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A Double Feature of Strikes in Hollywood

SAG and WGA on strike
By Michael DeRienzo, Esq. | Last updated on

If you're a movie buff, you've probably heard the word "SAG strike" thrown around lately. For the first time since 1960, both the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) have decided to band together and go on strike, essentially shutting down Hollywood. With no writers creating new content and no actors bringing old stories to life, the entertainment industry is at a standstill until new agreements are drafted.

How did it get to this? How has nobody been sued yet? Trying to figure out the ins and outs of the Hollywood labor strike would require its own cinematic universe to explain. But since most screenwriters are busy on the picket line, here's a plot summary from the writers at FindLaw.

Prequel: Technology Brings Changes to the Industry

It's no secret that the introduction of streaming services has changed the way audiences consume film and TV. For quite some time now, we've all witnessed the shift away from traditional movie theaters and network television and towards streaming — a trend that is on the rise.

But while the business executives and production companies are still making money, the writers and actors have not received updated contracts to reflect this new model. Further, writers and actors alike have become concerned over the lack of protection from AI-generated content capable of drafting new scripts and reproducing actors' voices, potentially eliminating the need for humans altogether.

Setting the Scene: Negotiations Break Down

In March, the WGA issued a report accusing the production companies of leveraging the shift to streaming to underpay writers and create unfair pay models. In an attempt to obtain protection from this, the WGA sought to negotiate their concerns with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). When those talks broke down, the WGA went on strike at the beginning of May.

In the meantime, SAG-AFTRA was also trying to negotiate with the AMPTP over both protection from AI-generated content and issues that had arisen over "residuals." These are payments that film and TV actors receive after their initial compensation, from things like re-runs, streaming and home video releases, and importantly, generative AI. But when their negotiations similarly came to no avail, SAG-AFTRA also voted to go on strike.

The Exposition: Explaining the Legality of It All

Like any other story, at some point the plot doesn't make any sense without some exposition. Given that this is a legal blog, it makes sense to start there.

In the United States, courtesy of the National Labor Relations Act, you generally have the rights to collective bargaining, e.g., to join a union and go on strike. Further, both actors and writers have specific rights detailed in the respective collective bargaining agreements. All obligations are suspended during the duration of a strike, and strikers cannot be held liable for breach of contract so long as they return after the strike ends.

However, the same protections do not apply to union members in the United Kingdom. If an actor walks off the set in a production in the UK, they will face legal ramifications. This is due to British anti-union laws.

But on the flip side, production companies also have rights. Production companies may have the right to not only terminate the writer's contract, but also drop the entire project all together. This becomes even more complicated in contracts with certain elements such as force majeure clauses, since, perhaps ironically, a delay or project shutdown could be legally excused due to the strike.

The Plot Twist: What Happens Now?

As of now, actors and writers are still on the picket line and not going to work. More specifically, they have been given instructions on what they can and can't do directly from the WGA and SAG-AFTRA.

Writers and actors who are on strike are forbidden from doing any work on productions related to the companies they're striking from. They are also forbidden from engaging in negotiations with those companies on any present or future projects. If a writer pitches a new story or an actor appears on screen, they would be considered breaking union rules, and could face expulsion from the union.

While there are certain exceptions to the rules, it is clear that the Hollywood shutdown is here to stay. All we can do is hope for a happy ending.

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