Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Hollywood Strike Hits New Mexico

Local Film and TV Professionals Struggle With Loss of Livelihood


On May 2 of this year, just as the big summer movie season was about to gear up, the Writers Guild of America (WGA)—representing some 11,500 professional screenwriters— went on strike over an ongoing labor dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Then on July 14, members of the American actors' union SAG-AFTRA walked off the job as well. This has spawned confusion among consumers, caused a serious economic burden to those employed in and around the film and television community and has all but slammed the brakes on New Mexico's burgeoning film industry.

According to Tom Schuch, who serves as first vice president of the local New Mexico board of SAG-AFTRA, "The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes are separate strikes referencing different contracts. It's coincidental that the two contracts expired near the same time and both resulting in strikes." 

Beloved New Mexico fantasy author George R.R. Martin and famed Sandman writer Neil Gaiman were recently spotted walking a picket line in Santa Fe. And on July 26 the SAG-AFTRA NM Local conducted a "strike action," sending more than 250 New Mexicans to a picket line at the Netflix offices at Albuquerque Studios.

"Although production is shut down there, we felt it would be a large, visible target to picket and talk about our contract issues," says Schuch. "We picketed here because the contract in question is a national contract and many of our N.M. actors have worked under it. The biggest issues for us include pay rates that are commensurate with inflation, AI and its possible negative effect on the livelihoods of principle and background actors, and residuals on streaming content."

These issues that the Screen Actors Guild has with studio producers in Hollywood are nearly identical to the issues that the Writers Guild has. Pay rates have not kept up with inflation, royalties based on streaming content are still lagging behind other, more outdated forms of media, and the creeping use of artificial intelligence could drive many gainfully employed people out of the business entirely.

To those outside the movie industry, such demands may seem far removed from ordinary concerns. Actors are viewed as rich and famous, and the threat of insidious AI sounds like yet another sequel to The Terminator. But of SAG-AFTRA's 250,000 members, only 12.7 percent qualify for the union’s health plan. In order to qualify for that health plan, they must make at least $26,470 a year—meaning more than 87 percent of actors make less. Currently, most of them are making nothing.

And it's not just writers and actors feeling the sting of this extended strike. Danielle Bridges is a single mother who has worked as a makeup artist on local productions for studios like Nickelodeon, Disney, Fox and Netflix. She does things like makeup application, special effects and facial hair. "I support myself primarily through film and television," she says. But the strike has put her out of business as well.

She says that New Mexico has been billed as "a land of milk and honey" for those trying to find work in the film industry. The state has invested heavily in infrastructure, from financing movie studios to advancing the construction of new housing. And yet, this year's strike shows just how fragile the industry is. Although Bridges has worked in film and television for 15 years, she's a relatively new member of IATSE 480, the local chapter of the International Alliance of Stage Employees, the union that represents tradespeople and craft workers in film and television.

"The strike has impacted myself and others who are not part of WGA or SAG in many ways," points out Bridges. "Firstly, because as union workers we have a reverence for our fellow brothers and sisters in the union. We will always stand in solidarity. This art form takes all of us to contribute to make it as beautiful and successful as it is."

According to Bridges, members of other entertainment industry-based unions "are willing to sacrifice to support our fellow artists. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily easy. Many of us are suddenly without work, and the worry for how we will fare in the coming months is very real. Luckily, we have banded together to help each other through mutual aid and other forms of support."

In the early stages of the WGA strike, movie studios floated the punitive idea that maybe writers could be replaced by new generative AI chatbots, which comb the internet and assemble text based on user prompts. Though this remains a somewhat distant possibility, the actor's strike brought up a far more likely Hollywood scheme. In mid-July national SAG-AFTRA representatives revealed a "groundbreaking" proposal by movie studios to replace extras with AI. 

“They propose that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay, and their company should own that scan of their image, their likeness, and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want with no consent and no compensation,” said SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland.

"I believe that AI has the potential to perform any task a human being can do," warns Schuch. "The film industry is already taking 360 degree scans of non-union background actors and duplicating them over and over. There is a thin line between the good and potential evil AI can perform. Regulations and guidelines have to be developed now in order to keep it in check."

And the replacement of actors with digital avatars affects much more than just the actors themselves. If those actors are no longer on set, movie producers will no longer need to hire caterers to feed them, or costumers to clothe them, or transportation drivers to move them around, or makeup artists like Danielle Bridges to get them looking good.

"For me, I see the disruption in production having a profound effect on the
N.M. economy at large." says Schuch. “Not only are actors unable to work, but all of the local businesses that support the film industry here are affected: e.g., hotels, restaurants, caterers, car rental companies, lumber companies, paint stores, thrift shops, gas stations, clothing stores, etc. Are all affected. Strikes are not easy on anybody, but necessary in order for us to get a fair and equitable contract."

As for how long this strike could last, it’s anyone’s guess. “The issues in this now-stalled negotiation are so big I don't see a quick resolution,” admits Schuch. “In 2000 our commercial strike lasted six months. This may go longer given the issues at hand. No one on the national SAG-AFTRA level is predicting when this could be resolved. My feeling is this may change the filmmaking business model in profound ways. And, with the incredible pace that AI is advancing, this strike may be a precursor to changes in many industries.”

"I think the most anxiety-inducing part about not knowing is that there were statements made that they will aim to cause people to be in ruin. I can't believe that is the aim. To literally harm another's right to housing and quality of life,” says Bridges about rumored threats from studio heads to drag out the strike as long as possible. “But those who aim to break us underestimate the passion and heart we bring to each other and our crafts everyday. We will continue to stand together no matter what. Union Strong is not just a cute statement, it's a lifestyle. It's a promise we have made to each other."


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