In Hollywood, the cool kids have joined the picket line.
I mean, as a writer, not to offend the screenwriters who have been on strike at film and television studios for more than two months. But the writers know the score. We are words, not faces. The cleverest sit-ban prank is no match for the attention-grabbing power of Margot Robbie or Matt Damon.
SAG-AFTRA, the union representing TV and film actors, has joined writers on strike over how Hollywood distributes money in the age of broadcasting and how humans can thrive in the age of artificial intelligence. With that star power comes an easy cheap shot: Why should anyone bother with a group of privileged elites whining about their dream job?
But for all the emphasis a few bold names will receive in this strike, I invite you to consider a term that has come up a lot in current negotiations: “background actors.”
You probably don’t think much about the actors’ background. It’s not supposed to, hence the name. They’re the non-speaking characters who populate the margins of the screen, making Gotham City, King’s Landing, or the beaches of Normandy seem real, blocky, and alive.
And you may have more in common with them than you think.
Low-paid actors who make up the bulk of the profession face minor threats of dollars and cents to their livelihood. They are trying to maintain their income amid fading residual payments, as broadcasting has shortened TV seasons and destroyed the syndication model. They are looking for guardrails against AI encroachment on their jobs.
There’s also a particularly chilling question on the table: Who owns an artist’s face? Background actors seek better protection and compensation in the practice of scanning their images for digital reuse.
At a press conference about the strike, a union negotiator He said that the studios were seeking the rights to scan and use the actor’s image “in perpetuity” in exchange for a day’s pay. The studios argue that they offer “groundbreaking” protections against misuse of actors’ images, and dispute that their proposal would only allow the company to use the “digital replica” on the specific project for which the background actor is hired.
However, the long-term effects of the Black Mirror – the practice was the actual premise From the last episode – not to be scoffed at. If a digital replica of you – without the annoying need for money and time to live a life – could do the job, who needs you?
You can, I suppose, make the argument that if someone isn’t important enough to be replaced by a program, then they’re in the wrong business. But background work and small roles are exactly the ways to get your blockbuster hit on the red carpet one day. And many talented artists build entire careers around a series of small jobs. (Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things” series is a fascinating portrait of the lives of ordinary working actors.)
In the end, the battle for Hollywood isn’t far removed from the threats many of us face in today’s economy. “We will all be in danger of being replaced by machines,” said Fran Drescher, president of the Actors Guild. declaring strike.
You and I may be the heroes of telling our own stories, but in the grand scheme, most of us are background players. We run the same risk — that every time there is a technological or cultural shift, companies will rewrite terms of employment in their favour, citing financial strains while paying their top executives. Tens and hundreds of millions.
It’s probably unfair that exploitation gets more attention when it comes to a union that Meryl Streep belongs to. (If the looming UPS strike materializes, it could put blue-collar workers in the spotlight.) And there is certainly legitimate criticism of white-collar workers who were careless about automation until AI threatened their jobs.
But business is business, and some of the dynamics are universal. As entertainment reporter and critic Maureen Ryan writes in Burn It Down, her investigation of workplace abuses across Hollywood, “neither do the most important entities in the commercial entertainment industry value the people who make products.”
If you don’t believe Ryan, listen to the anonymous studio executive talk about the writers’ strike, who said Commercial Publication Deadline“The end of the game is to let things out so that the guild members start losing their apartments and losing their homes.”
You may think of Hollywood creatives as a privileged class, but if employers think of them that way, are you sure your thinking is different than yours? Most of us, in Hollywood or out, are faced with a common question: Can we have a working world in which you can survive without being a star?
You may never notice actors in the background if they are doing their jobs well. However, understand the difference between a sterile scene and a live scene. They create the impression that, along with the close focus on the beautiful threads, there is a whole, integrated universe, whether it be the galaxy of the “Star Wars” franchise or the mundane reality in which you and I live.
They are there to say that we, too, are here, that we make the world a world, that we at least deserve our little places in the corner of the screen.