The Guardian view on Hollywood studios against the workers: a dangerous game | Editorial

Four months after the first one began, the strikes that have shut down many Hollywood productions are coming to resemble a fight to the death on a crumbling cliff edge between Goliath and a valiant crowd of Davids. On one side are the mighty studios, on the other are the writers and actors who feed them. Last month, the president and CEO of Warner Brothers Discovery, David Zaslav – no doubt pumped up by the box office success of Barbie – made the chest-thumping claim that the action had actually saved his company more than $100m. Others have painted a more dismal picture, with Disney reporting trading losses of more than $500m due to streaming reductions.

While the protagonists remain locked in mortal combat, $5bn is said to have been wiped off California’s economy, underlining that it is not only the combatants who are suffering but everyone who supports them, from the caterers who feed them to the chauffeurs who drive them around.

In an industry as global as film, the impact has inevitably been felt way beyond the US. A UK survey of 4,000 members of the technician’s union Bectu, many of them freelance, revealed last week that three-quarters of them were currently out of work. Nine out of 10 members said that they were worried about their financial security, and more than a third said they were struggling to pay household bills, rent or mortgages. Many had been laid off from productions under “force majeure” clauses, leaving them with little notice or pay.

The dispute, which kicked off with the Writers Guild of America in May and spread to the actors union, the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists two months later, revolves around two issues of diminishing rates of pay and job security: contractual agreements that actors and writers feel allow streaming platforms to withhold fees that other industry sectors have traditionally paid, and protection against AI, which is already reshaping the way films are made.

The issue rolled into the TUC Conference in Liverpool this week, with the comedian Sandi Toksvig putting an ironic spin on a motion from the Writers Union of Great Britain: “Our motion, like many motions, is mad – let’s make sure people receive fair pay for the work they do. I know. It shouldn’t be a motion, it should be a given, but it’s not.”

Support among writers and actors remains strong on both sides of the Atlantic, but the consequences for everyone are becoming more serious every week that it drags on. The recent Venice film festival showed what happens to the film industry when the stars don’t show up. Meanwhile, starved of publicity, some of the big films that keep cinemas afloat are being pushed forward into next year and beyond. Studios are now also starting to cancel TV contracts with big-name producers.

The long-term outcome could be worse still: some commentators have gone so far as to blame the screenwriters’ strike of 2007-08 for the rise of reality television, with all the dire unscripted consequences that has unleashed. But what is certain is that the studios will for the foreseeable future need the very skills that are now being forced out of the industry for want of a dime to pay the rent. It is not only writers and actors who face an existential threat.


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