Hundreds of thousands of creative workers in the film and television industry are currently flexing their labor power. For the first time in more than 60 years, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild (which merged with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in 2012 to become SAG-AFTRA) are striking simultaneously. Filming has halted midproduction and press junkets are on hold. Negotiations are reportedly poised to resume on August 4.
At the heart of the unions’ conflict with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents all the major entertainment media corporations, are the issues of royalty payments—known as residuals—and the use of artificial intelligence (AI). The former is an urgent matter of financial sustainability for artists between projects. The latter is an existential matter involving the dystopian prospect of robot-generated scripts in place of writers and digital replicas in place of actors.
I joined actors and writers on a picket line outside Disney’s headquarters on July 26, to hear directly from those striking what they believe they’re fighting for. “We’re here to get fair pay, and respect for what we do,” says TV star Adina Porter, holding a picket sign as she marches alongside other actors and writers. “I never thought I’d have to say this, but I’m an actual human being.”
Many writers and actors feel they’ve been pushed too far and are fighting for the survival of their careers and craft, and have taken to social media to rant against their corporate overlords—and I am here for this display of narrative power. The question is, how far will they go?
Well-known actor John Cusack posted a lengthy tweet on July 14, the first day of the SAG-AFTRA strike, saying there was “one set of rules for elites—and another for workers,” which he said effectively means “socialism for the .oooo1 %” and “savage predatory capitalism for everyone else.” As of this writing, Cusack’s tweet has been viewed by more than 4.6 million people.
Others are skewering Disney CEO Bob Iger, who complained that the union members are making demands that are “just not realistic” and that “they are adding to the set of the challenges that this business is already facing that is, quite frankly, very disruptive.” Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Saverio Guerra tweeted a photo of Iger sunbathing with the caption, “Oh look, it’s Bob Iger being unrealistic and disruptive on his yacht!”
Indeed, many industry creatives are seeing their plight through the lens of a predatory capitalist system. According to actor Lily Knight, who picketed outside Disney, “The 1% is just getting fatter and fatter while the rest of us do not thrive.”
“I think it’s no accident that all of this is coming when it’s the dawn of television for people of color, for underrepresented communities,” says Marita de Lara, an actor picketing Disney’s headquarters. “It’s a tale as old as time: Let’s underpay these Black and Brown people, these LGBTQ [people].” It’s a strong accusation and constitutes just one part of the collective wrath aimed at the industry’s greed, which is exerting downward pressure on worker compensation at the same time that Hollywood’s doors are finally being pushed open to greater racial diversity.
People of color like de Lara are disproportionately more familiar with capitalism’s cruelty than whites. Black, Indigenous, and Latino workers, on average, earn much less than white workers—whether in Hollywood or beyond. Now, the increasingly diverse, yet still white-dominated fields of filmmaking and television are collectively experiencing the brutality of the corporate bottom line. While the highest-profile actors and writers make bank, the majority of such workers don’t.
Will this nascent intimacy with corporate greed influence Hollywood’s future storylines?
As I pointed out recently in an op-ed about the hit television show Succession, the industry has had a fraught relationship with on-screen wealth. And although there are increasingly more projects that are critical of capitalism, many still tend to play it safe. Writing in The Face, culture writer Patrick Sproull critiqued many of the “eat the rich” tropes that have started to emerge on-screen, calling them “performative and shallow in their criticisms.”
Boots Riley’s new series for Amazon, I’m a Virgo, is an excellent illustration of how Hollywood’s creators can push the envelope in critiquing the crushing economic system under which we all live. Lucy Mangan’s review of the series in The Guardian calls it “not just a sweet coming-of-age story for the isolated boy-man [Cootie, played by Jharrel Jerome], but interrogations of race relations, capitalism, and the cracks rapidly opening into abysses between the haves and have-nots.”
Riley, who doesn’t shy away from being intentional in his on-screen projects—his first foray into Hollywood was the exceptional anti-capitalist satire Sorry to Bother You—explained to the Hollywood Reporter, “The contradictions of capitalism—how it works—are going to echo through almost everything we do.”
Hollywood’s rank and file are striking at the height of 2023’s #HotLaborSummer, a phenomenon that includes thousands of striking hotel workers in Southern California. Writers and actors find themselves literally shoulder to shoulder with unions like UNITE HERE Local 11, experiencing firsthand the power of labor solidarity across industries and gathering fodder (we can only hope) for future plotlines focused on the hand-to-mouth struggles of ordinary Americans.
“We’ve become less and less of a union country over the last 40 to 50 years, and that has weakened our rights as individuals and as workers so significantly,” says Alex Manugian, who has both written scripts and acted in various television shows. “It’s, to me, working exactly the way the businesses want it to work.”
Given this insight, would Manugian incorporate this critique of American capitalism into future scripts? “I think we should do everything we possibly can for that,” he replies. “The trick is to do it in a way that’s still, hopefully, super entertaining.” Hollywood’s greatest power is its ability to normalize ideas, infusing our culture with tropes that we internalize over time. It has done so for ill, as in the case of white supremacy, and for good, as with LGBTQ people. As rank-and-file creative workers dig their heels in for a protracted fight for their survival, it would benefit all workers if the rage they are feeling makes a direct leap from their pithy Twitter posts into the pages of their screenplays.
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