As today’s screenwriters and actors grapple with financial challenges in a rapidly changing showbiz landscape, combined strikes by the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA have brought Hollywood to a standstill. Productions are stalled, press tours canceled, and the 2023 Emmys postponed. The economic impact is expected to far surpass that of the last writers’ strike, which cost the L.A. economy more than 2 billion dollars. On this episode of “The Envelope,” hosts Yvonne Villarreal and Mark Olsen discuss the issues underlying this historic strike, pay disparities in streaming and concerns over the rise of AI with L.A. Times film reporter Josh Rottenberg and actor Sarah Ramos — a member of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee. Listen now wherever you get your podcasts.
Yvonne Villarreal: Hello, everyone. We’re back with another episode of “The Envelope” from the Los Angeles Times … but, we’re switching things up this time around. Instead of bringing you another in-depth conversation with talent behind your favorite movies and TV shows, we’re taking a moment to look at the strikes by writers and actors that have effectively brought Hollywood to a standstill.
[Clip: PROTESTERS FROM WGA CHANTING: “Strike, strike. Fight, fight.”]
Villareal: I’m one of your hosts, Yvonne Villarreal.
Mark Olsen: And I’m your other host Mark Olsen. That’s right, Yvonne. This would usually be prime For Your Consideration time in the weeks leading up to the Emmys, and while we still have some interesting conversations in the weeks ahead with talent, it felt only right to acknowledge the simultaneous strikes that have prompted the postponement of the Emmys. This will be remembered as a pivotal moment in the entertainment industry, casting a light on issues that include pay disparity in streaming and the looming threat of AI.
[Clip: PROTESTERS FROM SAG-AFTRA CHANT: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, corporate greed has got to go.”]
Here’s a bit of a recap. In May, the 11,500 screenwriters represented by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike after contract negotiations with the AMPTP broke down. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers is made up of traditional studios like Warner Brothers and Paramount, plus streamers like Netflix and Amazon.
As of this episode’s release, writers will soon have been walking picket lines for more than a record-breaking 100 days. In June, members of SAG-AFTRA, which represents 160,000 television and movie actors, joined them on the picket lines, bringing Hollywood to a halt.
Actors and screenwriters had not been on strike at the same time since 1960.
Villarreal: For this week’s episode, we’re joined by our colleague, film reporter Josh Rottenberg, who has been covering the strikes alongside our tireless colleagues who make up the Company Town team.
Olsen: Yes, and, later, we’re joined by actor Sarah Ramos, whose credits include “Parenthood” and “The Bear.” She is part of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee and has been vocal in raising awareness around one of the matters SAG-AFTRA is seeking changes to in its contract negotiations: self-taping.
So, let’s dive into these conversations now.
Mark Olsen: Josh, thanks so much for joining us today — let’s dive right in. How would you summarize the main issues of the strike itself?
Josh Rottenberg: Well, both writers and actors and really everybody in entertainment is dealing with these just huge changes that have swept through the industry in the past. Fifteen years in the streaming era, and, uh, they say their contracts with the AMPTP are out of date and need to be brought up to the present day to account for all these changes so that they can continue to make a living. The shift toward streaming just really upended an entire economic system that had existed for decades. And even though it’s brought in a boom in the overall amount of content that’s being produced actors and writers alike have sort of seen their income becoming eroded and gigs have become shorter and farther between. And meanwhile, they’re seeing the CEOs of these corporations taking in tens of millions of dollars every year in salary, and they want a bigger piece of that pie. So they’re looking for higher minimums. residuals for streaming, which don’t exist, and also just better job protections to make this career more sustainable.
Villarreal: I think we’ve all sort of experienced or have talked to people that this is affecting. I know Mark and I have been on the picket lines talking to people, and Josh, you’ve spent some time really listening to the stories of the people that it’s affecting. I think there’s this misconception that it’s the Jennifer Anistons, the Brad Pitts, but the bulk of these guilds are, you know, not A-listers. They’re, you know, just trying to make ends meet, or sometimes living paycheck to paycheck.
