As the US actors’ and writers’ strike continues, how does the Australian screen industry measure up?

While the Australian screenwriters of the original Heartbreak High continue to earn money from the beloved 90s series, the writers of the Netflix reboot — which was a global hit — probably won’t see another cent from their work on the first season.

While Netflix made more than $1 billion from Australians in 2022, the Australian Writers Guild (AWG) says its writers are unlikely to ever receive royalties or residuals (the fees paid when episodes of their shows are rebroadcast or made available to watch on other platforms).

Residuals are either fickle or non-existent in the streaming age, when shows are available on-demand globally and streamers keep their viewing numbers close to their chests. Instead, writers and actors earn their wages up-front.

The streamers argue that they pay more up-front and take risks on shows that previously had no chance of being commissioned; however, this model means actors and writers aren’t profiting when their streaming shows become hits.

For example, Kimiko Glenn, a cast member of Orange Is The New Black — an early success for the nascent Netflix and hailed as a win for representation — made only US$27.30 in royalties last year.

And even though the hit 2021 series Squid Game increased the value of Netflix by US$900 million, the show’s South Korean writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk earns no residuals, having signed over his intellectual property (IP) rights to the streaming giant.

A film still from Netflix series Squid Game, depicting 9 figures in pink uniforms wearing black masks with circles and squares.

Squid Game was Netflix’s most-watched series ever.(Netflix series Squid Game (Noh Juhan/Netflix))

Residuals are one of the reasons US writers have now been on strike for nearly 140 days and actors have been on strike since mid-July.

Production has halted on Abbott Elementary, Euphoria and Emily in Paris, among a slew of other Hollywood shows, and the 2023 Emmy Awards ceremony has been postponed to 2024.

While Australian writers and actors on US productions are taking part in the strike (and US productions in Australia have been cancelled), our local industry is also being shaped and shaken up by international streamers.

Australian screen professionals say that much of what their US counterparts are fighting for are issues here, too.

And, in some cases, our local industry has actually provided a blueprint for the troubled US industry.

Streamers versus strikers

Anchuli Felicia King is a Thai Australian playwright (White Pearl; The Poison of Polygamy) and screenwriter. She’s worked on screen projects in Australia (The Twelve; Deadloch), Britain (The Baby) and the US (HBO’s upcoming adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer).

Three women, two in police uniforms, stand in a rocky landscape, in the TV series Deadloch

Deadloch is an Australian Amazon Prime series.(Supplied: Prime Video)

“The only way that I can cobble together a living is by working back-to-back, sometimes simultaneous, jobs in three different countries,” King told ABC RN’s Stop Everything!

The strike was called on May 2 by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which represents 11,500 screenwriters, after it was unable to reach an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). At the time, King was part of a writer’s room in New York working on a new series idea; when that was cut short, she returned to Australia.

“There was a sense, even when they internally authorised the strike within the guild, that this one was going to be a long one. The last strike [in 2007-8] lasted 100 days, and we’re in a really different landscape now with streamers,” King reflects.

“The blanket reason that we’re striking is to make sure that writing for screen remains sustainable as a career.”

Anchuli Felicia King wears black hat and jacket and poses in front of grey background.

King says: “It’s worth noting: It’s not just screenwriters, it’s our assistants, people who work in the rooms with us who are non-WGA members who don’t want to become scabs, they can’t work either.”(ABC Arts: Teresa Tan)

Writers’ demands include increases to minimum wages and streaming residuals, the introduction of mandatory staffing numbers and minimum duration of employment, and stronger contributions to retirement and health care funds.

“We’re not asking for a crazy amount of money: We’re asking for 2 per cent of the streamers’ global profits,” says King.

“Our profession has been consistently devalued, particularly with the rise of streamers. There’s an enormous amount of churn in writers in the industry … These massive tech conglomerates want us to work for as little money as possible, while profiting off our labour.”

An Australian actor who works regularly in Hollywood and Australia — and is one of the 160,000 striking members of SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) spoke to ABC Arts for this story but asked to remain anonymous, fearing studio “backlash”.

“The vast majority of actors are [used to] gigging; they are living pay cheque to pay cheque, they are working second and third jobs to make it through — and not complaining about it, either,” they say.

“But streaming is really starting to eat into people’s livelihoods.”

They say while some actors in the US used to be able to live off royalties during audition periods or between jobs, streaming has put an end to that.

The plight of Australian screenwriters

Claire Pullen, the executive director of the AWG, says that the majority of the guild’s members have to work other jobs while pursuing screenwriting.

“A lot of the things that the WGA is striking for look like a dream [to Australian screenwriters]. Our industry is much smaller … We have always had a gig economy,” she told ABC Arts.

King echoes Pullen: “A lot of the things that the WGA are fighting to protect in the States, we don’t even have in the UK and Australia.”

Fran Drescher in black velvet tracksuit and Meredith Stiehm in blue T smile while holding protest signs

Meredith Stiehm (left), president of Writers Guild of America West, and Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, take part in a rally by striking writers outside Paramount Pictures studio in Los Angeles on May 8, 2023. (AP: Chris Pizzello)

Before the age of streaming, US TV series had longer runs (10 or more episodes) and large writers’ rooms; now, it’s common to have “mini-rooms” with fewer writers who work on shorter seasons of shows.

In Australia’s smaller industry, “mini-rooms” have long been the norm. In fact, screenwriter Blake Ayshford (Mystery Road: Origin) says we’ve already devolved to “micro-rooms” and that we no longer have staff writers who do sustained work on a show, thereby developing their careers (and paying their bills).

King says she’s previously been called in to do only three days of work on a show in Australia.

