EAST LANSING, Mich. — The Screen Actors’ Guild Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA, has joined the Writers’ Guild of America, or WGA, on strike — effectively shutting down Hollywood. Fair compensation in the streaming era and regulation of artificial intelligence and its use in film and television are the key issues in the first tandem strike of these unions since 1960. MSU experts are available to comment on what these strikes mean for television and film moving forward.
Film and television industry
William Vincent, professor of film studies in MSU’s College of Arts and Letters, specializes in production, screenwriting and film history. A producer and actor, he has appeared in “The Evil Dead” (1981), “Army of Darkness” (1992) and “For Love of the Game” (1999).
“The full impact of the WGA strike will be felt later when already-written material runs out. The actors’ strike will have a more immediate effect, throwing the fall television season into doubt and delaying many films on the verge of going into production. The two strikes will certainly affect tens of thousands of workers in the industry beyond just the writers and the actors.”
Jeff Wray is a professor of film studies at MSU. He’s also a screenwriter and producer for Jazzy Tam films, an independent film company based in the Midwest dedicated to bringing to life the stories and realities of undocumented black lives.
“Both the SAG-AFTRA actor’s strike and the continuing writer’s strike are rooted in the swiftly changing ways and structures in which film and television are produced and consumed. Prior to the streaming boom, television seasons usually consisted of 18-24 episodes, with actors and writers paid on a per-episode basis. Union actors were also compensated for future broadcasts of episodes they were contracted for, which provided a continuing payment of each subsequent representation of an actor’s on-screen presence.”
“With streaming the rules of the game have changed. The stability of the 18–24-episode television season with residuals payments coming to an actor years down the road is disrupted. Computer-generated and AI allows for an actor’s likeness to be captured and used in place of the performer’s actual physical presence. Writers are also caught in the shift. Shorter seasons affect incomes and career possibilities. The blossoming and use of ChatGPT as a substitute for actual writers writing is destabilizing for the work force.”
“The strikes are most critical for the 80% of actors and writers making less than $10,000 a year. The walkout is also about principle and the value of human labor in an entertainment landscape altered by emerging technology. At the same time, it is basic of capitalism. The entertainment companies want to pay the broad acting and writing work force as little as possible while making and keeping as much money as possible for the company, their investors and themselves.”
Anjana Susarla, Omura-Saxena Professor of Responsible AI in the MSU Broad College of Business, is an expert in how artificial intelligence and machine learning are transforming society and the ethical dilemmas AI poses.
“With new generative AI models, the fear is that creative content professionals may see some aspects of their job automated using AI. The Writers Guild is demanding that studios cannot use their written material to train AI models. With the actors joining the strike, the question for the future is how the widespread use of AI in the entertainment industry will shift the balance in power between the studios and creatives. While companies such as Netflix have built new business models that benefit from AI, the question is also how the economic value from newer models of content production is distributed between the different entities involved (studios, creative writing professionals, actors, etc.)”
Michelle Kaminski, associate professor in MSU’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations in the College of Social Science, is an expert in labor law and collective bargaining.
“Hollywood actors and writers have what many of us would consider ‘dream’ jobs. But like the rest of us, they are also workers – and only a small percentage of them get the superstar salaries we read about. Both actors and writers are being affected by technological upheavals from the streaming ecosystem and from the threat posed by AI to creative work. SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America are striking against the producers to ensure that their members are fairly compensated in this new environment.”
“These strikes come at a time of increasing labor activism in the US, when workers in many industries including health care, education, warehousing, delivery services, and manufacturing are seeking better working conditions, more job security, and higher compensation. The long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with increasing solidarity among working people, appear to be contributing to a change in the balance of power between workers on the one hand, and managers and owners on the other. The high-profile Hollywood strikes are a symbolic bellwether in these ongoing labor struggles.”