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i don't think it's that complicated?
you just gotta think for, like, two or three seconds
Two large entertainment unions, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are on strike. These unions represent writers (the W in WGA) and the screen actors (the SA in SAG-AFTRA). They are on strike because the economics of film and television production have changed, largely due to streaming, and as a result the profession of screenwriting and screen acting has become financially untenable for a large majority of those who do it.
They're right to be on strike. That's not tough to understand. What is, supposedly, tough to understand is how this rare perfect storm of entertainment unions affects content creators and influencers, who also produce what some call "entertainment." (I'm dubious.) The Verge puts together "An influencer’s guide to the writers and actors strikes." "Influencers Navigate Strike Minefield," declares the Hollywood Reporter. The New York Times reports that "Hollywood Strike Leaves Influencers Sidelined and Confused."
Luckily, I've put together this handy flowchart to help influencers navigate this real once-in-a-lifetime humdinger of a sticky wicket.
The WGA and SAG-AFTRA are large unions with a number of different contracts, so for clarity’s sake, you could also ask yourself a question like, “Has my WGA/SAG bargaining agreement expired?” (WGA newsrooms with their own separate collective bargaining agreements are not on strike, for example. The same goes for actors on soap operas, because they are covered by a different agreement.)
Alright, so we’ve figured out who is on strike. Great! We’re making progress. If you’re not a member of these unions, you’re not on strike. If you are in either union (and work under the CBAs being negotiated) you are on strike. You probably got an email about it.
The next step is defining “struck work,” which is the work not being performed during the strike. There’s nuance here, but in broad terms, it’s pretty simple: the two big areas are 1) writing for or acting in any work produced by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and 2) promoting any such production. Performing these tasks — which would otherwise be done by union members — is scabbing, which is very, very bad.
Okay, I’ll pause to take some questions now.
Is writing about Hollywood productions in a journalistic capacity also scabbing?
It’s obviously not. Reporting on an industry is not the same as being in that industry. The “fandom is so important” mode of coverage that has come to dominate all pop-culture journalism is one of the worst trends of the 21st century because now everyone thinks they are a participant instead of an observer. Actors and writers often do interviews to promote their work, for instance, but a journalist interviewing them is independent and under no obligation to frame that work in any particular way. Anyone who can’t discern journalism and critical analysis from promotional work, or get clarity about this distinction from a superior who should know the answer, should probably find a different job.
Does doing promo on social media, or attending a premiere, as a content creator or influencer count as scabbing?
Yes. This is because that sort of work is usually done by members of the production. If a studio cannot get actors to walk their red carpet, and they hire an influencer to do so instead, that influencer is effectively replacing the actors in promoting the movie. Performing work that would otherwise be performed by union members — in other words, allowing employers to proceed with business as usual while their workers strike — is scabbing.
What about ‘rewatch’ or ‘companion’ podcasts?
Great question. This might be the only actually grey area in the bunch. For instance, SAG-AFTRA says, “Yes, they are considered promotional. Rewatch and companion shows drive people to the struck companies’ platforms to watch the shows promoted by your podcast.” Some of these podcasts are produced by struck companies, some are produced independently. How does the latter category differ from, say, a positive film review?
A good way to reframe this question to get a clear answer is: “Am I coming at this material as a fan, first and foremost?” If you are making or listening to a podcast because you love something so much that you want to spur other people to watch it too, and are not really doing independent reporting or critical engagement, maybe take a break. Or rewatch something that’s not from a struck company. Or find a real hobby. There are many options.
On a side note, my personal read is that SAG has it backwards. Rewatch podcasts exist to ride the economic coattails of heavy streaming activity. Someone watches the show, and then they listen to people talk about it. I don’t think the cast of The Office launched one thousand different rewatch shows to spur interest; they did so because that enormous interest already existed. They’re like those fish that suction-cup themselves to sharks. Every time I see that HBO post-roll podcast ad, all I can see is, “We produced 10 hours of homework based on the show you’re watching.” Rewatch/companion podcasts are for the people who are already watching. A weird, new form of audience brand activation is still promo though.
What can be done in the meantime?
Productions that are “truly” independent can still go on. During the 2007 writers’ strike, that’s how we ended up with Joss Whedon bankrolling Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. We are now facing dire conditions that might produce a second Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which would be catastrophic. This looming threat is why we must get the writers and actors a fair deal, and back to work as soon as possible.
