It’s no secret the streaming wars have gained considerable ammunition over the past year and a half as stuck-at-home consumers have inhaled more and more content from their beloved streaming services, and those services have offered more and more compelling content. Warner Bros. put its entire 2021 film slate on HBO Max—including Godzilla vs. Kong and Space Jam: A New Legacy (they also played in theaters)—due to the pandemic. And in June, Disney released the latest Pixar film Luca only on Disney Plus.
As a result, streaming subscriptions have skyrocketed. Disney Plus doubled its numbers over the past year and now has over 116 million subscribers. Netflix’s growth was so dramatic during the first several months of COVID-19 that it’s now in hangover mode—though still the industry leader with over 209 million subscribers.
But the hidden toll of all this exploding growth is coming to the surface in an ugly fight between behind-the-scenes Hollywood production workers and the TV studios and streamers. The conflagration reached a feverish pitch on Monday when members of IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) voted overwhelmingly in favor of going on strike against the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers).
A work stoppage by the people who make sets run would grind Hollywood, which has only recently reached pre-pandemic levels of film and TV production, to a halt.
To be clear, a strike is not imminent—at least not quite. But as the two sides return to the negotiating table, IATSE president Matthew Loeb now has a powerful ace in his stack, putting the TV producers at a distinct disadvantage.
The primary issues that IATSE is fighting for are related to quality of life: the amount of rest workers get; an end to the dreaded “Fraturday,” when a Friday shift ends on Saturday morning; and more food-related payments when crew members don’t get a meal break. All of these issues have been greatly compounded by the number of TV shows that have been jammed into production in order to feed streaming services trying to out-produce one another and offer an endless queue of content. As a result, wardrobe workers, makeup artists, and script supervisors find themselves jumping from job to job, often with little downtime in between. This model, which is built on shows that rarely go more than a season or two, is in stark relief to the days when big, network TV shows kept grips and other below-the-line workers on one show for years at a time.
Pay for these workers is also not commensurate with network rates at the smaller streamers, such as Apple TV Plus and Paramount Plus. Owing to a contract signed all the way back in 2009, streamers with less than 20 million subscribers can pay crew members reduced rates. The intent was to help the streaming industry grow, but as an IATSE statement recently put it: “The most profitable companies on the planet do not need cut rates that were negotiated to address a once emerging distribution method. Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook . . . should all pay industry-standard wages to the professionals who crew their productions.” (The AMPTP has said it will raise rates on smaller streamers by 18% but has not agreed to parity.)
Then there are residuals, once the bread and butter for anyone involved in a network TV show that paid out dividends in second markets like cable TV and DVDs for years. Streaming residuals now make up 44% of all TV productions, up from 18% in 2016, according to IATSE. But because there is no second market in TV for a streaming original, and as the DVD business has dried up, residuals on streaming shows pay far less than for networks shows. On the bargaining table is a demand for streamers to pay higher residual rates into members’ pension and health plans.
IATSE has made clear that their fight is “not just about streaming companies.” But the definition of what “new media” is in 2021 and just how different it is from “old” media in 2021 is a crucial point that underlines almost all of the union’s issues. If Apple is a company worth $2.4 trillion, does it matter that it claims it has under 20 million subscribers on Apple TV Plus—which just swept the comedy category at the Emmys with Ted Lasso? Put another way: Should the people working on that show be paid as though they’re making a web series?
As IATSE has said, in a line that will likely show up on T-shirts and posters if the locals head to the streets: “New media is media. We helped build it. We deserve to be paid for it.”