Labor expert Susan Schurman has gotten accustomed to the sight of film crews setting up locally — even, on one occasion, just outside her window in North Jersey.
It might not be such a regular sighting in the near future, however.
A conflict has brewed between entertainment industry workers and studios; Schurman said she’d be surprised to see them reach any sort of agreement that gets filming back on track ahead of September’s Labor Day.
That conflict took on a new dimension this month when the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA, voted unanimously to go on strike. The around 160,000-strong performer collective joins the about 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America, or WGA, who had been on strike since May 2.
Schurman, a distinguished professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, said there are few precedents historically in the entertainment industry for what’s going on. Not only have all sides of the industry’s labor force joined the strike, there are unions outside the sector turning out to support them, too.
“This kind of cross-union support hasn’t been seen on this scale in decades,” she said. “That’s one of a couple reasons that what’s going on is historic.”
The key issues that have entertainment workers and studios far from any sort of agreement are also without precedent, Schurman added.
“The recent emergence and growth of streaming, which was really on its way but was accelerated by the pandemic, has now become a major issue and is affecting both competition in the industry and what studios want to pay their writers and actors,” she said. “(They) want access to residual payments from these streaming networks. And they also take issue with the way in which AI technology may be used going forward.”
Simply put, writers don’t want artificial intelligence to be used to write scripts, and actors don’t want AI to replace an actor’s image on screen without getting paid for it, Schurman explained.
“Already this technology is being used to either come up with first drafts of a script and then a writer polishes it up, or vice-versa,” she said. “On the actors’ side, the conversation is mostly around background actors, even if it doesn’t have to be confined to that. In what’s referred to as B-roll of extras — soldiers in an army, people walking down the street in a scene — can the studio take their image and use it in other productions without their permission or payment?”
That issue, which is similar in character to intellectual property rights or copyright disputes, is something Schurman anticipates becoming a topic of discussion in many occupations going forward.
At the moment, the studios, streamers and production companies, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, aren’t reportedly near seeing eye-to-eye on these issues with the striking entertainment workers. Negotiations between the two sides have totally stalled.
Actors deciding to join writers in picket lines in New Jersey’s emerging film scene and the entertainment hubs of Los Angeles and New York City means, in Schurman’s view, that there’s some chance of those talks being sped up. They bring an enhanced bargaining power, she said.
“From the best information I’ve been able to gather, and from people I’ve talked to, the studios have stored enough content that they can last into the fall before they run out of new content,” Schurman said. “Once they run out of content, and really have to resume production, that’s when the writers and actors will get some leverage back.”
There are some complicating factors. One is the possibility of a shift to content that requires little to no acting or writing, such as reality shows. Another is more content being produced overseas for a domestic audience.
Considering all the variables, industry commentators struggle to come up with predictions on when the conflict could end.
Until it does, expect a grinding to a halt of most local film production, Schurman said.
“But it will get settled eventually,” she said. “And I predict the unions will get significant gains on all their issues.”
The New Jersey Motion Picture and TV Commission declined to comment on the ongoing strikes. ROI-NJ requested a comment from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, as well as the WGA and the SAG-AFTRA, but none replied in time for publication.