By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 15, 2023)
A GM I once worked for was fond of saying “everybody’s got two businesses…their own, and show biz” (usually under his breath after a meeting with one of our advertisers). It would be nice, but it is true that everybody can’t be a “star”…even for those whose only business is show biz. Take actors. This may be a difficult sell to the average working stiff, but not every person who acts for a living commands a 7-figure (or more) salary per-project; they’re living paycheck-to-paycheck like the rest of us.
In fact, out of the 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, only around 2% make a living from acting jobs. As you are likely aware, this past Thursday SAG-AFTRA joined the members of the Writers Guild of America on the picket lines (the WGA has been on strike now for several months). The last time this confluence occurred was in 1960. And this time out, the issues at hand are more …complex:
SAG-AFTRA and the major studios remain at odds on a dizzying array of issues, as film and TV actors hit the picket lines Friday for the first time since 1980.
According to sources on both sides, the biggest sticking point is the union’s demand for 2% of the revenue generated by streaming shows. The two sides also remain far apart on basic increases in minimum rates, with the studios offering 5%, 4% and 3.5% across the three years of the contract, while the union is demanding 11%, 4% and 4%.
But that only scratches the surface. The parties are at odds on dozens of issues, only a handful of which have been publicly reported.
In some cases, the two sides don’t even agree on what the disagreements are. They engaged in a rare public back-and-forth Thursday over the use of artificial intelligence to replicate background actors.
Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s executive director, alleged that the studios want to pay an extra for one day of work to be scanned, and then reuse that likeness forever. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers hotly disputed that, saying that its proposal explicitly limits the reuse to the project for which the extra was hired.
The Variety article delves deeper into the complexities; the bottom line is that a settlement may take some time. In the meantime, major studio movie and television productions have essentially ground to a halt. This work stoppage has far-reaching consequence, especially when you consider the on-set technicians and post-production personnel involved, not to mention service industry workers like janitors and caterers who all depend on the Hollywood machine for their living.
One interesting sidebar is how the tandem strikes are affecting a place located about a 2-hour drive from where I live… “Hollywood North”:
Rare twin strikes by Hollywood actors and film and television writers are casting a pall over British Columbia’s creative industry, which has become a hub for American film and TV production.
Known as “Hollywood North,” the Canadian province and the city of Vancouver comprise one of the largest production centers in North America, with more than 50 animation studios alone, employing up to 88,000 people, according to a provincial agency. It generated an estimated C$3.6 billion in revenue ($2.7 billion) in 2022.
Hollywood actors on Friday joined writers on the picket lines for the first time in 63 years. The unionized workers are demanding higher compensation in an era when streaming of movies and TV shows has reduced royalties for working-class actors.
Film production in British Columbia is down to “a trickle,” said Gemma Martini, Chair of the Motion Picture Production Industry Association and CEO of Martini Film Studios.
Creative BC, the government body responsible for promoting creative industries in the province, said in a statement it is “concerned for the workforce, companies, industry, and people.”
Since the 1990s, different levels of government have offered tax credits to the industry, adding to its appeal as a destination for movie production. Over the years, Vancouver, with its proximity to Los Angeles and prized locations, has emerged as an alternative hub for production and post-production activities, production executives said. […]
Reverberations that started on May 2 with the writers’ strike grew in British Columbia, where most productions have American components.
In a given week, British Columbia-based film location management company Location Fixer could have 15 active productions.
“Now,” said co-owner Synnove Godeseth, “we have zero.”
Godeseth estimates about 75% of her company’s business comes from U.S. productions. First the business was hit by the writers’ strike: “Because no scripts are being written, people aren’t coming to scout our locations.”
Now, the actors’ strike is taking a toll. Commercial shoots are helping – “that’s literally what’s keeping us afloat.”
Godeseth said she supports the striking workers “100%” and hopes for a swift resolution.
There are also reverberations rippling across the pond to the UK:
Among the productions in the UK that could be affected is Deadpool 3, starring Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman, who were recently pictured suited and booted for their roles. The third installment of the Marvel antihero film franchise was due out in May 2024 but the strike could now change things. […]
Overseas productions, like Paramount’s Gladiator sequel, starring Paul Mescal and Denzel Washington, are also expected to be affected.
