Illustration by team illustrator Sakura Siegel.
When you hear the word “fall,” you probably think of the crisp air, changing leaves, pumpkin spice everything, back to school season, and curling up on the couch watching a new season of your favorite show. However, these fall traditions might look a little different this year, as the ongoing writers’ strike has halted ongoing productions and is leaving everyone from directors to crew members out of work.
The writers’ strike officially began on May 2nd, when over 11,500 writers from the Writers Guild of America (WGA) walked off the job after failing to reach negotiations for their contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Late night talk shows were immediately affected, as they stopped airing new episodes the moment the strike was announced. The Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) followed suit and went on strike on July 14th.
The introduction of streaming services has completely changed television as we know it in more ways than one. While cable television shows used to make about 22 episodes for one season, the typical length for a season of a television show now is about 8-10 episodes.
This change has caused actors and writers to work significantly less and their gaps between jobs be longer, preventing them from earning a steady wage. While actors and writers used to make enough money from residuals through cable TV based reruns, many actors and writers have come forward to discuss how small their residual checks have been in productions they have either been the leading character on or wrote multiple episodes.
Mandy Moore recently revealed she has received residual checks for as low as one penny for her leading role as matriarch Rebecca Pearson in all 106 episodes of This Is Us. Additionally, Kimiko Glenn, who played Brook Soso on Orange is the New Black, has also joined the conversation on lower residual checks by posting a video of a check she received for $27.30 after appearing on the popular Netflix show for 45 episodes.
While both organizations have slightly different demands and rules in regards to their strikes, their goals are the same: increased pay for their hard work and protection against the use of AI as a potential new driving force in show productions.
Studios have proposed using AI as a replacement for writers, leaving both writers and viewers with legitimate concerns about the quality of future shows and movies. As the implementation of AI in script writing will cause writers to lose their jobs, it will also diminish the quality of writing with studio executives potentially cutting costs on employees and something you can’t put a price on: different perspectives.
Since AI primarily goes off of material that already exists and has little human intervention, it takes away the originality and creativity that can only be provided with people working on a script.
The implementation of AI won’t just affect writers. Studio executives have also considered using AI for actors by using their likeness and voices to generate new content, whether it’s on screen, through voiceovers, or other means. In fact, the AMPTP’s proposal regarding AI was that the background actors would get paid for one day’s pay after being scanned, with the studio owning that scan, along with the actors’ image and likeness, and having the right to use it in any project without consent or compensation.
While many people have dreamed of working in the entertainment industry in some fashion, this strike is highlighting that the people responsible for making the magic of our favorite shows and movies, are barely getting by. In fact, many employees don’t qualify for health insurance, as many employees make less than $26,000 a year and therefore are unable to qualify for the union’s healthcare plan.
Dee Hall, a Bayonne resident, was a grip on film and television sets before the strike. “I worked with the lighting department to shape and sculpt light. We also created movement for the camera by pushing it on a dolley, and I also worked construction in building set walls before they can paint them and put them together. We also did rigging, which is setting up places in preparation for shooting for lighting and camera placement,” Hall said.
In her 16 years of working in TV (with 13 of those years as a grip) in both New York and New Jersey, Hall has worked on productions, such as Friends, Blue Bloods, Law and Order, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, The Walking Dead, and The Retreat.
As a union member, she’s prohibited from crossing lines along with her peers, who are either picketing with the writers and actors or staying at home, and supports the writers and actors fighting to receive fair pay for their work.
With the strike mainly focusing on the writers and actors, other employees in the industry, such as grips, aren’t being acknowledged for their work that is just as important in making a production happen. “Grips are considered below the line employees, along with electricians, props, carpenters, and camera operators, which means they’re hourly employees and don’t necessarily get the same benefits or money like the writers do,” Hall said.
She is currently unemployed due to the strike along with many other grips, who are either trying to find other jobs and/or sticking it out until the strike is over. Since there is currently no end in sight for the strike, many people in the industry are resorting to using their savings to make ends meet.
While Hall is in solidarity with those on strike, she also acknowledges the reality that people are forgetting about employees who are considered below the line. “The strike is mainly focusing on the writers when other employees who are below the line are also unemployed and a big part of the industry. A lot of employees have children going to college or have to make car payments and rent, and they might lose what they worked hard for.”
As below the line employees are responsible for many integral parts of a production, it’s important to acknowledge their efforts during this strike and that it’s also affecting their employment.
With the spotlight on the writers and actors during this strike, certain businesses and organizations are offering their support and even free items. “A lot of writers and actors are getting certain benefits from restaurants, like free food, while below the line employees aren’t getting the same recognition or benefits,” Hall said.
While it is important to recognize the hard work that the writers and actors do, other employees in the industry who are affected by this strike should also be acknowledged for their hard work in helping with production. One of Hall’s colleagues who primarily works with props has expressed their sentiments by saying “for the most part, we feel like we’re the forgotten workforce, even though we’re also affected by this long work stoppage. Restaurants in New York City are letting writers and actors eat for free but not extending that to lower level workers.”
One big question many people have is how the strike will affect television shows and movies in the future. While some people are concerned that different content will be produced, potentially at a much lower quality, Hall isn’t concerned so long as fair negotiations are reached. “As long as studios agree to pay the writers and actors what they need, they’ll be able to create great content. Writers and actors will still do the best work they can when working on set, and they all want to get back out and work as soon as they can once they have fair contracts.”
The strikes have also affected promotion for movies and television shows, as all press tours have been paused until negotiations have been reached, and SAG-AFTRA prevents actors and writers from promoting their new work. While previously announced shows are still being released on schedule as of now, certain shows that have announced new seasons are not going to be filmed for a few years. This uncertain fate has left many employees in the entertainment industry anxious about their future and looking for other options.
Josh King, who currently lives in Bayonne, was a construction grip on film and television sets before the strike. He primarily built sets from start to finish, from putting floors down to building rooms on sets, and has worked on productions such as The Crowded Room (an Apple TV show starring Tom Holland), Dead City (a spin-off of The Walking Dead), Survival of the Thickest, Fallout, and other up and coming shows that have not been released yet.
While King only worked as a grip for a year before the strike, his father worked in the industry for ten years and his brother worked for two years. He’s currently a bartender and has also relied on savings or work through the local construction union.
However, news of a strike had been spreading among those in the entertainment industry before the general public was made aware. “Work was affected before the strike because people knew it was coming, so they slowed down productions or delayed projects. There are almost no productions working right now. I’ve had five days of work in the past eight months when it’s normally Monday through Friday,” King said. He was told there was no end in sight, but that he would get a call back from where he worked before once the strike ends.
King believes that the strike is warranted and that writers deserve better terms. However, he said it’s bad for workers (including himself), since they’re all out of actual jobs. “We’re good with the actual work being done. The things holding it up are big and game changing, like AI, which can easily take over writing.”
He believes that the strike will have a great effect on television shows in the future due to the delayed production. “A lot of shows canceled seasons they were going to shoot because there’s no end in sight, and it makes more sense to scrap it than to hold it for however long. This is the longest strike in a while. Shows are delayed or canceled, which is affecting everybody in the industry. People might not want to wait for the next season of a show because of how long it’ll be until they’ll be in production,” he said.
He predicted that it might be over between September through December depending on how quickly they can come to an agreement and based on the length of other strikes, but it’s unclear.
As this is the first time that both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA have been on strike in over 60 years, the stakes are much higher with the introduction of streaming and AI directly threatening the livelihoods of writers, actors, and below the line employees. Regardless of when this strike ends, its impact will be felt for years to come.