In the fall of 2023, the widely publicized writers’ and actors’ union strikes that halted the film and television industry for much of the year finally ended. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, which represented 11,500 screenwriters, was the second-longest in the history of the organization, lasting a total of 148 days before a deal was reached. The strike by the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), ran a total of 118 days.
Both organizations were in a deadlock with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) over multiple contract issues including pay, streaming content residuals, employment terms, artificial intelligence, and more. The WGA ratified its new three-year deal with the AMPTP on October 9, followed by the SAG-AFTRA finalizing its contract on December 5.
The WGA’s new agreement covers a range of key provisions, including pay bumps in writer’s average weekly wages, health and pension contribution rates, the role of artificial intelligence in projects, and compensation terms for specific forms of content. The WGA’s contract is effective retroactive to September 25 and expires on May 1, 2026.
Under the terms of the new minimum basic agreement (MBA), most writers’ wages rose 5% as of September 5, 2023. Those average weekly wages will increase by 4% in 2024, and 3.5% in 2025. The health fund contribution will go up 0.5% in 2024, to 12%.
Instead of script writing teams having to divide capped pension and health contributions as a group, an upper contribution limit will now apply to writers on an individual basis. TV writers who are employed as part of a team will now also receive contributions based on the fully weekly minimum. These are changes that should make it much easier for writers to qualify for healthcare benefits.
Artificial intelligence was front and center during the strikes. The ratified agreement outlines several core AI-related provisions. For example, artificial intelligence cannot be used to create or rewrite literary material, and AI-generated content may not be classified as source material, either. While a company can agree to allow a writer to use artificial intelligence on a writing project, they cannot compel a writer to do so. Writers must also be informed if they are supplied with any content that features AI technology.
On all shows, the writers’ room must feature a minimum of three writer-producers. For shows of six episodes or fewer, there must be at least three writers on the writing team. Shows with seven to twelve episodes must have a minimum of five writers in the writers’ room, while shows of 13 episodes or more must have a minimum of six writers.
Residuals for streaming content and more transparency around these projects remains a significant bone of contention across the industry. The 2023 WGA agreement makes notable strides in these areas, including a promise from streaming services to provide confidential data to the Guild regarding domestic and international streaming hours for high budget streaming programs.
If a feature-length streaming project has a budget of $30 million or higher, the minimum writer compensation will now be $100,000, an 18% increase from the prior rate. Foreign streaming residuals for high subscription video on demand services will now hinge on the foreign subscribers attributable to a specific streaming provider. Case in point: a three-year foreign residual for content streaming on Netflix would now pay $32,830 for a one-hour episode instead of the prior rate of $18,684.
The SAG-AFTRA’s contract went into effect retroactive to November 9 and expires on June 30, 2026. Minimum actor wages experienced a 7% bump right at the start of the contract, and these wage minimums will experience a 4% increase in 2024 followed by a 3.5% increase in 2025. For actors who are subject to minimum daily rates, those wages rose by 11% under the terms of the new contract, with additional bumps expected.
The new contract also contains specific provisions for hair and makeup designed to drive improved a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment for all performers. For example, companies are now required to reach out to principal performers for input to ensure they work with hair and makeup professionals who are qualified to provide services for that performer’s needs. If the company is unable to find qualified professionals, they must provide reimbursement commensurate with the cost of that performer hiring their own hair and makeup team.
The new artificial intelligence provisions in SAG-AFTRA’s contract span a variety of concerns, including the requirement that a company obtains the performer’s permission before using a digital replica in their place in a project. The company must also pay the actor for the days that they would have worked, and which are now being replaced by the digital replica. Moreover, background actors whose digital replica is used as a main character must be compensated for those days on top of any residuals owned.
The updated agreement features provisions about the use of intimacy coordinators, who production companies must take all reasonable steps to hire for scenes involving simulated intercourse or nudity. Companies are barred from carrying out retaliatory actions against performers who request an intimacy coordinator.
In addition to requirements that streaming companies supply viewership data to specific SAG-AFTRA leadership, the contract now entitles actors to certain streaming bonuses on top of residuals for projects that garner high watch numbers. If the project is watched by at least 20% of the streaming service’s domestic subscribers in the first three months of release, performers are entitled to a streaming bonus. In terms of dividing that bonus money, 75% will be paid to the performer, while the remaining 25% will go to a streaming payment distribution fund for other actors.
The 2023 Writers and Actors strikes show how necessary it is to have fair contracts in this business. If you are in the entertainment industry, you might find yourself in need of an attorney who knows the complexities of this rapidly evolving space. From reviewing and negotiating fair contracts, to preserving intellectual property and licensing interests, to brokering development and distribution agreements, an experienced IP attorney can assist with a wide range of legal matters.
Lomnitzer Law works closely with actors, writers, and others in the industry to safeguard your legal rights at every stage of your case. Call now to speak with us about your legal situation and find out what options are at your disposal.