The new Gladiator is shooting in Morocco and Malta – but with plenty of British crews working on the production team.
The strike also affects promotional activity. Upcoming releases due to hold promotional events like press junkets and red-carpet premieres include Disney’s Haunted Mansion (released 28 July), a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film (2 August), Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Agata Christie mystery A Haunting In Venice (15 September).
While writing for these projects is likely to be completed, the strike by performers will bring a stop to a large proportion of production work and cause havoc with scheduling. […]
Actors represented by SAG-AFTRA’s sister union, Equity, in the UK must continue to work as normal – the Hollywood strike does not apply to them.
Equity says “a performer joining the strike (or refusing to cross a picket line) in the UK will have no protection against being dismissed or sued for breach of contract by the producer”.
Even actors represented by both SAG-AFTRA and Equity may be required to work on projects being made in the UK, Equity said, due to UK employment laws.
In terms of TV, Warner Bros Discovery previously boasted about the minimal disruption of the writers’ strike to HBO projects like House of the Dragon series, filming in the UK, because scripts were complete.
Nonetheless, the strike by performers who are members of SAG-AFTRA means many fully written screenplays are now likely to be left sitting unused.
Series two of the Game of Thrones TV spin-off, with Matt Smith and Emma D’Arcy, could now face delays, as well as the second series of The Sandman, starring Tom Sturridge, and series four of Oscar-winner Gary Oldman’s Slow Horses.
It is believed side deals could be struck between guild performers and producers to enable certain projects to continue.
So many moving parts involved…here’s hoping this situation comes to a fair and equitable resolution. Meantime, in solidarity with SAG-AFTRA and WGA I am re-posting my 2022 Labor Day piece.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 3, 2022)
Raise your glass to the hard-working people
Let’s drink to the uncounted heads
Let’s think of the wavering millions
who need leaders but get gamblers instead
-from “Salt of the Earth”, by Mick Jagger & Keith Richard
(Shame mode) Full disclosure. It had been so long since I had contemplated the true meaning of Labor Day, I had to refresh myself with a web search. Like many wage slaves, I simply view it as one of the 7 annual paid holidays offered by my employer (table scraps, really…relative to the other 254 weekdays I spend chained to a desk, slipping ever closer to the Abyss).
I’m not getting you down, am I?
Anyway, back to the true meaning of Labor Day. According to the U.S.D.O.L. website:
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.
By the way, Labor Day isn’t the sole “creation of the labor movement”. Next time you’re in the break room, check out the posters with all that F.L.S.A. meta regarding workplace rights, minimum wage, et.al. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so flippant about my “table scraps”, eh?
I have curated a Top 10 list of films that inspire, enlighten, or just give food for thought in honor of this holiest of days for those who make an honest living (I know-we’re a dying breed). So put your feet up, cue up a movie, and raise a glass to yourself. You’ve earned it.
Blue Collar– Director Paul Schrader co-wrote this 1978 drama with his brother Leonard. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto portray Motor City auto worker buddies tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they pull an ill-advised caper that gets them in trouble with both parties, ultimately putting friendship and loyalty to the test.
Akin to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Schrader subverts the standard “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us the road to Hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. Great score by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder, with a memorable theme song featuring Captain Beefheart (“I’m jest a hard-woikin’, fucked-over man…”).
El Norte – Gregory Nava’s portrait of Guatemalan siblings who make their way to the U.S. after their father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you after credits roll. The two leads deliver naturalistic performances as a brother and sister who maintain optimism, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Claustrophobes be warned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a rat colony during an underground border crossing is nightmare fuel. Do not expect a Hollywood ending; this is an unblinking look at the shameful exploitation of undocumented workers.
The Grapes of Wrath – John Ford’s powerful 1940 drama (adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel) is the quintessential film about the struggle of America’s salt of the earth during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get, Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “…be there, all around, in the dark.” Ford followed up with the Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941) another drama about a working class family (set in a Welsh mining town).
