Jul 25, 2023

The Hollywood strike.

Images from the last WGA strike in 2007. Image: WikiCommons/JenGod
Images from the last WGA strike in 2007. Image: WikiCommons/JenGod

Plus, a reader question about starting a political conversation.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

Are you new here? Get free emails to your inbox daily. Would you rather listen? You can find our podcast here.


Today's read: 11 minutes.

We're breaking down the actors and writers strikes in Hollywood. Plus, a reader question about engaging a stranger on politics.

Reader feedback.

Yesterday's newsletter on the IRS whistleblowers drew a wide range of feedback.

One reader wrote in and said, "You state the two whistleblowers are credible. You say they were constantly hindered in their investigation, not even allowed to interview Biden. But you say 'the plea deal was not out of the ordinary', you got to be kidding. You have shown now you are true liberal Democrat. I will be unsubscribing."

Another reader said, "You distilled this to the core issue — the ability to investigate Hunter and his father seems to have been impeded. We need to find out if that's true. Everything else is a smoke screen. Congratulations on another job well done!"


Quick hits.

  1. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis hit the streets to protest a highly contested judicial overhaul backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (The protests)
  2. North Korea fired two ballistic missiles after a second U.S. submarine arrived in South Korea. (The launch)
  3. Twitter owner Elon Musk shared a new "X" logo for the website, saying the company would be transitioning to new branding and an all-in-one services app that includes payment transfers and long-form content. (The change)
  4. The Justice Department formally filed a lawsuit against Texas over its buoy barriers that were deployed in the Rio Grande to limit border crossings. (The lawsuit)
  5. Republican Senator Mitt Romney (UT) published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling on Republican donors to cut off support for candidates who can't beat Trump. (The piece)

Today's topic.

The Hollywood strike. Last week, Hollywood actors joined the screenwriters’ strike, marking the first dual-union strike the industry has seen in over 60 years. Many scripted late night shows have already been paralyzed, airing only reruns since the writer's strike began in May, but the addition of the actors’ union has the potential to further upend the television, film, and streaming industries.

Back up: For more than a month, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) has been negotiating a new three-year contract with studios, streaming services, and production companies. Union leaders for the actors say the new streaming model has hurt shares of income they used to see from royalties, instead funneling more cash to executives. On Friday, 65,000 actors voted overwhelmingly in favor of striking.

Their decision comes after the Writers Guild of America (WGA) failed to come to terms with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). 97.8% of the WGA had voted to authorize their strike.

What do they want? Both actors and writers participating in strikes are worried about two major issues: Streaming and artificial intelligence. Under the television model, many actors and writers used to receive royalty payments anytime a show was aired on television, which helped sustain them when other jobs dried up. But the streaming model offers less income from royalties, so both writers and actors want to find a way to get long-term revenue.

In addition, writers have seen their pay decline by 4% on average over the past decade, despite the expansion of streaming, new shows, and investment in production. On top of that, streaming shows tend to have shorter seasons than televised shows, which leaves more time between work.

At the same time, actors and writers have expressed concern about the advent of artificial intelligence. Actors are worried about studios using their likenesses without hiring or paying them, while writers are worried about the prospect of artificial intelligence writing scripts.

AMPTP says it offered a generous deal, including the largest minimum pay bump in 35 years and “a groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses," but the unions "regrettably" chose to strike, the Associated Press reported.

With the strikes in place, actors and writers are prohibited from more than just contributing to productions. They can't make personal appearances, promote their work, attend premieres, audition for roles, or even attend awards shows — including the Emmys planned for September.

Now what? Nearly every U.S.-based show or film currently in production will now go on hiatus until actors and writers reach a deal with AMPTP. Negotiations will continue, but you can expect a pause in new entertainment.

Today, we're going to break down some arguments from the left and right, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left support the strikes, and argue that there are solutions available to the network executives.
  • Some suggest conditions for actors were already in crisis before streaming and artificial intelligence.
  • Others say these issues go well beyond just Hollywood.

