Life & Culture

The SAG-AFTRA Strike: an Inside View

Actor Scott Lawrence considers himself one of the lucky ones in a notoriously precarious career where job insecurity is the name of the game.

Lawrence (at left)may not be a household name, but he’s steadily worked (The Social Network, Star Trek Into Darkness and in the blockbuster hit, Avatar).

With numerous roles in popular TV shows like NCIS, Fear the Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy, Lawrence, 60, has been able to comfortably raise his two teenage sons.

Tech: the Game Changer

But now Lawrence – and his 160,000 colleagues in the SAG-AFTRA union – are fighting for their livelihoods. This unprecedented battle with the studios, which started July 14, could last until early 2024.

This stand-off and the issues at stake present the biggest game changer in Hollywood history, and technology plays a major role.

Fair distribution of streaming revenue and the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are the two major concerns behind the current SAG-AFTRA strike, which abruptly shut down all major film and TV productions.

While actors sweat it out on the picket lines, the studios are already delving into the opportunities offered by their new AI toys, offering million-dollar paychecks to AI experts.

When streamers and AI entered the picture, it threatened to make all actors redundant; films and TV productions can use the technology to digitize an actor’s likeness for a one-time small fee. Even a dead actor.

“The days of the movie star are numbered now”

Actors initially welcomed the extra work offered by the advent of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon 17 years ago. However, it also ushered in an era where they were paid a one-time fee rather than residuals – the bread and butter for most working actors. Residuals enable them to earn steady paychecks from previous work even during lean periods.

As SAG-AFTRA fights for fair compensation, the studios are excitedly exploring the opportunities presented by AI.  The dual work stoppage of both actors and writers is saving them hundreds of millions of dollars – despite them eyeing a future empty cupboard.

“The days of the movie star are numbered now. The studios don’t need us in the same way they once did and we can easily be replaced by AI,” says Lawrence, who had just wrapped work on a new TV drama, Sugar, with Colin Farrell when the strike began.

As fearless SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher puts it, actors can’t keep being “marginalized, disrespected, and dishonored,” by a business model that has been changed by streaming.

“If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble. We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines and big business,” says the former Nanny star.

Wait, there’s more

There’s also a third issue on the table, concerning self-taping – where actors audition for roles by submitting an on-camera piece.

“For actors based in Los Angeles we initially welcomed the self-taping system,” explains Ely Pouget, 61 (at right). “We were finally freed from spending our days stuck in traffic driving from audition to audition,” As an aspiring actress when she first moved to Hollywood in 1987, she landed roles in Curly Sue, Tequila Sunrise and Lawnmower Man 2. Her friends and neighbors were also all up-and-coming actors – including Jennifer Aniston – all hungry to land that lucky break.

But most actors quickly regretted the self-tape system which pitted them against countless other actors – forcing them to hire expensive professionals to film their audition to give them a fighting chance.

“Usually at an audition you would meet the casting director and get a sense of what they are looking for. You’d build a rapport. The self-tape system meant you were just submitting into a vacuum and lost in the shuffle,” says Pouget.

“I remember Jennifer invited us all to watch the first episode of Friends. We instantly knew that her life was going to change forever and were so happy for her,” she says.

But you didn’t have to have a career like Aniston’s in order to thrive – Pouget raised her twin daughters on the income and residuals from guest roles in TV mainstays like General Hospital, The Mentalist or The Young and The Restless. Like her fellow actors, she supplemented her income working as a realtor and other jobs during lean periods.

“SAG is a strong union and they’ve always taken care of their members,” says Pouget. “The residual checks made sure we didn’t starve while pursuing our careers. For your average jobbing actor, it’s impossible to survive without that.”

According to one published report, residual checks from streaming services are tiny – sometimes less than one dollar, or as little as two or three cents.

To learn more about the issues, visit the WGA website here.

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Gill Pringle began her career as a rock columnist for popular British newspapers, traveling the world with Madonna, U2 and Michael Jackson. Moving to Los Angeles 27 years ago, she interviews film and TV personalities for prestigious UK outlets, The Independent, The i-paper and The Sunday Times – and, of course, Senior Planet. A member of Critics Choice Association, BAFTA and AWFJ, she wrote the screenplay for 2016 Netflix family film, The 3 Tails Movie: A Mermaid Adventure. An award-winning writer, in 2021 she was honored by the Los Angeles Press Club with 1st prize at the NAEJ Awards.

Photo of Scott Lawrence by The Headshot Truck

Photo of Ely Pouget by James Pratt


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