Rottenberg: Yeah, I’m working on a story now that’s kind of trying to put a human face on the actors’ strike. And the reality is that 80% of SAG members don’t make enough to qualify for SAG health insurance, which is $26,000. The public perception that these are all stars being ferried around in limos to premieres is really not the reality.
Villarreal: Well, let’s take a closer look at what’s at stake for the different sides, starting with the writers. The WGA went on strike back in May. What are they specifically asking for? Like, what are maybe the top three things that are really important to them right now?
Rottenberg: Well, the writers say that their careers have been really eroded by streaming. Streaming services, they generally use smaller staffs, these so-called mini rooms, and they tend to have shorter seasons than broadcast shows. So that leaves writers kind of scrambling to piece together their living from shorter and lower paid jobs. And there’s also less of a sort of path to advancement than there used to be for writers. It used to be that network shows had much longer season orders and you could over time work your way up from a writer to an executive producer and a showrunner. And now a lot of that kind of ladder of advancement has been, um, kind of taken away in the streaming era. And, you know, a big issue is residuals in the old system writers would get royalties from shows that went into reruns or syndication, things like that. Now streaming shows don’t have those kinds of back-end payments. The writers are just finding that that math doesn’t add up in their favor. They’re also looking for guarantees from the AMPTP that the studios and networks, in an effort to cut down costs, won’t turn to AI and just use this AI software to generate scripts and ideas and cut writers out of the picture altogether.
Olsen: And I think we’re going to get to AI more in depth in a minute, but I want to be sure that we get to the fact that, you know, in July, the actors also joined the picket line. And what’s at stake for them in contrast to the writers?
Rottenberg: It’s a lot of the same issues. They have a lot of the same demands, which is why they’ve kind of found common cause with the writers in this moment. Again, streaming residuals are a big issue, the upfront pay for streaming projects tends to be lower across the board than for films and network or cable series. I mean, we remember going back to you know, when the cast of “Friends” negotiated to get a million dollars per episode and when actors like Jim Carrey and Julia Roberts were suddenly getting $20 million a movie and that was the new sort of benchmark for a star in a big movie. That’s all changed. You know, even if an actor is on a show that’s massively popular on a streaming platform, like Netflix or Amazon, they don’t share, financially, in that success. And, in fact, since the streamers keep their viewership data basically secret, they don’t even really have visibility into what is and isn’t a success. So along with sort of wanting a better look into how their projects are performing, SAG has proposed that its members should just have a share in overall revenue from streaming platforms and the studios have rejected that. And like the writers, actors are concerned about AI.
Villarreal: Yeah. I know it’s something I worry about in our own industry. How is it currently being used that you know, and what are the concerns that it will be used for?
Rottenberg: Yeah, AI is here. The genie is out of the bottle. So, you know, on big expensive productions, they’re already using AI in visual effects and animation, things like that to kind of streamline the workflow and we’ve seen it used to help kind of de-age actors, Robert De Niro in “The Irishman” or Harrison Ford in the new “Indiana Jones” movie. That technology is still evolving and it’s creating all kinds of fears that we’ll see actors who are dead being reanimated and put into new projects. It’s being used to sort of digitally tweak actors’ performances so that it can look like they’re speaking a different language if a project’s being dubbed for a foreign audience. And it’s being used in a different way by the studios and streamers to decide what to make in the first place. They’re using algorithms to decide, you know, this romantic comedy with these two stars will be worth this much of an investment and will target this demographic.
Olsen: So the algorithm jokes in “Barry” were no joke.
Rottenberg: No, I mean, no, unfortunately, AI is no joke.
Olsen: And so what are some of the proposed solutions? Like what are the WGA and SAG-AFTRA proposing to kind of, you know, keep a lid on this?
Rottenberg: Well, interestingly, I mean, you might think that the writers would want to just ban AI from being used at all in the creation of the screenplay, but the reality is they’re not looking for that. First of all, you know, the toothpaste is out of the tube. I don’t think that would be feasible, even if that’s what they were proposing. So they’re saying that they would allow it to be used as long as it doesn’t affect a human writer’s credits or residuals. So if an idea or a draft is generated with AI and then handed off to a writer to polish, as long as the human gets the credit and the money, then that seems like good enough for them.
