Hollywood Strikes Will Come Down to Who Blinks First

hollywood strikes
Elliott Cowand Jr/Shutterstock Remix by Caterina Cox

In the latest edition of his weekly column, writer Lon Harris examines the latest updates on the ongoing Hollywood strikes.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike entered its 20th week on Monday, while actors union SAG-AFTRA has now been on the picket lines for 62 days. It’s already been a long haul. Recall that Labor Day was originally the “point of no return” date for the Hollywood strikes that anonymous studio execs warned New York Times readers would have serious, long-term implications for the entire entertainment industry. So it’s unquieting to see headlines bluntly announcing that “there’s still no end in sight.”

The Economic Impact Is Already Being Felt

So far, actors and writers have maintained a strong, even surprising level of solidarity, but after this many weeks, the negative impacts of such a lengthy work stoppage are already starting to materialize. The Hollywood entertainment industry employs more than 1.7 million people in the state of California alone, paying out more than $158 billion a year in wages. Screenwriters and actors are out of work by choice, but other Hollywood workers like the fashion designers of Valentino’s Costume Group of North Hollywood have lost out on most of their business as well. Unlike writers and actors, they don’t even have hope of securing a better contract once the strikes wrap up. They’ll just go back to business as usual, if they still have a business at all.

Canceling all new scripted films and TV productions for months on end has huge consequences far beyond just the greater Los Angeles area as well. NPR points out that even far-flung locales like Montana—which gets a routine economic boost from Taylor Sheridan’s various cowboy shows—are hurting from the lost revenue. Even the Czech Republic, where Amazon’s “The Wheel of Time” constructed its elaborate high-fantasy sets, is feeling the pinch. 

Many international actors are members of foreign unions or guilds and can continue working throughout the strike. (British actors, for example, are represented by Equity, not SAG-AFTRA.) So streamers can continue developing content overseas, just without collaboration with American talent.

And regardless of the economic cost, there’s a widespread understanding of the necessity of strikes in the entertainment industry. Other guilds like the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the Art Director’s Guild, and the Costume Designer’s Guild continue to make statements in solidarity with the strikes—despite noting the serious economic strain on their members. Across the seas, the International Affiliation of Writers Guilds, the Federation of Screenwriters in Europe, and the UNI Global Union are just a few others to pledge support.

However, it will be interesting to see how all that economic pain in the U.S. translates to pressure on both sides of the labor conflict to wrap things up quickly and get back to business. Even Netflix, frequently cited by Hollywood creatives as their primary foe this Hot Labor Summer seems to largely agree on these broad outlines. Just this week, Netflix CFO Spencer Neumann told a Bank of America media conference, “There’s a lot of folks out of work, and the business isn’t moving forward. And so it’s terrible for all those folks out there that are not working, and it’s not good for the business.”

<Al Pacino yelling> SOLIDARITY!

Naturally, at this late date, both sides are looking for cracks in the opposition’s solidarity. By now, the writers, the actors, and the companies that make up their opposition have had a chance to lay out their case to membership and the public. Everyone’s just waiting to see who blinks first.

The studios and streamers—organized within the trade association the Alliance for Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP)—have long hoped to create a wedge between the more well-off and prominent “showrunner” class of writers and the union’s base of lower-paid up-and-comers. While younger, less established writers may be willing to hold out longer for better deals, the studios and streamers had hoped that their more famous counterparts (many of whom already have lucrative production deals, and boats to maintain) might push to conclude the work stoppage more quickly.

That was certainly the hope of Warner Bros. Television Group when they very publicly suspended overall deals for high-profile producers and showrunners like J.J. Abrams, Mindy Kaling, Chuck Lorre, and Greg Berlanti. NBCUniversal and CBS Studios also hit pause on deals with Lorne Michaels, Dr. Phil, and several others.

If the AMPTP was hoping this move would prompt showrunners to immediately demand compromise from their counterparts, it didn’t work out. Berlanti responded by pledging $500,000 to a strike relief fund. Recent public revelations about plans for a group of high-profile showrunners to meet in private with the WGA negotiating committee and other union officials also set off some red flags. The group—which included “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris, “Fargo” vet Noah Hawley, and “Mr. Robot” mastermind Sam Esmail—shut down the meeting to avoid even the appearance of a lack of solidarity.