In Bloomberg, Tyler Cowen wrote about how to end the actors and writers strikes.

The strikes cover many issues, but "one of the most controversial concerns the rights to artificial intelligence likenesses by individual human beings. The studios are requesting the right to offer contracts that allow them to scan the bodies, voices and other features of individual actors, including extras, and then hold the rights to the AI likenesses in perpetuity. The actors are upset for good reason," Cowen said. "Most actors don’t become famous, and so their likenesses end up being worth nothing. That means studios can’t afford to offer any more than a small sum for the likeness rights on such a large number of initial acting contracts. It also means that if the studios get their way, potential stars end up significantly underpaid for selling their likenesses before they have become famous."

"I suggest that the eventual strike settlement forbid studios from buying the rights to AI likenesses for more than a single film or project," Cowen said. "Or, as a compromise, the contract could be for some limited number of projects, but not in perpetuity. Actors thus would remain in long-run control of their AI likenesses, yet if they wanted to keep selling those likenesses – project by project – they could do so."

In The Los Angeles Times, Maria Prudente said "we've long been in crisis" and "it's not just streaming or AI."

"SAG-AFTRA has trenchantly described how streaming services and AI technology are transforming and threatening the existing creative landscape of Hollywood. But this dispute is not at its heart about new technology or AI," Prudente said. "The crux of the union’s argument is that actors finally deserve proper compensation for their work. Our profession isn’t suddenly in crisis in 2023. Actors have always been in crisis." Actors are out of work 90% of the time, and most spend their days "working a job that has nothing to do with their skill set or passion so they can pay their rent and utility bills."

"Unless it’s a contract for a long show, an actor seldom gets an opportunity to work numerous times in a row. Even if they do, if they’re new to the industry they often start off nonunion, have to work in low-budget productions and get paid little," she wrote. "Actors have long been conditioned to feel grateful that they are being included and paid for it... Actors have always been worthy. That’s why SAG-AFTRA members are willing to strike, to sacrifice the pay and exposure they need right now. They’re tired of always getting a bad deal."

In MSNBC, Hayes Brown said the strike is important "for all American workers."

"SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher stressed that what’s happening in the entertainment industry is happening across labor, calling it the result of 'when employers make Wall Street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run.' ... Drescher is right: It’s not just actors who are affected by the shift in the entertainment industry. The 160,000 performers in SAG-AFTRA will be joining the members of the Writers Guild of America on the picket lines in one of the largest labor actions the country has seen in years."

"Drescher’s outrage also reflects how necessary the protections the guilds are seeking are, especially given how much studio executives have been gambling — and losing — over the last decade. We’ve seen big-budget productions shelved for tax breaks, shows and movies wiped off of streaming platforms to prevent having to pay residuals, and untold millions wasted on flops. Meanwhile, studio executives like Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav and Disney’s Bob Iger rake in massive salaries." Drescher is also right about this extending beyond Hollywood, as "labor has racked up a number of wins in the post-pandemic era." Yet the "pendulum is starting to swing away from workers again" with layoffs and inflation hampering the leverage employees have recently gained.


What the right is saying.

  • The right is mixed on the strikes, with some saying Hollywood brought this upon themselves and others suggesting conservatives should support the strikes.
  • Some argue that woke content is what has hurt Hollywood profits and undermined the industry.
  • Others say that even though Hollywood is condescending and liberal, the strikers are right about the threat of artificial intelligence.

In The New York Post, Dan McLaughlin said "woke Hollywood" cut the nation a break and "cancels itself."

"Maybe they’ll learn something in their time off — and maybe the country could use a break from them," McLaughlin said. “Hollywood has been its own worst enemy. Moviegoers like superhero movies, name-brand franchises and Pixar cartoons? Inundate them with so many sequels, of such declining quality, that viewers tune out. #MeToo scandals reveal the industry is overrun with sexual predators protected by an insular liberal elite? Overcompensate by turning casting and programming decisions into a festival of ‘representation’-focused identity politics and ham-fisted leftist agitprop.”

