WGA and SAG-AFTRA Strike


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Most pictures of celebrities you tend to see on the streets are from the paparazzi, walking out of restaurants with heads down so as not to be noticed, effortless appearances that likely took a lot of effort. But more recently, we’ve been seeing these celebrities in an unfamiliar place: along picket lines.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild- American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) have both been on strike until recently, lobbying for a multitude of protections in the film industry.

The WGA was founded in 1954, formerly called the Screen Writers Guild. They organize and negotiate the terms by which television writers work. Having started on May 2, 2023, this isn't the first strike the organization has done, most recently was in 2007 for a total of 100 days.

This year, the strike had a new meaning for writers. Along with pay raises, better insurance, and pension plans, as are usually negotiated, the WGA wanted to guarantee protection for writers from artificial intelligence technology. Many feared for their jobs, as AI could be a cheaper way for studios to create content for our screens.

Two months later, on July 14, the SAG-AFTRA union began their strike after labor disputes such as changes to the film industry due to streaming platforms and new technology like AI. Their former contract had expired on June 30, and in an effort to avoid a strike, negotiations between the union and studios were extended until midnight on July 13. When nothing was finalized by then, the union went on strike. This was the first time since the 1960s that both writers and actors have been on strike at the same time.

There were some attempts at negotiations over the summer. The WGA met with studio representatives in mid-August, but negotiations were postponed. The WGA put out an update on August 22 that stated “...we were met with a lecture about how good their single and only counteroffer was.”

They followed this with an explanation of their own attempts to point out loopholes and limitations in the proposed offer. They reported, “We told them that a strike has a price, and that price is an answer to all – and not just some - of the problems they have created in the business.”

The strikes have caused controversy within the film industry. Many people weren’t sure what they should do in regard to seeing new movies and using their streaming services. However, the WGA never asked for participation or boycotts from the public. They simply asked for those uninvolved in the strike, mostly new writers and actors, to not take jobs with the people they were trying to negotiate with. This was because if the studios worked with people who were not on strike, they would simply use those people for all the jobs without having to worry about contracts. It would be a cheaper alternative for the studios but could leave the more experienced writers fighting for their worth unemployed. It would also hurt the newer writers and actors in the long run, as many people wouldn’t want to work with them after the strike if they weren’t supporting the cause.

Some people tried to get around picket lines. On September 10, Drew Barrymore, for instance, attempted to continue her show, The Drew Barrymore Show, during the writer's strike. She claimed that her show was a news show, and thus wasn’t involved in the strike, as journalists were not involved in the strike.

However, Barrymore’s show is classified as a talk show. Despite the effortless appearance, talk shows have writers who create interview questions, monologues, and jokes. Someone has to take on these jobs to create the show if the usual writers are on strike. Because of this, the continuance of the show during the strike violated the union’s requests, thus crossing picket lines.

This all comes after Barrymore stepped down from hosting MTV Awards in May of this year, although this position wouldn’t have technically crossed picket lines.

Barrymore wanted to continue her show to create a sense of normalcy in hardship. She said, “Since launching live in a pandemic, I just wanted to make a show that was there for people in sensitive times, and I weighed the scales and I thought if we could go on during a global pandemic, and everything that the world experienced through 2020, why would this sideline us?”

On September 18, after facing backlash from members of the union and supporters of the strike, Barrymore announced that the fourth season of the show would not premier until after the WGA strike was over.

Also on September 18, the 139th day of the strike, the WGA announced that they would resume negotiations with Hollywood studios in an attempt to end their strike, A week later, on September 25, writers struck a tentative deal with studios, and two days later the strike was officially over. It lasted 148 days.

The WGA asked for at least six writers for a show that intends to have at least six episodes. The studio agreed for at least 3 senior writer-producers to be hired for a series, along with a scaled number of junior writers based on the number of episodes. There is a new component of the contract for solo-written series, where an initial contract must be signed stating that a project is meant to be written by only one person. Otherwise, there must be more writers hired.

There are also new requirements for the duration of employment that will give junior writers more opportunities to learn about the production and post-production processes of a project.

The WGA asked for additional payment for writers of streaming services based on the success of their project. This was secured and writers will now earn bonuses for successful original TV shows made by streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Max, and Apple TV+, along with others. However, shows that were not made for streaming services but appear on them anyway, like the successful Gilmore Girls and Suits on Netflix, will not qualify for bonuses.

One of the biggest threats to the writing industry has been the rise of AI technology. The new contract states that AI cannot write or rewrite material. Anything written by AI will not be considered source material, and thus cannot take credit from the writers. Writers can choose to use AI to write if the company consents and the policies are followed, but companies cannot require the use of AI technology, like ChatGPT on a project. Any material given to writers that was incorporated or produced by AI must be disclosed as such. Furthermore, the union has the right to prohibit the utilization of their writers’ material to train AI technology.

Over 80 days into the SAG-AFTRA strike, on October 2, representatives from the union agreed to begin negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) which represents studios.

However, on the evening of October 11, the AMPTP announced that they would be suspending the talks of negotiations. They claimed that “it is clear that the gap between the AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA is too great, and conversations are no longer moving us in a productive direction.” They gave examples such as the asks of SAG-AFTRA for streaming bonuses would cost about $800 million per year, of $1.08 per customer, even though SAG’s estimates said it would be $500 million, or $0.57 per customer.

The AMPTP offered SAG-AFTRA viewership bonuses that were based on the agreement made with the WGA. However, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the chief negotiator for the actors union, says that since writers and actors are paid in different ways, their bonuses can’t mirror each other exactly.

While it is incredible that the writers have been able to go back to work and be compensated fairly, we can only hope that the actors on strike will soon be able to follow suit.