Why the Hollywood writers’ strike is causing pain in the UK
Bambos Eracleous, Partner for Sports, Media & Entertainment, on a Hollywood standoff that has damaged productions and livelihoods on this side of the Atlantic.
At the beginning of May, the Writers Guild of America went on strike after its demands for better pay and safeguards against the use of AI in future TV and movie productions were not met. In July, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), which represents 160,000 performers, including A-list stars, joined in for similar reasons. It is the first simultaneous strike by the two organisations since 1960, when future US President Ronald Reagan led negotiations for SAG.
Then, as now, pay and conditions were at the heart of the dispute. But the big difference today is that writers are have been losing out in terms of pay because of the shift to streaming, which has seen the creation of more precarious, lower-paid models for writers’ work, while performers have been hit by the slashing of residuals paid for repeat showings of TV series and movies.
My clients in the TV and film industry know all about this, including the knock-on effects in the UK. But for those of you not in this line of work, let me outline the ramifications of this standoff between the studios and writing and performing talent. The pain goes far deeper than the headache of postponing the 75th Emmy Awards, originally set to take place this month, to January 2024.
A huge swathe of UK production talent has been adversely affected as global productions have come to a standstill. As The Guardian noted in August, ‘already vulnerable’ UK film and TV workers are have been feeling the pinch from the US strike. The ‘already vulnerable’ refers to the hammering many freelancers’ finances took during the pandemic. A location scout based in Sussex told The Guardian he expected to barely earn anything for the rest of the year – a dispiriting prospect after Covid had blown his savings – while a costume designer spoke of “definitely watching the pennies now”.
The number of people in the UK negatively impacted by the dispute may come as a surprise. A survey of 4,000 film and TV workers published on 4 September by media and entertainment union Bectu found that three-quarters were out of work and 80% have had their employment directly impacted by the US industrial disputes. Moreover, nine in 10 are worried about their financial security, and six in 10 reported struggling with their mental health due to loss of work and/or financial worries. These are frankly horrifying statistics.
As the standoff drags on at the time of writing, it looks hopeful that the writers’ strike at least is drawing to a conclusion, with reports of a “tentative” deal with studio bosses. Thank goodness! Yet , one has to wonder what the long-term effects will be. How much young creative talent will be discouraged from entering the industry, preferring to pursue alternative careers that offer greater security?
And as for those already in the business and hit by the strike, how will they getting by? Will they be able to survive much longer on savings and side hustles? Or will many abandon the industry for good, to the detriment of the UK’s film and TV production scene.
The hope must be that the dispute is brought to a swift conclusion, but unfortunately it may drag on for a few more damaging weeks. As for those who remain, there will undoubtedly be some residual bitterness. Earlier this year a studio executive let slip that the plan was to wait until October before resuming negotiations, by which point most writers would be running out of money. “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” the executive explained, coldly.
Hollywood is adept at hard-hitting drama but watching this one play out is farhas been far from enjoyable. I’m rooting for an acceptable compromise and better days ahead.