Harlan County, USA – Barbara Kopple’s award-winning film is not only an extraordinary document about an acrimonious coal miner’s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973, but is one of the best American documentaries ever made. Kopple’s film has everything that you look for in any great work of cinema: drama, conflict, suspense, and redemption. Kopple and crew are so deeply embedded that you may involuntarily duck during a harrowing scene where a company-hired thug fires a round directly toward the camera operator (it’s a wonder the filmmakers lived to tell this tale).
Made in Dagenham – Based on a true story, this 2011 film (directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory) stars Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, a working mum employed at the Dagenham, England Ford plant in 1968. She worked in a run-down, segregated section of the plant where 187 female machinists toiled away for a fraction of what male employees were paid; the company justified the inequity by classifying female workers as “unskilled labor”.
Encouraged by her empathetic shop steward (Bob Hoskins), the initially reticent Rita finds her “voice” and surprises family, co-workers and herself with a formidable ability to rally the troops and affect real change. An engaging ensemble piece with a standout supporting performance by Miranda Richardson as a government minister.
Matewan – This well-acted, handsomely mounted drama by John Sayles serves as a sobering reminder that much blood was spilled to lay the foundation for the labor laws we take for granted in the modern workplace. Based on a true story, it is set during the 1920s, in West Virginia. Chris Cooper plays an outsider labor organizer who becomes embroiled in a conflict between coal company thugs and fed up miners trying to unionize.
Sayles delivers a compelling narrative, rich in characterizations and steeped in verisimilitude (beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler). Fine ensemble work from a top notch cast that includes David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, Joe Grifasi, Jane Alexander, Gordon Clapp, and Will Oldham. The film is also notable for its well-curated Americana soundtrack.
Modern Times – Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece about man vs. automation has aged well. This probably has everything to do with his embodiment of the Everyman. Although referred to as his “last silent film”, it’s not 100% so. A bit of (sung) gibberish aside, there’s no dialogue, but Chaplin finds ingenious ways to work in lines (via technological devices). In fact, his use of sound effects in this film is unparalleled, particularly in a classic sequence where Chaplin, a hapless assembly line worker, literally ends up “part of the machine”. Paulette Goddard (then Mrs. Chaplin) is on board for the pathos. Brilliant, hilarious and prescient.
Norma Rae – Martin Ritt’s 1979 film about a minimum-wage textile worker (Sally Field) turned union activist helped launch what I refer to as the “Whistle-blowing Working Mom” genre (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, etc).
Field gives an outstanding performance (and deservedly picked up a Best Actress Oscar) as the eponymous heroine who gets fired up by a passionate labor organizer from NYC (Ron Leibman, in his best role). Inspiring and empowering, bolstered by a fine screenplay (by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.) and a great supporting cast that includes Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley.
On the Waterfront – “It wuz you, Chahlee.” The betrayal! And the pain. It’s all there on Marlon Brando’s face as he delivers one of the most oft-quoted monologues in cinema history. Brando leads an exemplary cast that includes Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint in this absorbing portrait of a New York dock worker who takes a virtual one-man stand against a powerful and corrupt union official. The trifecta of Brando’s iconic performance, Elia Kazan’s direction, and Budd Schulberg’s well-constructed screenplay adds up to one of the finest American social dramas of the 1950s.
Roger and Me – While our favorite lib’rul agitprop director has made a number of films addressing the travails of wage slaves and ever-appalling indifference of the corporate masters who grow fat off their labors, Michael Moore’s low-budget 1989 debut film remains his best (and is on the list of the top 25 highest-grossing docs of all time).
Moore may have not been the only resident of Flint, Michigan scratching his head over GM’s local plant shutdown in the midst of record profits for the company, but he was the one with the chutzpah (and a camera crew) to make a beeline straight to the top to demand an explanation. His target? GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Does he bag him? Watch it and find out. An insightful portrait of working class America that, like most of his subsequent films, can be at once harrowing and hilarious, yet hopeful and humanistic.