Drew I Dare?

Another recent test of everyone’s resolve has been Drew Barrymore’s decision to bring back her daytime talk show amid both strikes. While working in her capacity as a chat show host, Barrymore is not in violation of SAG-AFTRA guidelines. These kinds of jobs are under a separate contract from the scripted TV and film actors who are striking. But bringing back her CBS show while her writers are on strike does mean crossing a WGA picket line. As well, any writing that’s done for the show, even if it’s Barrymore and her producers coming up with concepts on the fly, would be considered a form of “scabbing.”

In a post on social media, Barrymore explained that, while she “own[s] this choice,” the opportunity to bring back her show was larger than just her. (Though she doesn’t come out and state it directly, the implication is that this decision was made on behalf of her dedicated production crew, to get them back to work.) She’s not alone, either. The nationally syndicated “Jennifer Hudson Show” will also resume production on Sept. 18, and CBS is considering a return of “The Talk,” though it’s unclear if all hosts will participate.

Still, Barrymore was first out of the gate and has received the lion’s share of scrutiny and blowback for her decision. The WGA is now actively picketing her studio, the show is searching audience members upon entering the gate for WGA pins and other ephemera, and the entire controversy has led to a reportedly “chaotic” atmosphere on set.

Though the notion of bringing the show back for the benefit of out-of-work crew members has received a sympathetic response on apps like Instagram, Hollywood creatives have apparently been largely unified in rejecting the move. The response went beyond the entertainment industry as well. The National Book Awards dropped Barrymore as their 2023 host following her announcement.

Not only has solidarity among the creative class largely held strong, but by most metrics, Hollywood’s “Hot Labor Summer” appears to still be gaining momentum. The “creative consultants” (this is code for writers) who develop MTV’s schedule-filling clip series “Ridiculousness” opted to unionize as part of the WGA West just the other day. Marvel Studios’ VFX artists also voted unanimously this week to unionize, marking the very first time a group of exclusively visual effects workers have joined the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).

Netflix and Disney: Natural Enemies

In fact, those looking for cracks in the foundation might be better served by switching their gaze to the opposition side. Last week, the WGA sent an email to members suggesting that a rift has opened between legacy Hollywood studios and their AMPTP partners, the tech companies that own streaming platforms, leading to a kind of “paralysis” that has stymied attempts to make a new deal. The WGA’s negotiating committee noted that “there is no requirement that the companies negotiate through the AMPTP,” slyly suggesting that the entire organization should just dissolve, allowing the companies to make individual deals with creatives.

The AMPTP denies these charges, but the observation that the studios and streamers aren’t always aligned in their needs and goals is not exactly a new one. IAC owner and media mogul Barry Diller made this same point on Kara Swisher’s podcast last month, noting that Hollywood studio executives and their creative colleagues are natural allies who should be united against outsiders like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple. 

Netflix can afford to hold out for new content for years based on its long production pipeline and its massive international footprint, while Amazon and Apple are only partially in the entertainment business anyway. Companies like Paramount, Warner Bros. Discovery, and Disney, on the other hand, desperately need fresh content right away to fill their cable networks and streaming platforms, not to mention movie theaters. If AMC Theaters goes out of business because there weren’t any new movies in 2024, that actually helps Netflix. They just killed off a major competitor for your entertainment dollar. But it’s devastating for Sony. They need you to pay to go to a theater and watch “Across the Spider-Verse” again.

A few independent film and TV studios have already pursued their own workarounds. A24 has already agreed to SAG-AFTRA’s demands and has signed a few interim agreements allowing their projects to move forward. The stars of the company’s “Past Lives” will even get to promote their work during award season. There’s theoretically a path forward here.

Of course, the strike could be resolved without any kind of genuine split or schism on either side. Maybe the AMPTP will finally come back with a more reasonable compromise, and the writers and actors will eagerly snatch it up. But at this point, after being locked in conflict for months with no end in sight, the concerns are mounting that this is a genuine impasse, and a larger revolution in the entire media landscape will be required before it’s fully resolved.

Do you have a tip into developments on the picket line? Email tips@passionfru.it to share your story.

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