Actors were the first to realize that their earnings were plummeting as streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu were ballooning.

Commercials and TV episodes were being watched over and over again, while actors weren’t getting any residuals. As actors turned to their unions for support, the unions turned a blind eye, pretending that nothing could be done, that it was all uncharted territory. Now, producers are starting to feel the hits. Thus, streaming services started their takeover.

Actors have historically had a very hard time earning a living wage. They are the first on sets to be asked to work for free, and when they are paid, it is usually very little. Non-union wages are laughable, and union wages have gone from being great pay to barely enough to live on. This is especially true with commercials.

Commercials used to be the average actor’s bread and butter.

The rates for on-set days were high and residuals were enough for actors to live comfortable lives. Residuals were also the thing that kept actors afloat between jobs or while they had conflicts. (A conflict is when an actor has a commercial running for one product and they can’t do any commercials for a competing product until the commercial has ended its run. For example, if an actor books a coke commercial, they’re not allowed to do commercials for other soda brands until the commercial finishes airing.) Residuals are paid as compensation for the fact that the actor’s work is now limited.

Commercials took the first and, perhaps, biggest hit from streaming services. Where actors used to earn residuals every time their commercial played on cable, they are not paid anything when their commercials run on internet or streaming services. Their commercial can run 1,000 times a day and the actor won’t see a cent. This is standard in commercial internet usage, and it’s rapidly causing the actor’s decline into poverty.

To be more specific, this is how actors are paid.

They get what’s called their session fee, which is their daily rate, determined by the union, for how many days on set (which, for commercials, is usually one or two days). As soon as the shooting days are over, the actor is out of work again until they find their next job, so they have to rely on residuals to hold them over until they book something else.

This is a farther-reaching problem than just getting paid between jobs, however.

It has even more dire implications, in that most actors are not able to make their health insurance anymore. The union requires that actors earn a minimum amount in a given year through union jobs in order to qualify for insurance. But, they recently raised this minimum rate. This, combined with the sudden, sharp decline in pay, thousands of actors lost their insurance, and it is making it astronomically difficult for new actors to even dream of qualifying for insurance through the union.

This problem is also spreading for TV and film. Actors in movies earn residuals from theatrical releases and every time the movie plays on TV. Television actors, obviously, earn residuals from their TV show runs. But, when the movie or TV show is streamed, they’re not seeing any residual money from it.

A-list celebrities are starting to speak out about it as well, even though they are still earning top-dollar.

Scarlett Johansen sued Disney over the release of Black Widow after having been contractually promised that the film would have a sole theatrical release, but was released simultaneously on Dinsey+. This meant that her royalties were slashed because of the number of people who opted to stream it instead of buying a ticket at a movie theater. Of course, she is one of very few who wouldn’t have been severely financially impacted (she was paid $20 million for the movie before royalties, after all). But it brought great awareness to the fact that those who are less financially fortunate are getting far worse treatment.

Is ‘new media’ really new anymore? Or is it just regular media now?

Actors have been pleading with SAG-AFTRA for years to work out a contract with streaming networks for residuals since they have been receiving the very short end of the stick since ‘new media’ became a thing. But, is ‘new media’ really new anymore? Or is it just regular media now? Actors have lost so much money with the emergence of streaming, and every day it is only getting worse.

And, it’s not like streaming services don’t have the technology to count views.

Musicians get royalties every time someone streams their music on Spotify. Famous musicians make millions of dollars a year off of Spotify plays, while less-famous musicians are still able to earn a livable wage. Why can’t actors get royalties for the art that they make on streaming services as well?

Now, producers are starting to feel the hit, also.

Movies that would have normally been big blockbuster successes in the theaters are making a small fraction of what they cost to make. For instance, West Side Story, which cost around $100 million to produce, not even including the costs for marketing, only made around $36 million in global ticket sales in the first three weeks. Instead of choosing to see it in theaters, people are opting to wait for it to be released on a streaming platform. This is a movie that would have far exceeded its budget in ticket sales before streaming became so popular.

Another example is The Matrix Resurrections. This movie cost even more, about $150 million to make, but it was a box office flop at $65 million worldwide the first week. The difference is that The Matrix Resurrections was released on HBO Max at the same time and had over 2.8 million views on its opening weekend. This is equivalent to millions of additional dollars that the filmmakers could have earned if streaming wasn’t a factor.

Of course, COVID-19 has played a very large part in the popularity of streaming services. With movie theaters closing at the beginning of the pandemic, people got used to streaming new releases at home, even willing to pay an additional cost to their monthly streaming service bill. And now, with many theaters still at limited capacity and requiring masks, it seems like a less stressful experience to view movies in the comfort (and safety) of your own home.

This is not to say that streaming is bad.

It just means that these streaming services and unions need to start working together to ensure that actors and other filmmakers are being paid a comparable wage comparable to what they were making before. Unions especially have an onus on them to instigate change, since they are supposed to be working for their members.

Since this is starting to be such a financial strain on the filmmaking community, this begs the question of how this will impact filmmaking in the long-run. If movies are making far less than they used to, will budgets start to dwindle? Will indie filmmakers rise to the top, since they have smaller budgets and are therefore willing to accept a smaller buyout for their films? Did West Side Story really need $100 million to make? Will our streaming service bills surge in order to pay the studios larger sums? Or, will studios follow Disney’s footsteps and start creating their own subscription-based streaming services instead of complying with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu? If that happens, how many subscriptions are we going to have to pay every month?

The other, darker, question concerns the actors.

Will actors be forced to accept lower and lower paychecks? Will actors get pushed to the side in lieu of expensive CG effects? How about directors, editors, and other creatives? Will this kill the art of filmmaking?

We all hope not. Hopefully there will be a major shift in the right direction soon. Artists deserve to make a livable wage, just like anybody in any other industry.


Photo by Emil Kalibradov on Unsplash

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