You’ve seen it all over social media: A-list actors discussing on their Instagram stories why the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) is on strike. The SAG strike was the second to hit Hollywood this year, following the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) strike which began in May.
The main point of contention for both the SAG and WGA deals with the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the entertainment industry, fair wages and residual payment in the streaming age. Residuals are long-term payments actors and writers receive each time a showor film is broadcast or purchased after its initial airing.
The double strike may have felt distant to Charlestonians — until Wilmington casting agent Kimmie Stewart Casting announced that production for the Netflix series Outer Banks, which is filmed in Charleston, was halted last week.
President of the Carolina Film Alliance Linda Lee said she’s in the midst of trying to figure out how to keep folks employed while the industry is at an indefinite standstill.
“We have the best carpenters in the world, painters in the world, set dressers that are really good at what they do and can work in any area. We’re just trying to figure out where else they could work,” she said. “Our electricians are incredible, our grips can do anything. … I’m trying to figure out how to keep people working.”
New mediums, old issues
These strikes typically occur when labor practices have not yet caught up with new technologies. Writers and actors have gone on strike roughly every decade for almost a century as new media are put forth, from television to cable to VHS to mobile
— and now streaming.
The last time both WGA and SAG-AFTRA went on strike in 1960 was in response to a then-new medium called television. Wages and residual payments had to be established because TV introduced the ability for viewers to watch reruns.
Today, actors and writers are fighting for the same principles in a landscape that has rapidly changed since the last double strike.
“It used to be that when a television show ran, when it was in reruns, the actors and writers would get their residuals, and that would help,” said Linda Eisen, agent and owner of Isle of Palms talent agency Coastal Talent. “Most actors are working for a union scale. The celebrities are a very small number of people in the union.”
Actors and writers say residual payments, which used to provide a steady income, have greatly diminished in recent years because of streaming platforms. These platforms do not pay based on the number of times a show or movie is viewed, and they are very guarded about viewership numbers.
The effects of AI
Art is integral to culture and human history, and the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are fighting for the ability to pursue art as a viable career.
“I feel very passionately as a writer, producer, casting director and actor, this is my time [to speak up],” said Chad Darnell, a creative based in Savannah, Georgia. “It sucks that everybody has to fight for a living wage, and we’re at this time in our lives that we have to deal with contract negotiations, but as a creative, everyone wants to show the world what we do.”
Michael Smallwood, a film industry actor, writer, director and educator who lives in Charleston, clarified that the WGA and SAG are “not just asking for more money.” The issues run deeper.
“They don’t want being an actor or writer to be an unattainable career goal,” Smallwood said. “There was a time when being an actor or writer could provide you with a middle-class lifestyle. More and more, you’re either rich or struggling, and that’s become the truth of our industry. There are so many below the poverty line.”
AI is one of the biggest threats to careers in the field as it could offer potential replacements for real actors and writers. Smallwood argues that AI not only affects the availability of work but also the humanity of the product.
“As a writer, I don’t want my job to compete with a machine. But as a viewer, I don’t want things to be written by a machine,” he said. “Computers can’t create anything. They can only regurgitate what’s put in.”
Not just actors and writers
“How many people actually stay behind or wait until the movie’s over to see how many credits you notice? It’s a lot of credits,” said Dan Rogers, senior project manager for the South Carolina Film Commission.
Rogers explained these credits are more than just actors, writers and crew. They’re people who love what they do and want to use their skill set in the entertainment industry.
“That’s what we’re all about — trying to have our people’s names in that credits list so they can make a living in this industry, which is one of the largest exports in the United States,” Rogers said.
These industry professionals do believe we can expect brilliant independent films to come out of this time.
“This will be the rise of the indies. Fight your fight and make your art,” Darnell said. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
South Carolina Film Commissioner Matt Storm said, “It’s important to remember this will probably only be months, not years, and I hope that we’re able to bounce back as an industry. When it does, we’ll be ready.”
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