Lev Radin



Hollywood’s Summer of Discontent will Have a Lasting Effect

In the early days of the American Revolution, Common Sense author Thomas Paine wrote his follow-up, The American Crisis, which famously begins “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It was the early days for the burgeoning republic, impossible to tell what the future would hold. Would the ideals that the Founders strived for flourish, or be quashed under the heel of an unfair, authoritarian system? Paine’s famous opening line reflects that uncertainty, as well as the collective tribulations that everyone was feeling at that time.

I’ve been thinking about that line, and about the nature of David vs. Goliath-esque revolutions, a lot this summer, particularly in regard to the ongoing strikes by both the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). Both of these have brought productions in Tinseltown to a grinding halt, as the writers who craft the stories we love and the actors who play in them have taken to the picket line to make their concerns known and to advocate for better pay and treatment by the big Hollywood studios.

If Paine were alive today, he might opine “These are the times that try actors’ and writers’ souls.” Progress on ending the strikes has been slow, and as of press time, everything from vague rumors of studios going in for a resolution to hard proposals that are dismissed by the striking workers as “not enough” has been considered and ultimately rejected by one or both parties.

What struck me about the strikes was how the context for them was covered by many in the mainstream press. While sensationalism still defines the current era, I was impressed that many took up the call to cover why exactly the strikes were happening. There were stories about how, for example, a member of the writing staff of the current hit FX show The Bear had to drive for Uber in order to support himself because of his low wages.

This is a marked change from decades past, where being on a writing staff for a major show like that would set one up for life with pay and residuals. Writer and producer Mike Reiss, best known for his work in the 90s on animated sitcoms like The Critic and most notably The Simpsons, could afford one of those expensive dives to the wreck of the Titanic very similar to the one that caused the loss of the Titan submersible earlier this summer. Yet, writers today seem to struggle paycheck-to-paycheck, an underwater trip to a doomed ocean liner seemingly out of their reach.

The actors’ side of the equation is just as distressing. One of the more viral stories of the current strike involves actress Kimiko Glenn, best known for her role as Brook Soso on Netflix’s breakout streaming hit series Orange is the New Black. Glenn revealed that despite appearing on the show for multiple seasons and a grand total of 44 episodes, she was paid a mere $27.30 in royalties. Orange is the New Black was championed by Netflix as a major hit that accumulated unprecedented streaming hours, but that seemingly was not reflected in the residuals. Glenn also claims that her fellow supporting actors on the show had to hold down second jobs in order to make ends meet.

Another core issue at the heart of the strikes is the rise of AI. As ChatGPT can now crank out a screenplay far faster and cheaper than a human being can, writers want to eliminate its potential influence in the production process. Actors are worried their digital likenesses will be scanned and stored forever with no monetary or other incentive to them for doing so.

The last time both the WGA and SAG were on strike at the same time, the head of the Screen Actors Guild was then-future President Ronald Reagan. Today, The Nanny herself, Fran Drescher, is the one leading the charge for the actors. Studios are starting to realize that a lack of stars promoting their movies is starting to have a negative effect on their box office revenue.

I was a burgeoning pop culture follower the last time there was a Writers Guild strike from late 2007 to early 2008. Back then, the fight was over residuals from emerging media like home media or digital content. The streaming revolution wasn’t even on anyone’s radar at the time. The effect of the strike could be seen in the slapdash nature of the plots of big blockbusters ranging from 2008’s James Bond outing Quantum of Solace to 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

One of the worst casualties of the strike seemed to be Heroes, a high-concept superhero/sci-fi drama on NBC that could never quite recapture the mojo it had in its spectacular first season after its strike-interrupted second season. The late-night hosts of the time, like Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien, came back to their shows without their writing staffs, letting their programs take on a more improvisational, loose, and off-the-cuff feel that I think predicted the rise of podcasts.

What will the effect of these concurrent strikes be on the Hollywood landscape? Because there is no resolution currently in sight, the ending resolution remains difficult to see. It is hard to see a scenario where the studios emerge from this even stronger, and I think it is safe to assume that there will be a re-balancing between the different elements of filmmaking, and who benefits when they become profitable, no matter what the final outcome ultimately is.

Warner Bros. just recently pushed the release date of its highly anticipated sci-fi sequel Dune: Part 2 into 2024 after originally having been scheduled for release this fall, one of the more obvious and notable examples thus far of just how much the strikes are disrupting Hollywood’s business-as-usual.

It’s also been a chaotic time for the broader entertainment industry, as my colleague Joel White summarized in his report about this summer’s unpredictable box office results. Once-seemingly guaranteed successful franchises don’t perform as expected, while audiences flock to original ideas like Oppenheimer, or new takes on famous IPs like Barbie, from filmmakers they love and with whom they are personally invested.

While I am not quick to say that “the streaming bubble has collapsed,” I think it is fair to say that the streaming environment has to change in order to survive and that the strikes are as good a catalyst as any. For too long, studios bet big on streaming services, thinking that their own subscription-based service would be the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg, but as has been proven time and time again, this isn’t always the case.

But this is much more of a turning point than anyone could’ve realized, embodied by the coinciding nature of a pandemic that perhaps forever changed viewing habits and expectations, an unfair system that exploits creators in order to meet a corporate quota and an emerging technology that threatens to disrupt everything in our lives, not the least of which is where and who we get our content from.

Yet, in the midst of a record-breaking sweltering summer heat, performers and writers nobly still take to the picket lines on both coasts, making their voices heard. By their very nature, labor strikes are and always have been disruptive. Yet, in an era already defined by disruption, these strikes have felt like an effort at readjustment that is much needed to take our actors, our writers, and our stories further into an unknown future.

I hope that the future will be fairer, less governed by corporate directives, and more driven by the passionate creativity and solidarity of the people who work so hard to produce the art and entertainment that entertains, engages, and delights audiences the world over.