A couple of months ago, screenwriters went on strike, bringing professional screenwriting to a halt. Then last week, the (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) SAG-AFTRA Hollywood actors went on strike. As a result, film and TV production has completely stopped.
These strikes will affect you as an author more than you realize. But the strikes are also an opportunity for savvy authors.
What does the Hollywood strike mean for authors?
To understand the strike, we need a bit of context. This strike is not typical for several reasons.
First, the last time both the screenwriters and actors were on strike was in 1960. At that time, the president of the Screen Actors Guild was none other than Ronald Reagan. Before he was a politician, he was a union boss!
AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers)
Second, major Hollywood studios want and even need this strike to take place. Normally, a labor strike is bad for the company. But in this atypical situation, the strikes may save the studios.
What does the strike do to the studios?
The problem is Hollywood decadence. Studios are spending so much money to make movies that they are losing money on most of the films they release. For example, in 1980, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc had a production budget of $20 million. If we adjust that sum for inflation, it would be about $74 million in 2023.
Do you know how much the most recent Indiana Jones film cost to produce? Would you guess…
- $150 million (2 x the original)
- $225 million (3 x the original)
Would you believe Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny cost roughly $300 million to produce? That is four times the budget for a movie that was not as good as the first one!
With $300 million, you could build 10,000 single-family homes, a new hospital, or a new power plant! But in Hollywood, they spend $300 million to make a 2.5-hour-long movie. That’s roughly $2 million per minute.
By the way, those totals do not account for marketing costs, which could be an additional $200 million. That is Marie Antoinette’s level of decadence. No wonder the SAG-AFTRA president referenced storming the Bastille in her speech.
Last week, Disney CEO Bob Iger more or less admitted this when he said Disney had to get its cost structure under control. That’s corporate-speak for layoffs and pay cuts. When a company loses hundreds of millions of dollars on the movies it releases, a labor strike, which ceases production, actually helps the company. The strike essentially plugs one major money leak.
While the strikes will stop the financial leak, major studios will continue to make money on all the old movies and TV shows they have already produced. Disney still makes money from Raiders of the Lost Arc even though production wrapped 40 years ago.
How Streaming Effects the Strikes
Streaming is the other major reason for the strike. While film production costs skyrocket, ticket sales plummet as people increasingly opt to stream movies from home rather than go to the theater.
Netflix seems to be the only company making money from streaming. Disney+ is losing hundreds of millions of dollars like many other streaming platforms. Companies like Amazon and Apple can afford to lose money on streaming if it helps them sell their more profitable products. But companies like Paramount and Warner Brothers can’t afford to lose money with their streaming services.
From one point of view, the strike is a boon for streaming companies because it allows them to cut their biggest expense (making new content) and keep their subscribers. If none of the streaming platforms have new content, subscribers have nowhere to go for new content. Streaming services get to keep making money while their costs are down.
These factors put the actors and screenwriters in a terrible position to negotiate. They need the strike to hurt the studios, not help them. For the strike to negatively impact studios, it would have to persist for years.
In the press conference announcing the strike, the union complained that the studios were rescheduling and canceling negotiations, which is a sign that the AMPTP is in no rush to find a resolution. And why would they be? This strike is saving them! They’ve stopped losing money on unprofitable films.
The actors and screenwriters see the strike as an existential fight to protect their profession. They are terrified of being replaced by AI body doubles and AI screenwriters, which isn’t unfounded. Computers are doing more and more “acting.” Actors must now compete with living actors and (potentially) the ghosts of the great actors of old.
For example, if a bodybuilding actor auditions as a tough guy, he may be competing against an AI version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, which the production company doesn’t have to pay.
It’s a legitimate concern. Anyone who thinks AI isn’t going to replace screenwriters hasn’t seen the difference between chatGPT (GPT3) and GPT4.
Actors want more residual income from streaming. Actors get a small payment each time their episodes air on TV. However, actors get little to no residual payment when an episode is streamed.
Another factor hindering the actors’ leverage is the lack of star power and mystique they had in the 1960s. Familiarity breeds contempt, and since so many actors spend so much time on social media, many Americans hold actors in contempt. That’s a big shift from the elevated position they once held in their fans’ eyes.
Keep it Close to the Vest
Some of the biggest stars, like Tom Cruise, have almost no social media presence, which is the first lesson for authors. Many authors believe spending time on social media will make more people love them, but that’s not the case.
