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This isn’t the first time Hollywood’s been on strike. Here’s how past strikes turned out

by Andrew Wright
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Hollywood labor strikes

Hollywood Strikes: Examining the Impact of Past Labor Movements

Hollywood has a long-standing relationship with labor movements, and as the industry grinds to a halt due to strikes by actors and screenwriters, it’s crucial to reflect on the consequences of previous protests, walkouts, and other actions.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Screen Writers Guild (SWG), the predecessor of today’s Writers Guild of America, were established in 1933, although the roots of collective action and solidarity can be traced back to the early days of the motion picture industry.

Initially, SAG had fewer than twenty members at its inception. Today, 65,000 SAG-AFTRA members are participating in the strike, following the merger of the two actors’ unions in 2012.

For several decades, strikes occurred at regular intervals. The first actors’ strikes took place in the 1950s, and a SWG strike in 1953 successfully secured the first television residuals. However, protests dwindled by the late 1980s.

According to Kate Fortmueller, an expert in Hollywood labor history and an associate professor of film and media history at Georgia State University, before 1950, strikes primarily revolved around basic working conditions. However, post-1950, the concerns shifted towards issues like residuals and distribution, focusing on how the profits generated by their work could be shared. Fortmueller states that the 2023 strikes represent a return to fundamental concerns about working conditions and existential worries about the industry’s future.

Throughout these labor movements, the guilds consistently found themselves facing the same adversary: the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Starting as a conglomerate of studio heads, the AMPTP expanded to include studios, networks, and now streaming companies and major production entities. Fortmueller explains that the emergence of streaming companies, rooted in the tech industry, brought a different labor culture to Hollywood. Unlike the heavily unionized Hollywood, tech companies lacked a strong union presence.

In a notable exception, the studios were not directly involved in a major and infamous Hollywood strike that lasted 227 days. This particular strike was between two “below-the-line” unions and gained its memorable name, either “Bloody” or “Black,” from the violent events that occurred on a single day at the Warner Bros. studio lot.

While it may be tempting to predict the outcome of the ongoing strikes, history offers little guidance, as past strikes have varied in duration from months to mere minutes. Nevertheless, examining these strikes provides valuable insight into the issues that drove the conflicts and the resolutions that shaped the current landscape of the industry.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most significant strikes in Hollywood labor history:

2007-2008 Writers Strike: Lasted 100 days
Key Issue: Compensation, including residuals, for digitally distributed shows and movies.
Main Results: Jurisdiction over internet projects, compensation guidelines for ad-supported streaming programs, increased residuals for downloaded content.

The 2007-2008 writers strike is the most memorable one in recent decades, leaving an estimated $2 billion impact on the California economy. While some considered it a resounding success, certain Writers Guild of America (WGA) members felt pressured into accepting weaker terms due to the Directors Guild of America (DGA) negotiating a similar contract separately. This discontent resurfaced 15 years later when the DGA reached a historic agreement with the AMPTP early in the 2023 writers strike.

1988 Writers Strike: Lasted 154 days
Key Issue: Residuals for television shows sold to foreign markets.
Main Results: More creative control over scripts, reacquisition of original screenplays, salary increases (although larger payments for foreign market reruns were less successful).

This strike holds the record for the longest WGA strike, lasting 154 days. The difficult period left a lasting impact, with the guild expressing that the spirit of the strike would be remembered for years to come.

1981 Writers Strike (96 days) and 1980 Actors Strike (77 days)
Key Issue: Compensation for the fast-growing home video and pay TV markets.
Main Results: Share of producer revenues from those markets, base pay increases.

Although these strikes occurred about a year apart, they shared a common concern. Actors and writers demanded a portion of the revenue generated by the rapidly expanding home video market. In 1980, the actors won the industry’s first pay TV concessions after their longest strike to date. The following year, the striking writers achieved similar concessions, characterizing their deal as the most extensive and precedent-setting in two decades.

