Four months after the first one began, the strikes that have shut down many Hollywood productions are coming to resemble a fight to the death on a crumbling cliff edge between Goliath and a valiant crowd of Davids. On one side are the mighty studios, on the other are the writers and actors who feed them. Last month, the president and CEO of Warner Brothers Discovery, David Zaslav – no doubt pumped up by the box office success of Barbie – made the chest-thumping claim that the action had actually saved his company more than $100M. Others have painted a more dismal picture, with Disney reporting trading losses of more than $500M due to streaming reductions.
While the protagonists remain locked in mortal combat, $5B is said to have been wiped off California’s economy, underlining that it is not only the combatants who are suffering but everyone who supports them, from the caterers who feed them to the chauffeurs who drive them around.
In an industry as global as film, the impact has inevitably been felt way beyond the US. A UK survey of 4,000 members of the technician’s union Bectu, many of them freelance, revealed recently that three-quarters of them were currently out of work. Nine out of 10 members said that they were worried about their financial security, and more than a third said they were struggling to pay household bills, rent or mortgages. Many had been laid off from productions under “force majeure” clauses, leaving them with little notice or pay.
The dispute, which kicked off with the Writers Guild of America in May and spread to the actors union, the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists two months later, revolves around two issues of diminishing rates of pay and job security: contractual agreements that actors and writers feel allow streaming platforms to withhold fees that other industry sectors have traditionally paid, and protection against AI, which is already reshaping the way films are made.
The issue rolled into the TUC Conference in Liverpool recently, with the comedian Sandi Toksvig putting an ironic spin on a motion from the Writers Union of Great Britain: “Our motion, like many motions, is mad – let’s make sure people receive fair pay for the work they do. I know. It shouldn’t be a motion, it should be a given, but it’s not.”