WGA are concerned about residuals.

Residuals are additional payments that writers and actors receive when their shows re-air on different platforms or internationally. These payments helped create a steady income for creators. It’s basically a form of profit share when a show is successful- it lets the writers and actors to continue to benefit from the art they helped create, which is making the studios money.

I think it’s really important here to stop and clarify something. When you think of “actors” here, don’t think of Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep. Think of the character whose name you can’t remember but you love, or next time, see how many small roles with just a couple of lines there are in your favorite streaming show. Don’t think of mega-producer-writers like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes. There are hundreds of writers who work behind the scenes in the writing room with them, that you don’t know.

Since the strike started, even famous and well-known actors have been speaking out about how bad the streaming deal is for actors. Mandy Moore, who starred in the hit NBC show "This Is Us," said she's received streaming residual checks for as low a penny.

Aaron Paul, who starred in Breaking Bad, said he is out on the picket line because his show is currently “trending” on a streamer. The content is making money for Netflix, but he isn’t seeing any residuals for Breaking Bad being on Netflix.

Stars that have shows that originated on streamers like Hulu, Netflix, and Prime have been speaking out about how little they made both in their original contracts and in residuals. s

The difference between residuals on traditional broadcast like ABC, NBC, and CBS, and the shows that originate on streamers is stark. What once could be 5-figures over a year, is now in the 3-figure range.

On top of that, Netflix, Prime, Disney+, Hulu, and Apple+ are very secretive about viewership numbers, complicating calculating residuals. AND the original deal struck for new media, which they called these streamers at the time, gave a drastically reduced residual rate for international markets- which is huge considering the content is streamed globally. Right now, viewership numbers is the honor system that these streamers are paying out fairly.

So how’s it going?

Well, currently, the studios are looking and acting like greedy, bad guys. Bob Iger, who is CEO of Disney, gave a cringey interview to CNBC, calling the demands of the strikers “unrealistic,” which went viral because Bob makes 27million a year, or $70,000 a day for his role at Disney, and $70,000 is the average pay for a year of work for writers in Hollywood. Yikes.

Back in July, an executive spoke anonymously to a journalist, claiming that the studios are unwilling to make a deal “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” This heartless statement, understandably, made people very mad.

Just this week, Warner Bros released that they expect to lose between $300-500 million dollars due to the strikes, which is pretty wild considering that the deals the WGA and SAG/AFTRA are proposing will cost a tenth of that- approximately. $45 million a year.

Meanwhile, some small studios, like A24 Films, have actually agreed to the demands of both unions and are back to work. Demonstrating that deals can be struck!

As per usual, this is a topline summary I hope it’s helpful. If you are in the entertainment business or aspiring to be, I encourage you to investigate further!

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