For those of us in the industry we can’t help but be aware of the writers’ and actors’ strikes in the US, not only because of the impact it’s having on international productions coming into New Zealand but also because of the issues being raised, particularly when they relate to having a sustainable career.
Of the 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members on strike for three weeks now, only 10 percent of them are the actors you see working the red carpets and earning massive fees for their performances. 86 percent of their membership (136,600 members) don’t earn the US$26,000 per year required to qualify them for the guild’s health insurance. In 2022, the US Bureau of Statistics reported that the average pay for an actor in California was US$27.73/hr.
In the gig economy of the screen industry in the US where most screen workers are considered independent contractors, the residual* payments that actors used to receive prior to streaming could help them to ride through the choppy waters of no paid acting work between jobs. There’s an article showing supposedly successful actors on highly successful streaming shows and the residuals they received—cents, or sometimes a few dollars. See it here.
The 11,000 WGA members are coming up to 90 days on strike. Like SAG members, WGA members have base minimums that they cannot be paid below for the work they do. The WGA also negotiated residuals for their members. However, over time and particularly with the advent of streaming, what the majority of writers have been paid has dropped towards or onto the minimums, which were negotiated three years ago. At the same time, streaming has continued to grow and the residuals from streaming are measly, unlike what used to be earned as residuals from broadcast, cable, etc. The studios are also trying to use fewer writers to do the work required, amongst a number of other issues for the WGA.
Both guilds are also concerned about how the studios will use Artificial Intelligence to replace humans in the execution of writing and acting work.
The Directors Guild of America was able to reach a settlement that addressed their issues with streamer residuals and AI, and other claims—The reason they aren’t on strike with the writers and actors.
Sitting here in li’l ol’ New Zealand, we can only marvel at the fact that these US guilds have collective agreements in place that offer base minimums, healthcare, superannuation, and residuals amongst other benefits.
Of course, New Zealand is different from the US. We have a public health service (no matter that it’s getting worse by the year). We have accident compensation (ACC). We have a government retirement scheme, which we call ‘super’ or ‘the pension’. And we have Kiwisaver.
But if we look a little closer to home to Australia, where screen workers are generally treated like employees rather than contractors—because most screen workers don’t have the freedom of executing their work how and when they want to—we can see that ‘Fringes’, i.e. holiday pay, superannuation (our Kiwisaver), and workers compensation (our ACC) are built into production budgets and paid accordingly by the production company.
In New Zealand in the screen industry, pretty much everybody is an independent contractor, even though you are required to turn up at specific times, on specific days, just as employees are required to do.
You, the independent contractor, are required to pay your own taxes, ACC, Kiwisaver, and GST if applicable.
You have no base minimums, meaning you can be paid less than the minimum wage set for employees.
Most below-the-line crew get paid overtime, which stops their pay going below the minimum wage. That’s not the case for writers, directors (and producers), who often do unpaid or low-rate work to create the shows that crew then get hired to work on. This contributes to driving their pay rates below the minimum wage. Take a look at the just released WIFTNZ Screen Industry Gender Pay Survey here. It states that according to the census, approximately 40% of women and 28% of men in the screen industry earn less than the minimum wage.
While crew get to work on international projects where they can charge higher rates and still get their overtime payments if required to work it, it’s almost impossible for NZ above-the-liners to get onto them, apart from actors who might be able to secure supporting or minor roles—domestic production is pretty much all there is.
In New Zealand at this point, there is no established residual system that allows above-the-line creatives to earn some income from their work beyond their fees, to help get them through those times of no or unpaid work. There is, though, a mechanism for producers to gain potential additional income through being gifted equity in a production, either from the NZFC through the ‘producer corridor’ for non-NZ Screen Production Rebate (formerly NZSPG) projects, or through the 40% producer equity gifted to the producer for NZ Screen Production Rebate projects. It’s at the discretion of the producer as to whether or not they will share this equity with anybody else.
Which brings me to the Screen Industry Workers Act, of course. It’s the means by which the guilds and unions in New Zealand hope to address the pay rates, terms, and conditions for New Zealand screen workers to help them have sustainable careers—Something the US guilds have sought and continue to do for their members through decades of negotiation and collective agreements.
We at DEGANZ are preparing for our first negotiation of a collective agreement, which is likely to take place in the first half of 2024.
You can see from the picket lines of SAG-AFTRA and the WGA a visible expression of “it’s better together” not only with each guild’s members supporting their guild but with the separate guilds supporting each other.
We are going to need all your support in the preparation and negotiation ahead. So get behind us and the other guilds, too, to make it better for everyone.
*Residuals are long-term payments to those who worked on films and television shows, negotiated by unions, for reruns and other airings after the initial release.