“You’re playing this insane game of [broken] telephone after that … where you’re redrafting [scripts] over email. It’s frenzied. It’s chaotic … It’s a very frenetic system in Australia and it’s something that the WGA is fighting to stop happening in America,” says King.

“For a lot of my colleagues, particularly emerging writers of colour who are just entering the industry, it’s hard for them to climb the ladder because they end up doing so much unpaid work [just to sell a show to streamers], or they staff on one job and then spend six months of the year not getting staffed on another one.

“Even when they do get staffed, it’s hard for them to ascend to the next position.”

Previously, writers would stay with the production and gain on-set training, with a view to one day becoming showrunners (the screenwriter who has creative control over a series). But in Australia — and, increasingly, in the US — writers hired for short stints in mini-rooms aren’t given that opportunity.

Aaron Pedersen as a detective and Jada Alberts as a cop in Mystery Road

Australia’s screen industry is smaller in scale, making it hard for screenwriters and actors to earn a living exclusively through their craft (Mystery Road pictured here).(ABC TV)

Over the last three years, King has worked on five shows for some of the biggest international streamers (including Prime and Max); the first time she saw one of her episodes shot was in Los Angeles this year, on her own dime.

“That’s a big problem for training the next generation of showrunners … We [need to] put some protections in place to make sure that the diverse stories that we all want to see on our screens are being told by people with those lived experiences.”

Pullen adds: “If the rooms are smaller, and there’s fewer of them, the commercial decision is going to be: What is a safe bet? … When there’s such focus on what might guarantee a commercial return, it doesn’t incentivise creative risk-taking.”

The residuals reckoning

While screenwriters in Australia don’t need to fight for healthcare and retirement funds like their US counterparts do, the question of residuals is globally relevant.

“Our media landscape is rapidly changing in Australia. At some point there will be a reckoning about how little our work is compensated, versus how much the streamers are profiting off our work,” says King.

Pullen says the AWG is invested in what happens with residuals in the US negotiations.

“In Australia, you do not get any chance at royalties and residuals with the streamers. Broadcast TV is better, but they’re a shrinking part of the market,” she explains.

Pullen is a fan of local content quotas for streaming services, which the government says will come into effect from mid-2024, thanks to their national cultural policy; the next step is ensuring that the profits from that Australian work is shared by Australian writers.

The AWG and the Media Entertainment Alliance Australia (MEAA) are in conversation with the federal government about IP rights, which affect creators’ share of any potential profits from their work.

“Our ask is that to meet the quota, to be counted as Australian content, the Intellectual Property belongs to an Australian [rather than the streaming company],” says Pullen.

“A small number of creatives have smash-hit successes that make them wealthy, but the majority of writers working in Australia are not in that category; they are people doing normal [non-writing] jobs, trying to pay mortgages or rent, [and] feed their families.”

The anonymous Australian actor says that, typically, local actors haven’t been able to make a living off residuals from Australian productions.

“What is happening in America [with streaming residuals] could really positively affect what happens here in Australia, too.”

A Black woman holds a sign with Writers Guild of America on Strike written on it as she stands in a crowd.

The AWG has advised members against taking up jobs from American producers, which would be seen as crossing the picket line and would result in those writers being barred from joining the WGA in the future.(AP: Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Erin Madely, the chief executive of the MEAA, which represents actors, told ABC Arts: “What the SAG-AFTRA performers and [WGA] writers are fighting for in the US sets a new precedent.

“Any gains that happen there [we’d be hoping to replicate here], and while our performers here have our own agreements, we absolutely stand in support of their pursuit of updating the business model.”

AI versus humans

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is developing at an unanticipated pace and is a contentious issue in both the actors’ and writers’ strikes.

Screenwriters are concerned that studios will use AI to generate scripts. King says: “We feel very strongly that this might be our last opportunity to put some of this clear contractual writing in place … [to ensure] that writing remains a human endeavour.”

Pullen says: “Every worker in Australia should be concerned about AI … [but] my concern is that studios, producers and the streamers will see it as a cheap way to make fast content.”

While she says there are interesting works being made with AI — for example, a recent episode of South Park was co-written by ChatGPT — she is concerned about copyright and consent.

“If you are training a generative AI [such as ChatGPT], [in other words] a large language model, on material that someone else has produced — then you’re stealing their copyright.”

Workers and supporters of WGA protest outside Netflix offices in California.

“[AI] by its nature is derivative. You put someone else’s work in and it spits out an amalgam of that work. There is no new idea coming from that. It can’t by definition generate new ideas,” says Pullen.(Reuters: Aude Guerrucci)

American studios are reportedly proposing that background actors (aka extras) have their likeness digitally captured and then be used in perpetuity, for one day’s pay.

“[That behaviour] is a real sign of where they [studios] stand,” says the Australian actor, while conceding, “I haven’t seen Australian producers arguing for the same things that they have been doing in America [in terms of AI].”

While US productions are on hold here and elsewhere — with knock-on effects for crew members too — Australian productions are unaffected.

But, Madely says, “We’d love for this [strike] to be resolved quickly, because when the US jobs do come here, it’s a really important part of our industry [in terms of] employment of our crews [and] the creative development of our people.

“In the meantime, Australian stories should continue to be made, continue to be told, and we hope that our members, during this time, go back to our industry and tell our stories.”

Both King and the anonymous Australian actor are determined, and so are their unions.

“We have to make a stand now because we’re at a real, historical, existential crisis point for our industry,” says the actor.

“Whatever happens now is going to set the tone for decades to come.

“We are united, we’re strong, we are in this together and we’re not going to back down because it’s too important. Too many people’s livelihoods are on the line.”

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