The actors are worried about being scanned and just turned into data that can be used to create a digital performance that they’re not even around for. The studios are claiming that they’re not interested in that. But the prospect of entirely digital performances, you know, it’s already possible. So really just kind of drawing the lines around what’s fair use and what’s not with AI is. It’s going to be a really thorny issue and coming up behind the actors and the writers are visual effects artists and animators whose contract is going to be up next year. And you can be sure that AI is going to be even more central in those negotiations.
Olsen: Now this actually is not the first time that, you know, both the WGA and the actors have been on strike at the same time. It also happened in 1960. As far as you know, are there any parallels between that other double strike and this one? Like, is there anything for sort of history to teach us between these two strikes?
Rottenberg: There’s big parallels. That strike in 1960, like this one, was largely about a big change that was driven by new technology and how entertainment was being consumed. In that case, there was concern among actors and writers about the business being upended by television. And they were demanding fair compensation under a system that was rapidly changing due to just the explosion of content on TV. Fun fact — at that time, the Screen Actors Guild was led by a future California governor and president, Ronald Reagan. So not exactly a socialist rabble-rouser. Now SAG is led by Fran Drescher, who we all know from “The Nanny,” so, maybe this will launch her political career, who knows?
[Clip: FRAN DRESCHER: “You cannot change the business model as much as it has changed and not expect the contract to change too. We’re not going to keep doing incremental changes on a contract that no longer honors what is happening right now with this business model that was hoisted upon on us. What are we doing, moving around furniture on the Titanic? It’s crazy. So the jig is up, AMPTP. We stand tall, you have to wake up and smell the coffee.”]
Villarreal: How are studios responding to demands? Like, what’s their stance? You know, we’re recording this conversation in a week where there’s been at least some movement that they’re ready to return to discussions, but we don’t know where that will lead yet. But so far, what has been their stance on everything?
Rottenberg: The WGA and the AMPTP are going to meet. So there’s potentially some sign of a thaw there. But, on the other side, the studios and the streamers, they say this strike is terribly timed, given all the challenges that the business is already facing. They say that the demands are unrealistic. Their argument is that they’re facing their own financial headwinds. The film business is still struggling to get back to its kind of pre pandemic health. In TV, viewers are still abandoning network and cable programming in favor of streaming and the pressures of all that has hurt their businesses, it’s shrunk their profit margins, it’s hurt their stock prices, they’ve had layoffs. So, you know, their stance is that they have offered both unions fair increases in pay and job protections, including with AI. And they’re blaming the unions for kind of forcing this strike.
Olsen: And it seems to a lot of people that the streaming era has peaked or at least sort of plateaued. I mean, there are only a finite number of viewers in the world. So at some point there’s going to be a saturation point for streaming content. So what is the financial picture like for the studios? Like has the streaming model really worked for them and has the strike itself brought about the fact that people suddenly are realizing that this maybe hasn’t been quite as much of a boon as it has it looked like.
Rottenberg: Yeah, no, I think that’s it. As long as Netflix, And Apple and Amazon were pumping billions of dollars into this industry. Everybody was happy and it seemed like streaming could be like a net good for everybody by just creating a ton of new jobs and new opportunities for people. But now that subscriptions have plateaued, other studios and some of this is, was accelerated by COVID, but they’ve all been working on growing their own platforms, their own subscription streaming services like Max and Peacock and those things, and everybody was kind of chasing after this Netflix model and investing heavily, but now that it looks like you can’t grow forever and they’re all competing with one another, suddenly there’s a pullback and Wall Street is sort of punishing these companies for not delivering enough growth. So they’re looking to kind of cut back on the number of projects they’re producing. They’re canceling shows faster. They’re looking for surer bets. And they’re really just kind of trimming across the board.
Villarreal: And they’re raising prices.
Rottenberg: That too. And adding advertising. You know, an advertising tier, to try to bring in more money.
