A signed disparaging artificial intelligence technology is carrier while striking writers and actors walk a picket line, Monday, July 17, 2023, in New York. Three years after the pandemic brought Hollywood to a standstill, the film and TV industry has again ground to a halt. This time, though, the industry is engaged in a bitter battle over the how streaming — after advancing rapidly during the pandemic — has upended the economics of entertainment.
Image Credit: AP

Hollywood, the entertainment capital of the world, where the $134 billion movie and TV industry is located, effectively shut down on Friday after the Screen Actors Guild — The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG — AFTRA) went on strike (for the first time in 46 years), joining 11,500 already striking members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) who had taken to the picket lines two months earlier.

For Hollywood writers and actors to be together on strike at the same time is a phenomenon that Tinseltown had not seen since 1960, when in March that year SAG, still decades away from its merger with AFTRA, struck with WGA, resulting in the industry’s first double whammy.

We already know what these actors demand from that industry: Better pay for their labour, guardrails against the threat to their livelihood by AT and adequate residuals, the financial, compensation that should accrues to actors, screenwriters and others involved in the production of a feature film or a TV series segment in case of re-runs, syndication and streaming.

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A Battle for Fairness

Keep in mind that these 160,000 actors are not of course all A-listers like, say, Meryl Streep, Joaquin Phoenix, Jamie Lee Curtis, George Clooney and Mark Ruffallo, all of whom had joined as well as given their support for the strike, as had done, demonstively, the star-studded cast of “Oppenheimer”, who walked out on the film’s London premier on Thursday evening — the instant the news of the strike broke.

They are rather often nameless and faceless folks, known as “background actors” whom we see on the margins of our screens.

Look, in a film scene, the camera may, as it always does, zoom in on the captivating face of the lead actor but it is the background actors, in the background, as it were, who make that scene come to life. Imagine here, as a case in point, the iconic Normandy Beach landing in “Saving Private Ryan”, or the coffee shop where Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine hang out in “Seinfeld”, without them. If you do, the scene will be lifeless.

These folks, I say, comprise the majority of the low-paid actors who decided to strike against Hollywood studios, studios whose executives bring home millions every year and who evince not just heartless disregard for the concerns of the strikers but wish an ill-fated end to their strike.

File photo: Members of SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America walk the picket line outside Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, California, on June 7, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

How so? Well, consider how an anonymous studio exec told Deadline, the show business website, last week that he, other execs and the Alliance for Film and Television Producers (AFTP), which traditionally negotiates for the studios, aimed to do was to “bleed out” the striking actors and writers to a point where “the endgame is to allow things to drag out until members start losing their [rented] apartments and their houses”. (An AFTP spokesman said the anonymous executive “did not speak for our members”. Hmm, interesting, no?)

In fact, come to think of it, the anonymous fellow may be right. These low-paid actors may indeed find themselves evicted from their homes should the strike stretch into the fall and perhaps beyond. But, heck, where there is organised greed — and no business embodies that egregious human drive more than Hollywood, a place beautiful and glamorous on the outside but callous and vapid on the inside — there is organised labour to combat it, at any cost.

And the cost in this case is heavy indeed, for the ripple effects of the dual strike will be felt quickly, and not just by actors and writers.

Unmasking Hollywood's Greed

Consider this: Each feature film and TV series segment employs roughly 300 crew members to produce, including accountants, transportation workers, hair/make-up/wardrobe specialists, set designers, sound engineers and production assistants, as well as, beyond the studio, caterers, travel agents, dry cleaners and others serving the production staffs.

Now most, if not all, of these not-striking people, who have families to support, mortgage payments to make, kids to set aside college funds for and, darn it, pets to feed, will be out of work.

But labour unionism has always been a basic institution in American society (as it has in many others around the world since the Industrial Revolution, a time when Karl Marx articulated his often quoted and by now hackneyed phrase about “the alienation of the working classes from their means of production”) and one of the most important tools available to workers in their struggle for distributive justice.

And the right to unionise was formalised in 1935, when Congress passed and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act, a foundational statute in US labour law, which not only allowed workers to form unions — whose aim would be, through collective bargaining, to negotiate with employers over winning, for union members, increases in pay, reliable health care benefits, assured pensions, safer working conditions and the like — but banned the formation of “company unions”, known as “yellow unions”, worker organisations founded and dominated by employers.

By the 1950s, about one third of the workforce in the private sector was unionised and unions represented the majority of workers central to the US economy, while union leaders like Walter Reuther (d. 1970), George Meaney (d. 1980) and the notorious Jimmy Hoffa (disappeared 1975, declared dead in 1975 and universally presumed whacked by the Mob), became national figures.

Writers whom we have been watching on our TV screens walking the picket lines since May, and actors since Friday morning, both demanding a better, more equitable slice of the economic pie, are a product of that hallowed American tradition.

I, for one, say all the power to them.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.