College students with Hollywood dreams see industry strikes as key to livable careers

Screen Actors Guild members and Writers Guild of America members picket at the Amazon Culver Studios in Culver City on June 17, 2023. Photo by Julie A Hotz for CalMatters

When the Writers Guild of America strike started May 2, midway through Teddy Alvarez-Nissen’s internship for a production company in Burbank, fewer scripts started coming in and his work as a reader slowed considerably. As the strike went on, the third-year film student at the University of Southern California became curious about the specific terms that were being negotiated. When he looked at the fine print, he discovered the union was fighting for what was, in his mind, the bare minimum — standards he thought were already in place. 

“That does scare me as somebody going into the industry,” said Alvarez-Nissen, who’s graduating in 2025. “I think we’ve all known about the stereotype of the studio that takes advantage of people or the producers that just want to get as much money as possible. It’s an illustration of how much worse the problem is than we thought it was and why it is important to be striking.”

Fighting for increased compensation and regulation over the use of artificial intelligence, both unions representing writers and actors are on strike for the first time in 63 years, effectively shutting down much of the entertainment industry. 

Caught in the historic moment are college students. Internships and fellowships at major production companies are on pause and current negotiations are exposing wide pay disparities in the cutthroat world of entertainment. But there’s a silver lining for some students, who hope the strikes will lay the foundation for better work conditions in the future. 

“Even if the strike makes it more difficult for me to do an internship and find work out of college and start my career, I think that’s very miniscule compared to the benefits of a successful strike and getting those terms met,” Alvarez-Nissen said.

Students expect livable wages once they head into the industry but the rise of streaming services, which often produce shorter seasons and have different compensation structures, already have workers struggling. Unregulated artificial intelligence has writers and actors worried that it will eliminate valued positions from writers rooms and background roles. The writer’s guild and studios representatives met on Friday to discuss union demands, protections against the use of artificial intelligence among them. 

Stephen Galloway, dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, said he is extremely anxious about how long the strikes are going to last. He said the strikes come at a time when the industry is already laying off thousands of people and freezing hiring for recent college graduates.

“It’s not just people who want to write or be actors. It’s all the people who service them — management, marketing, publicity, accounting, and catering companies,” Galloway said. “There’s this extraordinary ripple effect for all these companies who hire young people.”

Screen Actors Guild members and Writers Guild of America members picket at the Sony Studios in Culver City on June 17, 2023. Photo by Julie A Hotz for CalMatters

UC Santa Cruz third-year student Tieran Harvey aspires to be a writers guild member working in writers’ rooms in the future. This summer Harvey is interning for an independent film currently in pre-production, a project allowed to continue since the film’s production company doesn’t have a contract with a major film studio impacted by the strike. Although she is not allowed to be in contact with any actors and scriptwriters due to the strike, she is able to continue her work in production. 

She said she’s grateful these strikes are happening before she graduates and that the negotiations are giving her inspiration to be a stronger advocate for industry professionals. 

“I just want to support and be an ally, because people deserve to be paid their worth,” Harvey said. 

She said the strikes made her lose a sense of romance about the industry, seeing how many people are struggling to make a living wage. 

“It really made me realize that not everyone is rooting for you,” Harvey said.

On the other side of the screen, aspiring actors share those sentiments. Incoming second-year acting student Emma Stuart-Box, who aims to join the actors guild once she graduates, said she wasn’t originally aware of the motivations behind the union’s strike. 

An international student from Tokyo at the California Institute of the Arts, she’s been learning more about the problems Hollywood workers contend with since she started last September. Now she thinks compensation needs to increase so actors can earn livable wages.

“I’m lucky that I have a couple more years at school to work on my craft and not have to worry about doing paid work or SAG in general,” Stuart-Box said. “For me, this is something that needs to happen and I completely support it.” 

Screen acting student Caiden Falstrup-Finney, a first-year at Chapman University, said he also didn’t realize the level of pay disparity between movie stars and actors trying to break into the industry.

Seeing the two strikes play out, he said that if the demands are met, he’s grateful that it’s going to be less of a risk to go into the industry in the future. As someone who hasn’t done any professional work yet, he said it’s nice to know that he’ll be supported.  

“We go into acting knowing there’s risks and knowing it’s hard to be successful, but we don’t want to be on the street because we’re pursuing a career,” Falstrup-Finney said. 

Some attempts, though unsuccessful, to strengthen protections for workers in the entertainment industry have been made in the California Legislature. Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a San Jose Democrat, introduced legislation in 2021 to strike down contract prohibitions preventing actors who work on episodic series from working for multiple employers.

Kalra says that AB 437, which died in the Senate, would have been helpful but wouldn’t have curtailed the strikes, which he thinks speak to the larger issue of how compensation isn’t evolving with technological advances.   

“Current contracts with writers or actors don’t reflect the new world of entertainment production,” Kalra said. “There’s wild profits being made by the studios and workers are recognizing that this new way of production hasn’t been modernized to reflect their work.”

Some of the writers guild’s main demands include regulating artificial intelligence in writers rooms. Additionally, part of the actors guild’s demands include establishing provisions protecting human-created work and requiring consent and compensation when a performer’s voice, likeness, or performance is used or changed using artificial intelligence.  

Franz Kurfess, a computer science professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a concentration in artificial intelligence, said that using ChatGPT to write a fully polished script could be problematic because it’s just generating responses based on existing work it ingested. 

He also said that while artificial intelligence may be used as a tool for writers, it might also replace them.  

“The danger in my view is that the tasks of writers will not be completely eliminated, but the amount of work that is available for writers will be less and the tasks that they are expected to do will also shift to some degree,” Kurfess said. “Given that there most likely will be fewer opportunities, there will be some writers who essentially will lose their job.”

Teddy Alvarez-Nissen, a film student at the University of Southern California, pickets outside Netflix headquarters in Los Angeles on July 24, 2023. He wants to work in the movie and tv space in the future and wants to see a sustainable future for the industry. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

Alvarez-Nissen said he’s used artificial intelligence software before with creative projects. In a scene he filmed with a room full of paintings, he plugged a prompt into Midjourney and created the artwork he needed. Previously he would have paid someone to paint it for him, so artificial intelligence eliminated an expense he needed for his small school project.  

While it helped him in that case, Alavarez-Nissen says billion-dollar studios also think the same way the broke college filmmaker does: if there’s any possible avenue to save money, they’re going to take it. 

That’s why he and other industry hopefuls believe that now is the time to stand in solidarity, hoping that they’ll gain a better future from it.  

“A reason that this strike is so important is because they’re addressing AI so vehemently,” Alvarez-Nissen said. “If they lose this battle, that trickles down to almost everybody who works in the industry.” 

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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