Villarreal: Yeah. Overall, what are the potential paths to resolution, like what compromises might be needed and what are you hearing in terms of how long this strike could go on? I think everyone has their guesses. What are you hearing and what do you think it’s going to take to get things sort of reaching a middle ground?
Rottenberg: Well, the 2007/2008 writers’ strike lasted 100 days, which at the time was the longest strike in the history of the business. We are going to break that record soon. In terms of the compromises that are going to be needed, I mean, it’s going to take smarter people than me to figure that out. But meeting is a start.
What we’ve seen up to now have been the two sides very far apart, we’ve seen quotes from anonymous executives saying they want to see people lose their houses. So, it’s gonna be difficult to get to an agreement. The last writers’ strike cost the L.A. economy more than $2 billion and led to 37,000 lost jobs, either directly or indirectly, tied to the entertainment industry. So expectations are that unfortunately this is going to bring an even more severe hit to the local economy. I think everybody is kind of bracing themselves for this potentially to last through the end of this year.
Olsen: Yeah, it’s some of the rhetoric from both sides. It’s hard to imagine the scenario where all these people go back to working together. Like that to me is like one of the things that I find so challenging about all of this.
Rottenberg: Yeah. I mean, everyone on every side of this is using the word “existential.” So the studios feel like they’re in an existential moment for the business, the actors, the writers feel like their very livelihood is at stake and the very thing that they do could go away. So, how you sort of find agreement when the stakes seem that high, it’s going to be a big challenge.
Olsen: Thinking about the fall film festivals, awards season, the whole kind of media ecosystem is going to be impacted by this. What does that look like, Josh?
Rottenberg: Yeah, again, I mean, we’ll see how long this goes on, but as you and I are already kind of contending with Yvonne, too, in TV, talent is not doing press. Actors are not allowed to promote existing projects that were made under the AMPTP deal. So, unless the strike is resolved very soon, actors will not be at the fall film festivals like Telluride and Toronto. It has the potential to really suck a lot of the excitement out of the Oscar season that will soon be upon us.
Villarreal: It’ll definitely be interesting to see how this develops and where we find ourselves, I guess, at the end of the year, what the stories we’ll be writing. But Josh, I hope this wasn’t too painful joining us on this episode. Thank you for your reporting and for taking time to chat with us.
Rottenberg: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Yvonne Villareal: We’re joined now by actor Sarah Ramos who you might know from “Parenthood” and the latest season of “The Bear,” or even from Instagram where she published her self-taped auditions for roles she wasn’t cast in. For shows like “Succession” and “White Lotus” …
[Clip: Sarah Ramos “White Lotus” self-tape: RAMOS AS CHARACTER 1: “I saw you on the boat. And the plane.” RAMOS AS CHARACTER 2: “Where are you from?” RAMOS AS CHARACTER 1: “New York.” RAMOS AS Character 3: “What neighborhood?” RAMOS AS CHARACTER 1: “East Village. Well, actually, I’m giving up that apartment and moving into Shane’s apartment, my husband.” RAMOS AS CHARACTER 2: “Where did you meet him?” RAMOS AS CHARACTER 1: “Erm, through friends!” RAMOS AS CHARACTER 3: “Not Raya?” RAMOS AS CHARACTER 1: “Raya? [Laughs] No.”]
Olsen: Self-tapes, the rising practice of actors taping their own auditions, are just one of many issues SAG-AFTRA’s negotiating committee — which Sarah is on — is raising with AMPTP. Sarah, to start, can you tell me how you got into acting and ultimately what led you to getting involved in SAG?