What’s so bad about scabbing?
For one thing, it’s morally repugnant to undermine workers who are going without pay and stability to fight for livable working conditions. But in more tangible terms, if you scab, you will never be able to join that union. You will be shut out because you cannot be trusted to stand in solidarity with other members. It is an unforgivable act.
There is an unstated, heavily implied question surrounding all of this that kinda gets to the heart of the current confusion for influencers. That unstated question is: “Would going scab mode really be so bad?” Again, I have boiled this down to an easy-to-use flowchart to help you make your decision.
Again, this does not seem that complicated. If one is an influencer or content creator hoping to make it in the mainstream Hollywood system, no scabbo. Simple!
Consider Logan Winter, from the Hollywood Reporter write-up:
“They want us to stop certain things and for us to lose money to show support, but if the roles were reversed, would they do the same?” wonders Emanuel Rodriguez, whose 8-year-old son Logan Winter is a superhero-centered content creator who frequently does partnerships with Marvel and DC.
“It’s like putting you in an against-a-wall thing — it’s kind of an ultimatum,” says Rodriguez, who admits he’s scared that what he decides now could impact his son if he eventually decides to join SAG.
First of all, Logan, blink twice if you need help. Secondly, it sure seems like there’s a clear answer on whether this guy should force his child/employee to scab. Third: Yes, duh-doyee, this conundrum is intentional. The whole point is disruption. That some are framing this as some sort of legitimate catch-22 is making me nutso? It feels like people complaining that they were late to work because protests have shut down a freeway instead of, you know, considering why there’s a protest in the first place. There is no way to effectively strike or protest in such a way that it does not cause inconvenience or collateral damage to outside groups. A good labor action should be clarifying, and force everyone to figure out what side they’re on. Some of the content creators understand this. The Times spoke with a number of people who do spon who have stopped doing promo work. Turning down thousands in an act of both solidarity and self-preservation seems like a good idea to me.
But I have been thinking about the quadrant that does not want to be in the WGA or SAG, and just wants to do brand deals, and which is pretending to be caught between a rock and a hard place. I can’t help but ask, Wasn’t this the big promise of the internet, and specifically social media? That you can run around incumbents and larger players? That you can go straight the studios (or their contracted PR firms) and ask for a check in exchange for gramming your Barbie fits? If one is the type of person who likes being an influencer or content creator because of all of the libertarian promises of the form — total autonomy, a direct relationship with audience and patrons, less red tape preventing bringing an idea to fruition — then it’s tough for me to figure out who those influencers and content creators are scared of running afoul of. The studios, which are cutting the checks, aren’t the bodies enforcing the strike rules; the studios couldn’t care less about making sure workers adhere to those rules.
A lot of the posturing reminds me of the way people talk about cancel culture. “Oh me oh my, the rules are arbitrary and ever-changing and I just can’t figure them out! And if I violate these Calvinball rules, my career is over!” Except… the rules are pretty clear about what one can and cannot do. And if one isn’t sure, just ask the WGA or SAG, and they’ll have an answer.
“Is it going to come down to, ‘I saw somebody do this,’ like a tattletale thing, or are they checking profiles? How are they putting this in place?” one influencer wondered to the Hollywood Reporter. This is an extremely funny thing for someone whose job is being highly visible on the internet and who is legally required to disclose paid endorsements to ask.
I suspect influencers and content creators might really be frustrated with having to confront how hollow their work really is — and who they’re really working for. The content creators, as much as they might like to think otherwise, are not neutral here. The strikes have laid bare that many of the people whose business is posting online are not working in collaboration with the artists who make the stuff they cut reaction videos for or get paid to endorse, but are instead working in collaboration with The Man. Where do the influencers think that the thousands of dollars they get for posting dead-eyed #spon is coming from? Studio executives replacing celebrity promo work with non-union influencers and content creators, and replacing independent press with rosy companion podcasts can be seen as pieces of a larger puzzle that also includes: depriving writers and actors of their fair share of the profits, using large language models to generate scripts, contracting non-union VFX houses to recreate likenesses with CGI instead of hiring an actual actor, and mining for pre-existing IP instead of investing in the creation of something original.
For people who have a problem with any of that stuff, I don’t think the situation is particularly confusing.