Video by Brian Fritz/VCU InSight

Virginians within the industry felt the effects of the recent actor and writer strikes. Although many think the months-long strikes will result in improved conditions, they say state support of the industry needs to be more competitive. 

The strikes were justified and brought “fantastic gains” for labor union members at all levels, according to Virginia actor Keith Flippen.

This story was reported and written by our media partner Capital News Service

The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists recently came to a tentative agreement, two months after the Writers Guild of America settled with producers.

The WGA started its strike May 2. SAG-AFTRA was unable to strike alongside writers until their contract expired on June 30. The actors joined the writers' strike on July 13 after negotiations with producers failed.

Flippen, who has been in the industry for 33 years, described working as an actor and finding jobs as “feast or famine.” 

“I’ve had one gig for the last almost two years now,” Flippen said. “Because of the strike, in large part, and the curtailing of work in anticipation of the strike.”

Flippen created jobs for himself to stay afloat. He is an executive speech and presentation coach, and owns his own production company. He leaned on presentation coaching and taught acting to keep up with his bills. Civilian jobs felt attractive when faced with months of uncertainty about their future in the industry, he said. 

Flippen’s friends and many others turned to industry-supported funding to help pay for rent, groceries and medical bills.

Fear of an artificial intelligence takeover

Writers and actors went on strike for numerous reasons, including advancement of artificial intelligence. Flippen has about 800 voiceover credits, and fears it could be the first career type to fall because of AI.

“If the audience cannot detect a difference or, if it hears a difference, does not care – then AI takes root,” Flippen said.

Additionally, the internet and social media platforms such as TikTok have presented alternative ways to hire people. Voiceover actors belong to a voiceover house that keeps a roster. Clients would select someone off the roster for an audition and job, according to Flippen. 

Voiceover actors from all over the country who did not belong to a voiceover house were able to compete once new platforms emerged. 

“Voiceover is not a money-making enterprise for me anymore,” Flippen said. “I hardly do it anymore because of the technology.”

Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office, initially found content creation by AI “mind-boggling.”

“I had a lot of fear at first about, wow, is this going to replace writers?” he said. “But I think I’ve come to accept and believe that it’s really gonna make writers more creative.”

As part of the new WGA agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, AI cannot be used to write or rewrite literary material. AI-generated material will not be considered source material. 

Writers can use AI if the company consents, but no company can require its use, according to the WGA agreement.

The identity of actors will also be protected from AI with the new tentative agreement with producers. Digital copies of actors are made during work on set, or created independently. If a digital copy is made independently, the actor must be told in advance and agree to it. 

 An actor has to agree to any changes made with AI-generated material. The rules also apply to extras, known as background characters, according to the SAG-AFTRA agreement.

SAG-AFTRA members will be voting on the tentative agreement until Dec. 5.

Broken business model: the ‘sugar high of streaming’

Writers and actors were also concerned about streaming platforms, and how they have impacted residual pay for entertainment workers, according to Edmunds. Residual pay is the ongoing royalties an actor continues to pocket after the initial production and salary.

Streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and Netflix focus on subscriber growth and stocks, whereas production companies produce for commercial purposes, Edmunds said.

Advertisers pay to get products in front of an audience. Production companies take the revenue and, based on the audience size, split it among people who worked on the content, he said.

“Now that it’s based on stock value, it’s not the same kind of cash flow,” Edmunds said. “So the model has been pretty much broken, so now this is what they’re trying to repair.”

Jai Jamison, a Richmond native and filmmaker, wants to see more respect for the art of filmmaking, despite the fact that it's a business. 

“The reason we went on strike is because people came in and broke the business model,” Jamison said. “Everyone chased the sugar high of streaming.”

Venture capitalists and tech companies run studios now, not filmmakers, according to Jamison. Production is no longer about the art form, it’s about content and tax write offs.

Producers and filmmakers invested money on independent filmmakers prior to the streaming platform boom, Jamison said. But the industry is no longer building up artists.

Production companies used to invest in a movie and “if it made money, everyone makes money,” Jamison said.

If a movie does not work out now, it can be deemed as a tax write off and stock prices go up for the company. But the people who worked on the film do not have the same opportunity to earn residual pay, according to Jamison. 

New alterations for residual pay allows writers to receive a 76% residual increase for movies and shows streamed internationally, according to WGA. Streaming companies will now also share with the guild the total number of hours streamed. 

The agreement also states there will be potential bonuses for writers if a series or film is viewed by 20% or more of U.S. subscribers in the first three months.

Virginia is for lovers of film

Jamison wants to bring productions home to Richmond, and credits the local film community for the reason he became a filmmaker. But it comes down to Virginia’s incentives and where the best deals and tax rebates are for production companies, he said.

Virginia has two incentive funds with similar guidelines, the grant-based Motion Picture Opportunity Fund and the Motion Picture Tax Credit Fund. There is no minimum spend on the opportunity fund, but the tax credit requires a minimum of $250,000 in total production costs in the state, according to the Virginia Film Office.

 “It’s an investment on the part of the Virginia legislature to increase the incentives, because you’re investing in Virginia becoming a destination for production,” Jamison said.

Virginia’s beaches, lakes and mountains make it an ideal filming location, because it can mimic various parts of the world, according to Jamison.

“Dirty Dancing,” which featured Patrick Swayze, was filmed at Virginia’s Mountain Lake and Lake Lure, North Carolina. Mountain Lake in Giles County still generates a lot of tourism because of the movie, according to Virginia Tourism Corp.

“All of a sudden, you have a tourist destination,” Jamison said.

 Virginia received an economic impact of $647 million from the film industry in 2020, according to a study done by Mangum Economics. It earned $862 million the year before the pandemic hit, according to Mangum. 

Other productions the film offices said were “particularly strong” tourism generators include “Lincoln,” “Gods and Generals,” and “Cold Mountain.”

Paul Thomas is president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, multi-state local 487. Thomas is part of the technician department as a “grip.” He works with lighting and camera on set.

Thomas wants state General Assembly lawmakers to support more film incentives, something that has been shot down in the past. Earlier this year two legislative proposals failed that would have increased the cap for television and movie productions. 

Senate Bill 937 was introduced as a grant program for businesses in television and film, but the measure did not advance from committee. House Bill 1767 would have increased the cap on the total amount of Motion Picture Tax Credit from $6.5 million to $10 million. This bill also died in committee. 

Forty states offer film incentives, according to ABC 8 (WRIC). Georgia is ranked No. 1 because of its generous tax incentives. Georgia is known as the “Camera Ready” state and identifies locations ready to shoot with its interactive database.

“I want politicians to feel the kind of pride I feel when they watch a project and, at the end of the project, the banner comes up and says ‘made in Virginia,’” Thomas said.

Virginia business owners profit when the state is chosen as a filming destination. The hospitality industry benefits. So do lumber and supply companies, and equipment and tool rental companies like Sunbelt rentals, according to Thomas. 

“We could see a huge industry here in Virginia,” he said. “It is tough – I don’t know what we can do other than continue to try to reach out with our legislators and get our voices heard.”

Technicians have a contract with movie and television producers that will go up for negotiation next year, according to Thomas.

“Even though our issues are very different from the actors' and writers' issues, it kind of gives us a sense of what we’re dealing with,” Thomas said.

VCU InSight journalist Brian Fritz contributed to this report.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia. VCU InSight is the capstone broadcast news program.