Since May 2, 2023, a series of ongoing labor disputes within the television and film industries have been occurring in both Los Angeles and New York City. These disputes have been spearheaded by two major labor union strikes declared by the Writers Guild of America (“WGA”) and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (“SAG-AFTRA”) against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (“AMPTP”).
The WGA is a joint American labor union that represents at least 11,000 writers in film, television, radio, and online media. SAG-AFTRA is another American labor union which represents approximately 160,000 media professionals worldwide including actors, announcers, broadcast journalists, recording artists, news writers, and puppeteers. Conversely, AMPTP is a trade association that represents over 350 American television and film production companies in collective bargaining negotiations with entertainment industry labor unions. AMPTP member companies include major motion picture studios (such as Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Walt Disney Studios), broadcast television networks (such as ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC), and several streaming platforms such as Netflix, Apple TV, and Amazon.
The ongoing labor disputes and strikes were prompted by collective concerns regarding intellectual property rights, job security as it relates to artificial intelligence advancements, and lack of compensation from streaming services.
First, there is a huge concern of writers and actors that their intellectual property may be undermined and infringed upon by generative artificial intelligence (“AI”). Writers are concerned that generative AI will be used to produce scripts with little human involvement, and actors are worried that their voice, image, and likeness may be reproduced without their permission. While there are copyright laws that protect original works of authorship, the emergence of AI raises new legal issues that may necessitate revisions to contractual language in collective agreements or legislative action. Although WGA cannot prevent technology from developing, they can ensure that any studio that seeks to do business with their writers maintain basic standards of human involvement and pay writers a wage that is consistent with the budgets and success of the studios hiring them.
Moreover, the growing trend towards streaming services has led to screenwriters and actors being compensated significantly less in comparison to traditional broadcasted shows. This pay discrepancy can be attributed to the fundamental differences between broadcast television and streaming. Shows appearing on streaming platforms are generally shorter per season in comparison to broadcasted shows. Further, the calculation of residuals from streaming services is not as streamlined as they are for broadcasted shows due to differences in revenue generation structures. As such, intellectual property rights, job security, and compensation have been some of the key points of negotiation amid the ongoing labor disputes.
In closing, the WGA strike has been characterized as the longest and most costly strike in Hollywood history. As of August 2023, the WGA strike has cost the California economy about $3 billion. Nevertheless, there is optimism among television and film professionals as the WGA strike ended on September 27, 2023, after 148 days of work stoppage. WGA and AMPTP reached a tentative agreement, subject to final contract language. In a statement issued by WGA, the union characterized the agreement as one that is “exceptional—with meaningful gains and protections for writers in every sector of the membership.” Although SAG-AFTRA remains on strike, the WGA contract typically sets the template for Hollywood’s other trade unions. As such, SAG-AFTRA and AMPTP are expected to reach an agreement soon.
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