Be careful about how much of your personal life you share on social media. The more mystery there is, the more curiosity people have, and the more they’ll want to unveil that mystery. Once your fans learn everything interesting about you, they get bored and move on.
The future is hard to predict, and I suspect the unions will cave after the AMPTP grants only modest concessions. As I understand it, the AMPTP’s initial plan was to delay negotiations until the screenwriters were in dire financial need. They figured that after the bank foreclosed on a screenwriter’s house, they’d finally be ready to negotiate in good faith.
They’re in no rush to stop the strikes. As screenwriters get hungrier, we may see more as unionized crews strike to unlock strike funds. Such strikes, however, are likely to be ineffective. Since movie production is already shut down, additional strikes by make-up artists and graphic artists are unlikely to hurt the studios.
While a handful of actors make big money, 90% of SAG-AFTRA members work a day job in addition to their acting. Acting is a lot like publishing in this way. A tiny percentage of people make most of the money.
How do the screenwriter and actor strikes impact authors?
Outcome #1: Your book won’t be made into a movie anytime soon.
Think of Hollywood as a factory. The beginning of the assembly line (the screenwriters) and the middle of the assembly line (the actors) are both on strike. Editors and graphic artists are still working so that any movie currently in production can be finished. But as the pipeline of work empties, studios won’t be in a rush to finish a film. If the strike continues long enough, there may be weekends when no new films are released.
If you are trying to option your book, don’t bother. No one is buying. Writers Guild of America (WGA) members can’t even pitch potential future projects. A studio couldn’t hire a screenwriter to work on the adaptation even if it was buying. Even when the strike ends, everyone will be so busy finishing the halted projects that it will take a long time before Hollywood swings back into full production.
Outcome #2: There’s never been a better time to get a celebrity audiobook narrator.
While union actors are forbidden to work for Hollywood producers, they are not forbidden from working for authors like you. SAG-AFTRA specifically noted that actors can continue to record audiobooks. As the strike progresses and actors get hungrier, expect more of them to be searching for audiobook work.
Normally, actors charge a premium rate for narrating audiobooks, but this massive influx of audiobook narrators will likely drive those costs down. I expect audiobook narrators with IMDB pages to charge about the same as veteran audiobook narrators.
On the other hand, if you want to begin working as an audiobook narrator, now may be a tough time to get your foot in the door, especially if you are not an actor.
Outcome #3: It’s a great time to interview an actor on your podcast.
The strike does not prohibit actors and screenwriters from guesting on podcasts. They can talk about all kinds of books, as long as they don’t promote any upcoming projects. If you’ve wanted to interview an actor for your podcast about books, they may be interested for the first time ever.
Outcome #4: It’s a great time to convert your book into a “radio drama.”
Independent Podcast Agreements are allowed under the terms of the SAG-AFTRA strike. If you have a radio play version of your book, you could hire a group of actors to perform it.
In fact, I think you could even hire a WGA screenwriter to make the radio play for you. However, this policy is a bit unclear on their website. Be careful with this, though. The major studios are losing money because they have been making movies based on terrible screenplays.
For example, the third act of Wonder Woman 1984 is a close copy and paste of the third act of the 2000s Christian film Apocalypse III: Tribulation. In both movies, an anti-Christ character presents a false gospel to the world, and the hero must hack into the signal to present the truth. The two films are so similar that Wonder Woman even presents a sermon on air for the world to watch and react to. Though the films were similar, their production budgets were not. Check out the YouTube version of Apocalypse III: Tribulation.
Outcome #5: More Demand for Your Book
Humans long for stories, both old and new. If we can’t get new stories from movies and TV, we will look for those stories elsewhere. The strike is a potential opportunity for authors who write new stories.
As an author, your biggest competitor is Netflix, not author authors. If the strike goes on long enough, Netflix might start to feel stale to some subscribers, which would make those viewers more willing to crack open a book.
While the strikes will be bad for a small fraction of authors with movie deals in the works, they will be good for authors as we continue to give readers the stories they need.
Many people are unhappy with Hollywood right now for various reasons, which may be justified. You may be tempted to gloat or celebrate as they “get what is coming to them.” But remember, those are real people suffering real harm. The striking cast puts the film crew out of work and causes a trickle-down effect in the entire industry. Many working people are suffering, and we must be aware of it. It is easy to love your friends. It’s harder to love your competitors, but if you can learn to love your enemies, you won’t regret it.
Hiring a striking actor to narrate your audiobook or podcast production may be more than a savvy business move. It may also be an act of love.
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