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Underneath the dazzling veneer of Hollywood, a storm is brewing. As the sun casts long shadows on picket lines, writers and actors are taking a historic stand — not just for better wages and hours, but for the soul of their craft. With the dawn of the streaming era and the increasing influence of artificial intelligence in the realm of creativity, the traditional structures of residuals and human-driven storytelling are being challenged like never before.
On May 2, the Writers Guild of America initiated a strike after failed negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The main contentions are the shifting dynamics of residual payments due to the rise of streaming services and the encroachment of AI on writing. Residual payments make up the financial compensation given to writers, actors, and directors upon the rerun, syndication, streaming, or use of their work in generative AI. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, actress Mandy Moore said that she makes as little as a penny in residuals for her work in “This Is Us” and the issue is even more prevalent for less established actors.
Considering that writers are crucial members of the Hollywood community, the effects of the writers’ strike were immediately felt throughout the entertainment industry. The releases of new shows and movies have been delayed, late-night talk shows have been forced to pause, and award shows have been postponed. Even before the Screen Actors Guild officially went on strike, actors were seen joining picket lines in solidarity.
Actors, like writers, face challenges posed by AI. Increasing use of AI-generated images and deepfakes challenge not only job security but also the authenticity of performance. It’s not just about the potential job loss; it’s about preserving the essence of acting — the human emotion and spontaneity that no AI can replicate. Their alliance with the Writers Guild underscores a shared belief in the value of human creativity and the necessity to address these shared concerns. This unity sends a powerful message: Hollywood’s creative process must not undervalue the human touch. A recalibration is necessary, but not at the expense of the human spirit, which remains the core of resonant storytelling.
“If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble. We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines and big business,” Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA said at a press conference announcing the union’s strike.
On July 14 SAG-AFTRA officially joined the picket lines as the guild called for their own strike, as the effects of AI on became impossible to ignore as existential threats to the profession. Amongst the union’s demands are more typical, but just as important, demands for a minimum pay rate and better working conditions.
The move to streaming platforms has further disrupted traditional methods of compensation for actors. The advent of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ has disrupted the residual payment model, prompting calls for a fairer compensation structure. The creatives seek a model that ensures the popularity of their work on these platforms — which translates into sustained compensation. Their demand signals a crucial step towards a sustainable future in the era of streaming giants.
One might ask why actors, often perceived as an especially wealthy class, need to strike. This view is skewed by the disproportionate attention given to a select few A-list stars. The reality is that most actors aren’t wealthy; they rely on residuals from reruns and secondary uses of their work to sustain themselves between jobs. Many work in smaller roles or background parts that offer modest pay. The transition to streaming has disrupted this income stream, necessitating their participation in the strike.
While there are undeniable vast differences in the experiences of the highest paid and the majority of actors, the entire profession is victim to the effects of AI. With the potential of eliminating background actors, those A-listers will be forced to act and convey the emotions necessary to sell the part without interacting with other human beings — a near-impossible feat. Even just having people in the background can help set the scene and make it feel less cold.
Overall, the strikes have shown a stark light on how little big studios and producers care about their employees. A grotesque example of the actions the studios are willing to take can be found on the picket lines at Universal Studios in Los Angeles: As pickets went on in the extreme Los Angeles heat, Universal had trees that picketers were using as shade trimmed in attempts to combat the strike. They did so illegally, cutting the trees without a permit. The City of Los Angeles has fined them a mere $250.
The strikes by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA represent a crucial stand for human creativity in an industry revolutionized by digital technology. Their demand is a call to recognize and value all contributors, from A-list actors to background extras, from seasoned writers to novices. As we navigate this digital era, it’s essential to find a balance where both human talent and technology can coexist and thrive. Ultimately, these are not just industry issues; they impact our cultural values and reflect on our society as a whole.
—Staff writer Rachel A. Beard can be reached at email@example.com.
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