SAG-AFTRA strikers make cameo appearance while studio bosses screen ‘Barbie’ for D.C. insiders
via Chicago Federation of Labor

WASHINGTON—Movie moguls curry favor with Congress via exclusive showings for lawmakers and staff, promoted by the Motion Picture Association of America, complete with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. But had attendees at the exclusive showing of Barbie looked out MPAA’s glass windows in D.C. on July 20, they would have seen a second show: SAG-AFTRA members on picket parade.

More than 100 people, mostly SAG-AFTRA members but also from other unions, gathered in a peaceful line around the MPAA building, holding signs of solidarity and distributing literature about why the movie studios, TV moguls, and streaming video firms had forced them out on strike. Consumer, car, and passers-by receptions included solidarity honks, waves, and shout-outs.

In a word, the bosses don’t want to pay the performers for their time, effort, and money. And the other funding they used to survive on, residuals—pay for your voice and body showing up on reruns—has dried up, thanks to streaming video.

The D.C. event was one of many nationwide, including a march in New York and a large crowd in Chicago’s Grant Park. The British actors union held a solidarity rally in London on July 21.

The result, performers said, is they can’t afford even studio-offered health insurance, because they must earn at least $26,400 a year to get it—and most don’t.


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But there’s another big deal in the talks, which forced the union to strike a week before: Artificial intelligence that lets studio producers shoot the body image of a performer in a day or less, record their voice, then create a zombie that can substitute for real people—forever.

“I don’t really survive,” TV and film actor Rob Olausen told People’s World at the picket line. “They had one movie and one day’s shooting downtown” of his AI image. He won’t get a penny beyond the day’s pay. “It’s one day” of performing, even in a small role, “not 20,” the time even extras worked in pre-AI days.

Added stage, film, and TV performer Keith Flippen: “Our labor is not just our images, but our patterns of behavior, which are ours and ours alone.” Studio use of them forever, without paying him, is “zombie acting.”

The result? The performer scrapes by, and the moguls make millions, as they will with Barbie, filmed by Warner Brothers before the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) forced the strike. Meanwhile, Disney CEO Bob Iger just signed a two-year contract extension for $27 million per annum.

But as much of the public thinks of movie, TV, and stage stars making millions, too, people should realize they’re a small minority of SAG-AFTRA members. Their colleagues in the Writers Guild of America, whom AMPTP also forced to strike over most of the same issues, also are nowhere near the top of the pay scale.

“As a dresser, I dress the performers,” says Wendy Snow, who’s a member of both unions and the Theatrical and Stage Employees (which may also soon strike), too. “If they’re not there,” she says of the performers, “I’m not there, the crew isn’t there. If we don’t have writers, the performers don’t have anything to say. There’s nobody there to feed them. There’s nobody to do their makeup.”

And all those people, Snow said, don’t get paid, either. Meanwhile, the studios make millions.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.