Sarah Ramos: I like to say my origin story as an actor was I went on a Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen cruise with my family, which was a cruise the twins hosted and fans could pay to go on. I was so obsessed with celebrity. I was like, wow, this is amazing I want to be one, and my parents said yes, then I started acting and I was just in my mind, I was like, “OK! Bada-bing, bada-boom, next year, I’m gonna be the biggest movie star on the planet and let’s do this!” And then, you know, 20 years later, I’m a working actor and there’s a big difference between being an actor and being a movie star. And the truth is, I’m just a regular person. And I have a job, and I have to pay bills and support myself and a living. And I had been auditioning all my life and I had a Vimeo page, which I think of as like a graveyard of failed auditions. One night, I had a night that any actor can relate to and I said, “F— it. I hate this. I am ready to watch all of these tapes and see if I really am this bad. And if I am so bad that it’s my fault, I’m ready to quit and leave.” And I sat down and watched all of these old auditions and some of them were great. And some of them were OK, some of them were … I was like making a choice, but knowing what the project became, it wasn’t the right choice or whatever. And my husband, who’s a filmmaker, was like, “You should edit all these self-tapes into the projects that you weren’t cast in.” And I thought that was like a f— up, funny idea and so I did that and I realized that auditions are work, and that the industry isn’t treating them like it. It changed my entire view of the industry and of my work as an actor and of auditioning. And from there, I started getting involved with SAG-AFTRA.
Villarreal: I have a friend that is a working actor and obviously during the pandemic, we saw an increase in the amount of self-taping. And I remember during the pandemic, I was having to help him buy fabric to drape as a backdrop. I was having to help him buy props. So much goes into it. Like, can you talk about the sort of finances behind the issue that has become so contentious? Like break down what really goes on and what really is involved money-wise in doing this?
Ramos: Totally. Well, the costs that you’re talking about, like a backdrop, a ring light and tripods, and our setup, our self-tape setup? That’s just one cost. That’s just one of the costs, and that’s something that used to be the responsibility of the producers, they would provide casting directors with an office and that side, the employers, would handle those costs. And now every actor that’s being called in has to have their own setup.
The other cost is all the free labor. Every time I do a self-tape, I have to have somebody do it with me. I have to rope my friends in, I have to rope other actors in knowing that I’m going to have to return the favor at the drop of a hat. There’s that kind of cost. Like no one other than your friends and family or other actors are gonna do that for free. Really? Then, if you don’t have willing friends and family like that, and they’re not always willing, OK? It’s a tough job. Then you can go to a self-tape studio and pay somebody to do it because it’s labor. And a stranger off the street isn’t gonna, like, put you on tape for free. They know it’s a business.
Olsen: What’s been the response from the studios? Again, the negotiations as this has become an issue and you’ve laid out all parts of it, what has been the response from AMPTP?
Ramos: Well, the union put out, you know, a chart giving a pretty thorough sense of where we left negotiations before going on strike. And there has been movement, like they haven’t stonewalled us completely, but there are issues where they don’t seem to really want to address the quality-of-life issues that we’re having. One of the biggest achievements of the labor movement was weekends. We’re asking them to respect that. We’re talking about page limits for how many pages should be allowed to be asked to perform in a first call audition. Right now it is unlimited and you feel that as an actor. For that Friday audition that gets sent to you to be 15 pages. That is so much material to learn and perform, let alone all the other self-tape work, record the performance and upload it and send it to you and yada yada. That’s so much material, and often, how many times have you heard that a casting director or a producer knows whether an actor is right for the role the second they step into the room, the second they open their mouth? And so what’s happening is that we’re making more, longer videos of ourselves performing than people are able to watch completely.
And the truth is they want the option there so that if they do like you, let’s say, you know, Mark, you are auditioning for me. It’s a one-day job and so you’re going to get paid $1,082 on the day, that’s scale for the day player actor. And I call in 300 people to tape for my role. And they spend all their time doing that, and it’s 12 pages and everybody spends six hours doing three scenes that add up to 12 pages. And it shows me the arcs, the character arcs: It shows me them sad, it shows me them happy. It shows… That you’ve lost your mind. I watch 250 of them for 10 seconds. I’m like, I’m over this. No, he’s not right, da da da, da da da. I get to Mark’s and I’m like, OK he might be right. Good thing I have scenes two and three to watch because now I care and I want to see that. But it’s like you’ve wasted so many other people’s time giving you a full performance. That takes a lot of work. Like, I think that’s the disconnect with the AMPTP.