"If your creative class is churning out content this devoid of creativity and alienating half the audience in the process, you may as well replace them with machines," McLaughlin said. "Say what you will about AI: It doesn’t grope its co-stars, vanish on coke binges, send ill-advised tweets or promote polarizing political causes. Machines work cheap, they’re always in shape, they don’t care about race or gender, they never ask to renegotiate and they don’t have a union. Of course, the actors and writers may not be especially sympathetic, but neither are the studio bosses, who made a lot of this mess. They’re the ones who produced all those dreadful films, and they’re no less politically wacky than the 'talent.'"

In The Daily Caller, Grasyon Quay said conservatives should side with the whiny, liberal actors in the Hollywood elite.

“The most insufferable people in America are on strike, demanding protections against artificial intelligence, and it’s the duty of every conservative to support them. Yes, Hollywood actors are awful," Quay said. "And yes, screenwriters are almost as bad. None of them have produced an original idea since 2008, but they continue doubling and tripling down on woke garbage even as movie after movie bombs at the box office." But for now, "the enemy of our enemy is our friend, and AI is the enemy of all humanity."

"It’s easy to see what AI could do to the film industry. In the futuristic society of Margaret Atwood’s novel ‘Oryx and Crake,’ it pretty much no longer exists," Quay said. "AI will devastate the entire arts industry... It won’t stop with the arts either. Truck drivers? Fired. Call center employees? Fired. Most journalists? Fired. Sure, we’ll still need plumbers, landscapers, nail technicians and maybe a few lawyers (though not nearly as many as before), but it’s entirely possible that almost everyone you know will be out of a job... If any of that sounds bad to you, then we need to crush the head of the AI serpent while it’s still in the shell."

In RedState, Jerry Wilson said this is a perfect time for conservatives to make their own content.

"A deeper dive into the matter reveals how the pop culture complex’s continuous disrespect of conservative and traditional values has become the proverbial turning worm and a genuine opportunity for conservatives to regain a portion of the entertainment marketplace most commonly considered forever lost," Wilson said. "The streaming video and film/television industry is in the same scenario as the music industry. The three major record labels are flush with cash from streaming services, while the artists receive a pittance if that much... Combine the above with the open disdain major content creators demonstrate toward conservatives and traditional values."

"Even as they are hemorrhaging red ink, the major studios will not stop insulting vast swaths of their potential audience. They cannot help themselves. They are so addicted to their ideology and utterly convinced of their righteousness that they dismiss the cratering revenue numbers and believe all is well. It isn’t. At least for them. This is where the opportunity for conservatives and holders of traditional values enters the frame," he wrote. "Twice this year, we have seen major box office action from films that regular studios would, and in at least one case did, actively run from. ‘Jesus Revolution’ was a hit. ‘Sound of Freedom’ is a hit... Now is the time to strike against those who openly despise us by supporting the creative people within our ranks."


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • The unions and executives are making very different claims about what is in this offer.
  • Still, it’s important to remember the vast majority of actors and writers are low-wage workers struggling to get by.
  • If I were them, I would ensure any contract had as many limits on the use of artificial intelligence and likeness as possible. 

One of the hardest things about making a determination here is that it's not entirely clear who is telling the truth.

Consider, for a moment, comparing how actors have described the AMPTP offer versus how the production studios have. Here are the actors characterizing the the the studios' position on artificial intelligence:

“We want to be able to scan a background performer’s image, pay them for a half a day’s labor, and then use an individual’s likeness for any purpose forever without their consent... We also want to be able to make changes to principal performers’ dialogue, and even create new scenes, without informed consent. And we want to be able to use someone’s images, likenesses, and performances to train new generative AI systems without consent or compensation.”

