Hollywood in 2023 marked by strikes, tumult


 According to a recent study released by Otis College of Art and Design, which was produced by Westwood Economics and Planning Associates, the entertainment industry in Los Angeles experienced a peak in employment in April of this year, with 142,652 workers employed. However, by October, there were 24,799 fewer workers employed in the industry, representing a 17% decrease. The study suggests that this decline in employment is part of a larger economic downturn and raises concerns that these lost jobs may not return.  

Set to be the first of two studies on the entertainment biz, the report released Thursday  estimates that ress”Greater Los Angeles Entertainment Industry workers lost roughly $1.4 billion in wages between April and September 2023, or roughly 0.5% of the industry’s annual economic activity.” During the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, which ended in late September and late last month respectively, the California economy overall took a $6.5 billion hit. Nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 45,000 jobs were lost from when the 12,000-strong scribes guild hit the picket lines in early May, followed by the 160,000-strong actor’s guild in mid-July, to mid-October.

WGA & SAG-AFTRA members rally at the Walt Disney Company in Burbank, CA; Credit: gettyMichael Buckner/Deadline via Getty Images

“Beyond the short-term impact, the strikes should be understood within the context of a broader restructuring of the Industry: employment was contracting in the Industry even before the strikes,” the Otis College reports declares. “Employment in the Industry peaked in May of 2016, and reached nearly the same level in August of 2022. Since this time, employment has shrunk by 26%”.

One of the primary authors of Otis College’s “Day After Tomorrow” warns that end of the strikes, which officially came on Dec 5 with SAG-AFTRA members voting to ratify their deal with the studios by just over 78%, don’t mean everything will be returning to normal. In fact, Patrick Adler, Principal at Westwood Economics and Planning Associates and Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong, says normal had left the ever-changing industry way before the strikes started

“The end of the strikes means there’s a possibility of reversing the steady and steep employment declines of the last year,” Dr. Adler told Deadline today. “But it’s an open question if all of the lost jobs over the past year are coming back,” he added.

“We show that the industry’s business model is at a serious inflection point. Fundamental questions about how much content will be produced and how it will be paid for are less resolved now than they were ahead of the last SAG-AFTRA deal,” the academic went on to say. “The industry’s employment level hangs in the balance. We should resist the urge to see ratification as an end to some great reckoning.”

From Disney’s Bob Iger on down, executives over the past year have stressed a shift to less shows and projects in a cost-saving and stock bumping moves cloaked as “quality over quantity.”

“Almost all of Hollywood production is controlled by publicly traded companies, and Wall Street has exerted more pressure on the industry since interest rates spiked in 2022,” Dr. Adler notes. “Basically, one dollar of production money is much more expensive today than it was in 2021, and so the street expects a higher return.”

Putting a spotlight on the shortcomings of streaming services as revenue streams, the18-page report itself says: “The bigger picture reveals that Peak TV, rather than the strikes, represents the more enduring threat to employment in the Industry. An arms race among streaming platforms heralded a surge in production between 2016 and 2022, as platforms pursued subscriber growth at all costs. As this business model has transitioned into one which emphasizes profitability and sustainability, we have likely reached the highwater mark in production.”

Worth noting that while the WGA and SAG-AFTRA have reached new contracts with the studios, IATSE and the Teamsters will be entering negotiations with the AMPTP next year. As the Hollywood employment contraction tightens further, both those unions will clearly have job saving as one of their top priorities as more strikes and standstills could loom.

Hollywood’s vaccine mandates are gone, but as new legal actions filed today against SAG-AFTRA make clear, the battle over COVID-19 protection is far from over.

Over 100 individual suits placed in the LA Superior Court docket Thursday claim the Guild threw members under corporate buses during the height of the pandemic, essentially linking arms with the studios to require vaccinations to work.

“While Defendants are Plaintiff’s Union representatives, SAG-AFTRA members had a right to expect that its Union would protect them, negotiate with the studios, producers and other hiring officials on their behalf to prevent prejudicial treatment for exerting their philosophical, religious, medical or disability-based reason for not taking the COVID-19 vaccine,” says stuntman and Guild member Dorian Kingi in his jury trial seeking filing today.

Kingi’s action is one of 103 complaints filed by the firm of Gerald Fox Law this week.

“Adding insult to injury, assuming SAG-AFTRA was a public/government and not private actor, similar to California law which requires students attending public or private school be vaccinated against certain named and identified infectious diseases, SAG-AFTRA was allowing its signatories (production companies/studios) to forcibly impose vaccination requirements and mandates in exchange for a Union Member’s ability to work, receive an audition, maintain management, maintain an agent, work with talent agencies, etc,” adds the 21-page suit for breach of fiduciary duty negligence, and four other claims. “Thus, SAG-AFTRA Members were forced to choose between their financial livelihood, breaking the law to obtain a falsified vaccination card or adhering to the acceptance of a foreign, not yet CDC approved, vaccine and boosters in their bodies against their will.”

The suits are looking for a plethora of damages and injunctive relief. They also want court orders for a full accounting and “compelling SAG-AFTRA as the fiduciary to Plaintiff and found to have breached their fiduciary duties to Plaintiff to restore all losses to Plaintiff which resulted from the breaches of fiduciary duty or by liability.”  

SAG-AFTRA says: been there, done that, going there again.

“The claims are without merit and SAG-AFTRA will seek their dismissal,” a spokesperson for the 160,000-strong Guild responded to the Deadline today. “The union has already defended and obtained dismissal of other charges brought against it before the National Labor Relations Board relating to the Return to Work Agreement.”

“We believe in the strength of our cases, look forward to litigating the issues, eager to find justice for our clients, and believe we will be victorious,” plaintiffs’ attorney Breyon J. Davis said to Deadline after the filings Thursday.

Initially put in place back in September 2020, as most of the Western world was under lockdown, the COVID-19 protocols were extended numerous times subsequently. In July 2021, they were amended to give producers “the option to implement mandatory vaccination policies for casts and crew in Zone A on a production-by-production basis.” Zone A, where unmasked actors work, is the most restrictive of the safe work zones on sets. In January of this year, 67.1% of guild members surveyed by SAG-AFTRA said that they “approve of employers requiring Covid vaccination as a condition of access to the set.” In the survey, 26.1% said they disapproved of the mandate, and 6.8% said they had no opinion on the matter.

On May 11, the guild and the AMPTP ended all Covid protocols – including the vaccination mandate.

Along with SAG-AFTRA, studios like Disney and Netflix have been taken to court over the vaccine requirements, with most of those cases still winding their way through the justice system — which still has a backlog from its own pandemic lockdowns and mandates.

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