1973 Writers Strike: Lasted 111 days
Key Issues: Pay and benefits.
Main Results: Salary hikes, guaranteed residual pay schedules for movies on cassettes and pay TV.

This strike lasted 16 weeks, but work was not entirely halted throughout the entire period. The boycotts initially excluded soap operas and variety shows until more than a month into the strike. Eventually, the major television and film studios that formed the AMPTP became the focus of the strike, while independent producers, controlling over 50% of primetime television, signed a new contract and resumed work.

1960 Writers and Actors Strike: Lasted 153 days (WGA) and 43 days (SAG)
Key Issues: Foreign and subsidiary rights, rerun rights, revenue from the sale of post-1948 films to television, establishment of a pension system for SAG.
Main Results: Salary increases, residual payments for films released to TV, establishment of pension, health, and welfare funds.

In this notable strike, writers went on strike first, enduring a longer period of 153 days. However, SAG, with its prominent members, was the first to secure pension, health, and welfare funds. Unlike the picket lines of today, the strikes in 1960 were described as “firm but polite” without extensive picketing or demonstrations.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Hollywood labor strikes

What are some significant strikes in Hollywood labor history?

Some significant strikes in Hollywood labor history include:

  1. 2007-2008 writers strike: Lasted 100 days. Key issue: Compensation for digitally distributed shows and movies. Main results: Jurisdiction over internet projects, compensation guidelines for streaming programs, increased residuals for downloaded content.

  • 1988 writers strike: Lasted 154 days. Key issue: Residuals for television shows sold to foreign markets. Main results: More creative control over scripts, reacquisition of original screenplays, salary increases.

  • 1981 writers strike (96 days) and 1980 actors strike (77 days): Key issue: Compensation for the home video and pay TV markets. Main results: Share of producer revenues from those markets, base pay increases.

  • 1973 writers strike: Lasted 111 days. Key issues: Pay and benefits. Main results: Salary hikes, guaranteed residual pay schedules for movies on cassettes and pay TV.

  • 1960 writers and actors strike: Writers strike lasted 153 days, while the actors strike lasted 43 days. Key issues: Foreign and subsidiary rights, rerun rights, revenue from film sales to television, establishment of a pension system for actors. Main results: Salary increases, residual payments for films released to TV, establishment of pension, health, and welfare funds.

  • What were the main concerns driving these strikes?

    The concerns driving these strikes evolved over time. Before 1950, strikes focused on basic working conditions. However, post-1950, the concerns shifted towards residuals, distribution, and sharing in the profits generated by the industry’s work. In more recent strikes, there has been a return to fundamental concerns about working conditions and existential worries about the industry’s future.

    Who were the major players involved in these strikes?

    The major players involved in these strikes were the unions representing actors and writers, such as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the Screen Writers Guild (SWG), and the Writers Guild of America (WGA). They faced off against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which consisted of conglomerates, studios, networks, and streaming companies.

    How did these strikes impact the industry?

    The impact of these strikes varied. They led to changes in compensation structures, increased creative control, and established important funds for pensions, health, and welfare. Some strikes also influenced the development of new forms of entertainment, such as the rise of reality television in response to vacant schedule blocks during strikes.

    How long did these strikes typically last?

    The duration of these strikes varied. Strikes could last anywhere from a few weeks to several months. The longest recorded strike was the 1988 writers strike, which lasted 154 days.

    What can we learn from past Hollywood labor strikes?

    Past Hollywood labor strikes provide valuable insights into the issues that drove the conflicts and the resolutions that were reached. They demonstrate the ongoing struggle for fair compensation, better working conditions, and a share in the industry’s profits. Understanding the outcomes of past strikes helps shape the landscape of current labor disputes and can inform future negotiations.

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    Andrew Wright is a business reporter who covers the latest news and trends in the world of finance and economics. He enjoys analyzing market trends and economic data, and he is always on the lookout for new opportunities for investors.

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