Here is how the studios described their position in a statement to the Associated Press:

Its offers included an ‘AI proposal which protects performers’ digital likenesses, including a requirement for performers’ consent for the creation and use of digital replicas or for digital alterations of a performance.’

Those are two very different things.

To be upfront: I'm partial to the actors and writers here. But based on the available evidence we have, it seems actors’ and writers’ characterization of what the studios want is closer to the truth.

Yes, Hollywood is about as “woke” as any industry on the planet. And yes, we continue to get inundated with reruns and remakes and total busts. I’m happy to put on my film critic hat and dismiss much of Hollywood’s recent output as unoriginal and uninteresting. But that’s not really at issue here. I think the writers and actors have been getting hosed by studios and executives for years now, and that AI is just the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

I am not an alarmist about emerging technologies, and I've said in the past that I think (and hope) much of my work is unique enough to be insulated from the threat of AI. But I do think the threat to actors, voice actors, and writers is particularly acute. And I think Grayson Quay (under "What the right is saying") is correct that if you're imagining a war between workers and AI, it certainly looks like Hollywood laborers are on the front lines — which is good reason to support them.

AI can already write corny Hallmark scripts that dominate some television shows, bring characters like a young Luke Skywalker back to the screen, and mimic someone’s voice to an alarmingly accurate degree. If I were in any profession touching those creative outputs, there is no way I'd sign any contract that didn't have the strongest assurances possible that studios would be limited in how they can use or repurpose my likeness, or in what ways they could simply "feed" an AI my work and have it spit something back out for the masses.  

Outside of that, the strike looks mostly like a pretty standard union vs. executive battle. It's a fight over wages and royalties and working conditions. On the surface, the actors and writers seem to have a strong case there, too: Executives are seeing unbelievable amounts of money pour into streaming services, but actors, writers and crew are losing avenues to profit off their work. 

It’s also true that the actors you are imagining are not the ones with the most at stake. Even though when we think of actors we probably think of superstars, Prudente is right (under “What the left is saying”) to point out that most actors and writers are low-wage workers just struggling to get by. If we think of them in the context of what is happening across the U.S., it’s interesting to consider the broader implications. 

The ratio of typical CEO-to-typical-worker pay was 59-to-1 in 1989. In 2021, it was 366-to-1. In 2022, it was 399-to-1. And guess what? Major strike activity went up 50% in 2022, and in the post-pandemic world we've seen workers demand more pay, better benefits, and more job flexibility. I don’t think those things are a coincidence. Workers are making their value known and getting what they can while they can.

I'm not always a supporter of union action, but coming out of an era where the middle class shrank and workers’ pay became increasingly distanced from executives’, it should be encouraging to see so much bottom-up activity across industries. For the vast majority of the country, that is a good thing — though we may be stuck on reruns for a while. 


Your questions, answered

Q: We (my family) were at the beach earlier and someone set up their chair with a 40’ pole, flying a “Trump in 2024” flag, as well as a flag of the original 13 colonies right under it. I’ve never seen those two flags paired together and I’m legitimately interested in engaging with discourse to understand why someone would go through the trouble of packing an elaborate, 40’ flagpole just to sit at the beach for the day. My wife would have been mortified if I walked over and engaged. Any advice on how to approach situations like this when you’re legitimately curious to understand why people feel so strongly but also don’t want to come off confrontational to complete strangers? Why would someone fly the original 13 colonies flag anyway?

— Adam, Middlesex County, NJ

Tangle: It's a long story, but the original 13 colonies flag (also known as the Betsy Ross flag, named after its purported creator) is the subject of some controversy. In 2019, Nike actually pulled the release of a 4th of July-themed shoe featuring the flag because of its connection to the "slavery era" of the United States.

To be up front: There are those who allege the flag is used by hate groups. Some NAACP chapters say it has been associated with "racial supremacy" groups. But experts on that kind of thing also say the association is weak, especially compared to other symbols. Some anti-government groups also fly the flag because of its connotation with revolution. And some totally normal people probably fly it, too (I happen to think it looks pretty cool).

