The American entertainment industry ground to a halt this summer, after some 116,000 members of Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, an actors’ union known as SAG-AFTRA, went on strike on July 14. The actors joined 11,000 members of the Writer’s Guild of America, who have been picketing since May 2. Last week, the 2023 Emmy Awards were postponed.
Contract talks broke down because the issues at hand are far more complicated than increased pay and benefits. The industry has experienced seismic changes in recent years, as technological advances, changes to consumer behavior, and after-effects of the pandemic have dramatically altered operations. Both sides—the unions and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers—are trying to protect their interests, adjust to current trends, and predict the future, especially around questions about how artificial intelligence and other tech advances will evolve over the coming years.
NYU News convened a panel of faculty from the Tisch School of the Arts who have worked in film and television as actors, writers, directors, and producers to explain what led to the strikes, the key issues being negotiated, and how they might be resolved. Eleanor Burgess is a television writer and an adjunct professor in the Department of Dramatic Writing. Brandon J. Dirden is associate arts professor in Graduate Acting and a professional actor. Andrew Goldman is a producer and adjunct professor in the Department of Film & Television. Peter Newman is a producer and head of the MBA/MFA Dual Degree Program in Graduate Film. Joseph Vinciguerra is chair of the Department of Dramatic Writing and Richard Wesley is a professor in that department.
Many actors, writers, directors, and producers have described this moment as transformative and have called it an inflection point for the entertainment industry. Is it?
Eleanor Burgess: To a large degree, the strike is happening because there has already been an inflection point. The business has already transformed, gradually, by degrees, in a way that writers and actors did not have a chance to weigh in on or sign off on. So what’s at stake is, are we going to keep going down the road we’ve embarked on, or can we restructure to meet some of the practices and protections that traditionally existed?It’s worth noting that Hollywood’s been through this before, many times. The business has had to restructure itself. There have been shakeups.
Andrew Goldman: The accelerant to this strike, and prior ones, is technology and residual rights. Garry Marshall, the writer and producer, used to say “I’ll take a hit show over a hit movie because a hit movie is a home run but a hit show is a grand slam.” Because residuals [from TV] would generate income. Those were more favorable terms than what’s going on today.
Peter Newman: The entire industry is going to get reconfigured. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the economics and realities for everyone on both sides, management and creative, because the industry as a whole is not working. The core problem is how to make the business healthy, so it does more projects of quality and that it compensates people fairly.
It seems like both sides are seeking changes that allow the industry to catch up with the rapid advances in technology, especially in the area of streaming.
Newman: One of the big problems in negotiating these deals is people don't know what is going to exist in the future, so they don't know what to negotiate. The standard movie contracts were always, you know, “theater, television and any device not yet invented by mankind.”
Burgess: For the 2007 writers’ strike, one of the biggest sticking points was DVD residuals. That was one of the hardest issues for them to come together on, and it ended up being the least big deal. So that just goes to show that nobody has a crystal ball. It’s very hard to write a contract that will protect people from unknown innovations, and the exploitation that might come with those innovations.
Newman: The biggest problem of this, I believe, is because of the streaming wars, and the huge losses that the legacy studios have absorbed. Netflix is not an entertainment company. It's a tech company. If this was strictly a negotiation between the studios and the networks and the deal, it would be solved. But Netflix and to a certain extent, Hulu and whatever remains of the studio streaming services have no desire to. They spent too much money. They wanted quantity over quality. They're actually comfortable sitting it out right now and not spending money. When they come back, unfortunately I think one of the effects is going to be far, far fewer shows, and higher prices for film tickets and streaming subscriptions for consumers.
Brandon J. Dirden: I was in one of the first original Netflix series, The Get Down. In those days we didn't know if it was a viable concept, streaming. So we actors were taking a chance along with Netflix. So we worked at a reduced residual structure than we were previously accustomed to. But that was 10 years ago. Now there’s so much secrecy involved and we don’t know what a fair deal is. We need a concrete plan of how this is going to be sustainable. What is the structure going to look like where we can actually support ourselves?
Joseph Vinciguerra: This is the part of why we're not necessarily going to come to an agreement anytime soon. Artists are now dealing with tech companies that see the world through algorithms of efficiency. And the companies have run into the world of creativity and so we're having a kind of philosophical difference over what is commerce and what is art? Is the world of entertainment commerce, or is it art?
