Strike by US writers and actors affects SA shoots and ignites local debate

Strike by US writers and actors affects SA shoots and ignites local debate
People picket outside HBO and Amazon offices in New York on 17 July 2023. Writers Guild of America members have been on strike since early May as agreements between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and the WGA were not reached on better wages and working conditions for writers. Actors have also joined the strike. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sarah Yenesel)

The strike in the US is costing jobs in the South African film industry and shining a harsh light on the conditions local actors face.

The continuing Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-Aftra) strike in the US is harming the South African film industry and shining a harsh light on the conditions local actors face.

The South African Guild of Actors (Saga) has called out rapacious local production companies for blocking actors in terms of their rights and remuneration.

Cape Town has seen at least two shoots halted and some projects in the pre-production stage, which did not get to the shooting stage, have also been shuttered. More than 200 people are confirmed to have lost their jobs, but the total number would be at least twice that and is most likely climbing.

The SAG-Aftra strike may be taking place in the US, but it affects all US productions and union members, regardless of where in the world the production is being filmed.

A person close to one of Cape Town’s shuttered shoots – for the US action thriller G20 – said the bulk of jobs lost belonged to make-up artists, hairdressers, set or location managers, drivers, security guards, medics, stunt artists and more.

“The entire crew and all support services were affected,” the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of nondisclosure agreements. 

“The levels of secrecy around film productions are as high as those of military operations.”

Saga says it has been fighting for basic employment rights and fair contracts since its inception in 2014. South African actors are also speaking out about clauses creeping into contracts that require them to sign over life rights to the use and manipulation of their images and voices.

This is at the heart of the SAG-Aftra strike as well. Issues that stand out are remuneration and the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

The Writers Guild of America went on strike in May after being unable to reach an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

Among other demands, the writers had asked for the AMPTP to “increase residuals for undercompensated reuse markets” as well as “regulate use of material produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies”. They also wanted an increase in contributions to pension plans and health funds.

US actors joined picketing writers on 14 July when their union, SAG-Aftra, called for a strike after its talks with the AMPTP – for new contracts to deal with pay around streaming and the use of AI – broke down.

The double strike is called a “Hot Labor Summer” in the US, where many states have been gripped by a heatwave. And though the strike has seen many productions and talk shows come to a standstill, it has also set off a discourse on work and who gets paid for what in the US entertainment industry.

It is also firing up South African actors, who have been silently enduring signing away their rights and image use, but are now speaking out. The actor Jack Devnarain, who chairs Saga, says he cannot understand those who say the US strike has nothing to do with them. 

“They are being screwed by the same terms and conditions that SAG-Aftra is fighting against.”

The DJ, dancer and actor Hungani Ndlovu says that although he has never refused to sign a contract as that would mean refusing work, serious change is needed.

“The contracts are deemed standard contracts, so you don’t have a place to go to negotiate any further. So, it’s either you take it or you leave it because that’s the supposed standard contract, which doesn’t include things like royalties…

“They can use your image and your likeness for however long.”

An active local contract obtained by Daily Maverick bears out Ndlovu’s words. It says the artist “grants and expressly consents to the production company the right in perpetuity throughout the universe, by any means and in all media now known or hereafter devised, to use and au­thorise others to use, issue and authorise publicity concerning the artist, and to use the artist’s name, voice, autograph, likeness, photo­graph, bio­graph­ical data and other reproductions of the artist’s physical likeness…”

Saga says actors are also denied their constitutional right to be part of a union, as seen in the contract in Daily Maverick’s possession: “The artist warrants that… he/she is not a member of any guild, union or other collective bargaining agreement…”

Carlynn de Waal-Smit, a founding member of Saga and now its national secretary and treasurer, says the production houses make money with reruns while not sending a cent back to the actors.

“There is nothing in South African law which forces anyone to pay residuals to South African actors.”

She says local contracts offer almost no protections for actors.

“You are not going to be defended or be able to be represented by your guild or your union if you sign that contract.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.



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