Villarreal: And wait, did I misread this? But like actors are actually supposed to be paid for their auditions, right?
Ramos: So the SAG-AFTRA contract has a clause that says every actor who auditions but doesn’t book a role is owed $541, which is half of the date rate. So, that is in our contract. It hasn’t been enforced. And right now I think the question on the negotiating table is like, are self-tapes auditions? It’s an audition plus a production. It’s like even more labor.
Villarreal: One element of the actors going on strike that has sort of made headlines is, you know, this growing conversation about SAG-AFTRA’s film, filming waivers. Like there appears obviously to be a lot of solidarity amongst the actors, but this exemption element sort of seems to be sparking debate internally. How do you feel about the film waivers and the conversation around it?
Ramos: Well, they are interim agreements. These are binding contracts with the last set of terms that we pushed across the table to the AMPTP. So your pay is accounting for inflation if you’re working on a project with an interim agreement. Your per diem rates, which is the money that you’re paid when you’re on location to pay for food and whatever you need to survive while you’re working on location. They hadn’t been raised in a minute and we raised those for you. You’re going to see a better quality of life right there. And the terms clearly are reasonable, I mean, look, everybody’s not gonna agree on everything and I think that’s a healthy part of a union, like, we don’t need to all see things exactly the same way, and as long as we all stand together to get the AMPTP to agree to these terms that other producers are happy to work under right now, then we’re all gonna be better for it. The AMPTP is gonna be better for it too.
Olsen: Because I think — especially for people who aren’t actors and people sort of outside the industry, the project that you’ve embarked on has revealed this aspect of the industry and of being a working actor that most of us never see or experience and to see all this effort and work and creativity that you’ve put into these auditions. That at best, a handful of people ever saw, and likely the better part of no one saw, that it’s just been fascinating. To me, it’s part of the reason why we wanted to talk to you today is because it’s just fascinating the way you’ve reframed the work of acting, I, for myself, and I think for a lot of other people.
Ramos: I mean, that makes me so happy and so emotional. Like, it really does. Because I feel like auditions are so painfully awkward no matter what because you have to watch somebody have a conversation with somebody that’s not there. It’s just you’re set up to fail in so many ways and yet actors persevere and we’ve taken on the load and now it’s too much like people cannot handle it.
Villarreal: So what advice would you have for anyone, you know, looking to get into the industry, given the current moment?
Ramos: Good question. The interesting thing is I would have given the same advice prior to now. Honestly, this is so long overdue. Like we have had problems in the entertainment industry for so long. I would say, lucky you that you’re coming into this industry now when people are finally saying this can’t continue this way, and this needs to be fair, our work needs to be valued. We create this industry, you can’t have the entertainment industry without entertainers, you can’t have casting without actors, and I would say I hope that you continue that tradition, because we’re standing on the people before us from Legacy SAG who fought for our contracts and got us the residuals that we did. I mean, they made huge sacrifices, they had to sacrifice their residuals from prior to 1960 in order to establish residuals and pension and health, and we get the benefit of that today and we are now a part of making sure that’s going to be there in the future. So if you’re coming into the industry now, well, pay it forward.
Olsen: And before we wrap up, is there anything that you feel like we haven’t covered or that you would want people to know about what’s going on with SAG-AFTRA and the strikes?
Ramos: Um, I would say fans have immense power in this circumstance because they are the audience, they are the consumers. So, you should come stand with labor, like, let’s find a way to organize because we are part of a larger labor movement and we’ve already seen other people be inspired by what we’re doing. I saw celebrity stylists talking about unionizing. I saw Bethany Frankel calling for the reality show stars to be unionizing. And if you’re saying to yourself, that’s ridiculous. That job doesn’t deserve whatever. Like, stop. Look within and ask if you’re being paid fairly, and if your working conditions are right, and let’s all stand together and create a better freaking world. I mean, geez.
Olsen: Sarah Ramos, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been really just a terrific talk and I think I can speak for Yvonne and we both just really appreciate you joining us.
Ramos: Thank you. This was amazing.