Burgess: What the writers are asking for is the number of weeks and the number of collaborators they need to make movies and television that people will love. Bean counters on Wall Street are saying, “I’ll give you the bare minimum number of people and hours to make a thing that might turn a profit,” even if it’s not as good as what it could be. Studio executives are worried about their financial quarter, but the writers are worried about and trying to take care of the art form.
It seems like everyone agrees that the system is broken, especially when it comes to streaming and the effects that technology has had across the industry.
Newman: The industry as a whole is losing a tremendous amount of money. The exhibitors have collapsed: two out of three are bankrupt, 30 percent fewer people are going to the movies. There is no afterlife for most shows. I think there’s going to be a death fight before they reveal which picture makes what money, and you'll never have a Seinfeld situation again where if you go into syndication you make a tremendous amount of money. That's not in the cards anymore.
Vinciguerra: And Peter, to take that a step further, there is no incentive for Apple or Amazon in particular to budge because what is the percentage of their business that entertainment represents? One percent? So there’s no stakes for them. If we could remove the tech side from the business, we could have an industry that is self contained.
Richard Wesley: Should these inequities not be addressed, it is possible for writers to find themselves being paid a marginally higher fee for a writing service with little to no expectation of a residual no matter how many times the movie or show is streamed.
Another factor is the use of artificial intelligence—and the unknowns that are associated with that. Why is this important to the writers and actors?
Wesley: The introduction of Generative AI means a reconfigured workplace. This new technology allows one writer to upload any number of prompts—Theme, Protagonist, Protagonists' Goal, Dramatic Goal, Setting, Plot , etc.—into the app and it will then fashion an episode (or episodes) based on the material the writer uploaded. Notice I used the term, "fashion," as opposed to "write" or "create." I'm being very deliberate there. The app cannot "write" or "create." It appears to do so, but in actuality, it is regurgitating thousands of bits of information—previously accepted ideas, forms, and structures—and putting them in script form. It looks like a script and reads like a script, but what is missing is a "soul." The app threatens to reduce the number of writers on shows, cutting off entry level jobs for hundreds of young inexperienced writers. Being a staff writer is how a professional writer gains the experience and expertise needed to move up to the point they can run their own show someday. Generative AI favors the currently experienced writer, but not the young writer who is hoping to enter the business.
Dirden: This is critical to me as an artist, so let me give you a practical example. As an actor, if something is filmed and they want to change a line, they have to call me back in to re-record it. It’s called an ADR. With the technology that exists now, they have enough samples of my voice that they can change the line without me coming in and having to record that. But you don't get my intonation, you don't get my inflection, you don't get my intent, you get some approximated version that might sound like it makes sense within the story. The problem with that is if I am on set shooting that line or if I'm in ADR session shooting that line, I can collaborate with the writers, the director or whoever to make sure that my performance is represented in a way that I intended to come across. With AI you remove me from that from that equation and you can put out a product that has my face on it, but not my voice, and have me sing something that I never agreed to sing, which may reflect poorly on me, and may be antithetical to my choices as an actor and to my moral compass, quite frankly.
Vinciguerra: Brandon, you're also not getting paid for that. You get paid if you come back to do an ADR day or afternoon, whatever it is. So there's that element to it, too.
How does the situation affect students and their training? Have these issues crept into classes with the next generation of actors, writers, directors, and producers, and what is the message you are sharing?
Goldman: This moment is all about the business of entertainment, and who has the power and who doesn’t. This is what I tell my students: It is a business first and foremost. Don’t ever forget that. Even if you luck out and make it, you’re going to have to hire an accountant.
Dirden: We’re not just charged with educating our students on how to make art, we are charged with educating them on how to make a life in art. This conversation, this moment in time, is essential to how they are going to make their lives in art. We have all been very fortunate, very privileged to do this. We are caretakers of this art form, and if we are not on the forefront, we are not of service to them.
Newman: Students should understand the entire picture, understand what every side is saying, not just one individual point of view. This industry is cyclical and resilient. Real talent will always eventually prevail. Students should know that there will be a solution … it’s just a ways away.