Hollywood actors’ and screenwriters’ mass strike may achieve a historic global entertainment shutdown.
The Hollywood entertainment industry is headed for an almost complete production shutdown after the Screen Actors Guild — the largest union in the business — voted last Thursday in favor of an indefinite strike as a pressure tactic to renegotiate contracts with big production companies. The SAG-AFTRA union has more than 160,000 professionals, ranging from broadcast journalists to stunt performers to millionaire movie stars. About 65,000 of those who perform in movies and TV shows are being called on to strike. The protest overlaps with that of the Writers Guild, with more than 11,5000 professionals who are demanding better pay and who have been on strike since May. This is the first time in four decades that actors have gone on strike, and the last time both unions did [at the same time] was 60 years ago. Last June, a deal to improve directors’ contracts prevented the three major unions from striking at the same time. Hollywood is on fire. The repercussions are global because its products are global, an inextricable part of our daily lives. Moreover, the huge visibility of Hollywood’s work allows the conflict to be seen as a paradigm of the struggle against the precariousness of creative work stemming from digitalization.
Actors are focusing their demands on better base pay and, above all, on secondary sales of their product. After the DVD era, we find ourselves at a turning point. Thanks to streaming — a more incipient technology in 2017 during the previous collective bargaining negotiations — studios can now exploit the product in a global, endless, immediate and ubiquitous manner, as well as resell their catalog as many times as they want. Another sticking point is obtaining a framework of guarantees against the inappropriate use of artificial intelligence, which threatens to replace part of the job that both actors and screenwriters do. These days, professionals in any intellectual trade can see themselves in the fears of Hollywood workers.
Contrary to what might seem a business that relies heavily on individual creativity, Hollywood exists as an industry in part because it is heavily unionized. SAG-AFTRA performers on strike range from supporting actors to Meryl Streep, and the same is true for every guild, from directors to electricians. The huge production and wealth it generates — and not only in Southern California — would be inexplicable without hundreds of thousands of unknown, middle-class professionals. The age of digitalization seriously threatens to demolish that ecosystem and destine those professionals for precarious situations or stardom. The purpose of the strike is not just a salary increase, but ensuring the balance of power between studios and workers.
When announcing the strike, actress Fran Drescher (famous as the star of “The Nanny”) said, “The eyes of the world … are upon us … What’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor. … When employers make Wall Street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run, we have a problem.” Thanks to this huge social predicament, actors are able to connect with a consumer that, in recent years, has become used to receiving instant quality entertainment on their cell phone, unaware that behind that joke or breathtaking scene they will remember for the rest of their lives, there are people who go grocery shopping and pay the rent. With their strike, Hollywood actors’ faces are at the service of a global story, a story the public can empathize with, a history that keeps them on tenterhooks, and no one can guess how it will end.