"It’s not on our hate symbols list," Roy Tatem, the president of the East Valley NAACP said in 2019. "We view it as a historical, patriotic flag that is usually innocuous."

So depending on who you ask, even at the NAACP, it's either a flag associated with a hate group or a “usually innocuous” flag that symbolizes patriotism and history. Did I help clarify anything?

Anyway, I do wish you would have engaged. I do that sort of thing all the time. If you’re looking for advice on how, I’d say to come with a smile, genuine curiosity, and maybe even a beer. Americans are getting worse and worse at talking to each other, but someone flying a giant Trump flag and a Betsy Ross flag together is not out there doing that because they are interested in avoiding the conversation. Saying hi, shaking hands, asking about the flag and coming to the conversation in a way that is not accusatory is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

If you hear an answer that you don't like, or that worries you, you can walk away. Alternatively, you might learn something or make a new friend — perhaps even one who sees the world a bit differently than you do.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Under the radar.

New York City agreed to pay 1,300 Black Lives Matter protesters who were beaten during the 2020 protests. Each protester is receiving $10,000, totaling a $13 million settlement pending final judicial approval. The class-action settlement would be one of the most expensive payouts ever associated with a mass arrest lawsuit and the second for New York City this year. The prosecution argued protesters were exercising a constitutional right to peacefully demonstrate, then corralled into places they could not escape and assaulted by officers. The settlement applies to 18 specific marches or demonstrations in Brooklyn and Manhattan between May 28 and June 4 of 2020. The New York Post has the story


Numbers.

  • 160,000. The number of actors represented by the SAG-AFTRA union.
  • 11,000. The number of writers represented by the WGA union.
  • 87%. The percentage of SAG-AFTRA members who earn less than $26,000 a year from acting.
  • $4 billion. The potential economic impact of the combined writers' and actors' strikes.
  • -4%. The decline in the median writer-producer pay over the last decade, according to the WGA.
  • -23%. The decline in pay when that number is adjusted for inflation.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about the Respect for Marriage Act.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the giant oarfish.
  • Not looking good: 738 Tangle readers answered our poll asking if the whistleblowers further implicated Hunter or Joe Biden of corruption, with 55% answering in favor. 29% answered 'Definitely,' 26% said 'Probably,' 22% said 'Maybe,' 17% said 'Probably not,' and 4% said 'Definitely not.' 2% had no opinion or were unsure. "Where there's smoke there's fire. Just how much?" one respondent added.
  • Nothing to do with politics: The annual Hemingway look-alike contest.
  • Take the poll. What do you think of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

As record heat makes headlines across the country, the power grids in the hottest states are humming along. California utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company, whose reputation has been marred by equipment failures and outages during wildfires, said it would be able to meet heightened demand for electricity this summer. Meanwhile, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which has had its own high-profile reliability issues, hasn’t asked residents to conserve electricity since last month — even as power demand hit a new record last week. For California, record snowpack has given a major boost to hydropower, which produced more electricity in May than any month in the previous three years, and is combining with increases in solar production and battery storage to provide more reliable service. In Texas wind and solar farms represent nearly 40% of installed capacity, with natural gas accounting for about 42%. The Wall Street Journal has the story.


Don't forget...

🎤 Tickets for our live event are on sale now!

📣 Share Tangle on Twitter here, Facebook here, or LinkedIn here.

🎥 Follow us on Instagram here or subscribe to our YouTube channel here

💵 If you like our newsletter, drop some love in our tip jar.

🎉 Want to reach 62,000+ people? Fill out this form to advertise with us.

📫 Forward this to a friend and tell them to subscribe (hint: it's here).

🛍 Love clothes, stickers and mugs? Go to our merch store!

Subscribe to Tangle

Join 90,000+ people getting Tangle directly to their inbox!

Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.