If you want to start a revolution, tell your workers that you would rather see them lose their homes than offer them fair wages. Then lecture them about how their “unrealistic” demands have “disrupted” the industry, not to mention interfering with your revels at Versailles, er, Sun Valley.
Honestly, when you watch the studios spin one strike two, it makes you wonder if any of their executives have ever seen a movie or a TV show. The sight of rich presidents sipping champagne and acting irritated rarely ends well with the crowds crying for bread for the champagne sippers.
This spring, it appeared at times that the Hollywood studios represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers were actively dealing with a writers’ strike. Opinions about why, exactly, ran the gamut: Maybe it would save a little money in the short term and show the Writers Guild of America (which is seen as cocky after its recent ability to force agents out of the packaging business) to Boss.
More clearly, it could achieve the least expensive compromise on issues such as arrears and transparency about the audience.
But the WGA’s 20,000 members aren’t the only people who, having devoted their lives and livelihoods to the streaming model, want fair pay and assurances about the use of artificial intelligence, among other sticking points. The 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists are worried about many writers. And recent unforced errors by studio executives, both named and unnamed, have suddenly transformed a fight the studios were wreaking havoc into a public relations war they can’t win.
Even as SAG-AFTRA representatives saw their demand rejected by a majority despite a near-unanimous strike vote, which Deadline story quoted unnamed executives describing a strategy to bleed stricken writers until they come back spinning.
Days later, when an actors’ strike seemed imminent, Disney CEO Bob Iger took time away from the Sun Valley Conference in Idaho not to offer a compromise but to give a lecture. He told CNBC’s David Faber that the unions’ refusal to help the studios by making a smaller deal “really bothers me.”
“They have an expectation level that is unrealistic,” Iger said. “And they’re adding to the challenges that this business is already facing which, ironically, is very disruptive.”
If Iger thought his attempt to make the case would make actors think twice about walking out, he was sorely mistaken. Instead, it gave SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher a great opportunity for the kind of speech he usually shouts from the top of the barracks.
“We are the victims here,” she said Thursday, launching the actors’ strike. “We are being victimized by a very selfish entity. I am amazed at how the people we have been doing business with are treating us. I honestly can’t believe: How far apart we are on so many things. The way they plead poverty, that they are losing money left and right, while giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting. Shame on them. They stand on the wrong side of history at this point.”
Watch the cascading strings of “Les Mis,” and images of the world’s most famous people walking out in solidarity: the “Oppenheimer” cast leaving the film’s London premiere; writers and cast of “The X-Files” reuniting on the picket line.
A few days later, Barry Diller, chairman and senior executive of IAC and Expedia Group and a former Hollywood studio head, suggested that top-earning studio executives and actors could take a 25% pay cut to quickly end the strikes and help prevent the “collapse of the whole industry”.
When Diller is asking executives to take a pay cut to keep their industry from being destroyed, it’s no longer a strike, or even two strikes. It’s a last ditch effort to prevent it the dit isluge.
Yes, during the writers’ strike of 2007-08, selectors demanded non-compliant things from executives as they entered their respective lots. (“What do you earn, Chernin?” Fox, where Peter Chernin was chairman and chief executive, was popular.) But that was before social media made everything more immediate, incendiary and personal. . (Even if they’ve never seen a movie or TV show, you’d think people who run media companies would understand how media really works.)
Even in the most heated moments of the last writers’ strike, executives like Chernin and Iger were seen as people who could be reasoned with—in part because most executives ran studios, not conglomerates, but mostly because of the pay gap between executives. and workers, in Hollywood and across the country, did not rise to the unfathomable horror that has existed since.
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Now, the huge eight- and nine-figure salaries of studio heads along with photos of tiny residual checks are being paraded across heritage and social media like historical illustrations of monarchs growing fat as they starve. Proof that, no matter how loudly the studios claim otherwise, there is plenty of money to go around.
At the top of that list is David Zaslav, Warner Bros. CEO of Discovery. Having just renamed HBO Max and made cuts to the beloved Turner Classic Movies, among other unpopular moves, Zaslav has become a symbol of the cold-hearted, highly compensated executive whose writers and actors raked against him.
The fierce criticism of individual executive salaries has put Hollywood’s labor conflict at the center of the conversation about growing wealth disparities in the US, fueling, if not causing, many of this country’s political divisions. It also strengthens solidarity among WGA and SAG-AFTRA and with other groups, from hotel workers to UPS employeesamid the disputes during what has been called a “hot labor summer”.
Unfortunately, the growing antagonism between studio executives and union members seems to have left little room for the kind of face-to-face negotiations that helped end the 2007-08 writers’ strike. Iger’s provocative statement, and the dream it inspired, seems likely to eliminate him as an elder statesman who could work with both sides to help broker a settlement.
In the absence of Diller and his “cut your damn salary” plan, few people in Hollywood have the kind of experience, reputation and relationships to fill the void.
At this point, the only real solution has been offered by the actor Mark Ruffalo, who recently suggested that workers seize the means of production by going back to the indie business, which is hard to imagine and not there is a lot of help for those working in television.
It is the AMPTP that needs to heed Iger’s warning. At a time when there is so much disruption in the entertainment industry, two strikes is the last thing anyone needs, especially when the solution is so simple. If the studios don’t want a complete revolution on their hands, they would be smart to give members WGA and SAG-AFTRA contracts they can live with.