September 13, 2023

“Tigers on Strike” Panel to Discuss Writers Guild, SAG-AFTRA Issues

By Wendy Greenberg

A Princeton University event will examine the issues in the ongoing strikes by the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA).

The September 20 program, called Tigers on Strike, will be held at the James Stewart Film Theater, 185 Nassau Street, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Presented as part of the Arts at Work series sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts and Center for Career Development, the event is free and open to the public; no reservations are required.

A panel of Princeton University alumni, faculty, and others whose lives have been impacted by the ongoing strikes will talk about some of the key issues such as salary equity, streaming, and generative artificial intelligence in the film and television industries.

The Writers Guild Strike began May 2 over lack of agreement on a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The SAG-AFTRA strike has been in progress since July 14.

The panel seeks to inform Princeton area residents, who may not understand how the film and television industries function, “why writers have hit what feels like an existential crisis — fighting for the survival of our profession,” said Professor of the Practice in Creative Writing A.M. Homes, who is moderating the panel.

As a Writers Guild member herself, Homes pointed out that some issues in contention are that writers should be able to share in the success of the content they create and to be able to earn fair payment. Weekly pay for writers, she noted, has fallen 4 percent (23 percent when adjusted for inflation over the last decade). Screenwriters pay has stagnated, she said, and work can be spread out over many months.

Television network and cable watchers may have noticed shorter seasons, from about 22 network episodes a year, to a streaming show with some eight episodes. This is complicated by the studios reducing the number of weeks writers are employed while they are “on hold’ for a show, Homes explained.

“There are lots of details and nuances to what has been happening and what is at stake, which will be discussed at the panel,” she said.

For Homes personally, “work has stopped on projects I was developing, no meetings with producers, no moving forward.”

For creators like writers, ways of expressing ideas are missing. “Television is a wonderful way of talking about the world we live in, creating emotional experiences that resonate and are shared by thousands of people — there is both immediacy and intimacy to what we watch and the experience of sitting in a movie theatre in the dark. Those things aren’t happening
now. As a writer I want to know that the work I create is valued — that I am paid fairly, and that if/when the show is successful, I will earn some of the profits.”

The use of artificial intelligence (unauthorized use of likeness or voice) will be a topic for the panel that includes Sayash Kapoor, Mark Feuerstein, David Zabel, and Ben Whitehair.

Kapoor is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. His research examines the societal impacts of artificial intelligence, focusing on reproducibility, transparency, and accountability in AI systems. He has previously worked on AI at Facebook, Columbia University, and EPFL Switzerland, and is co-authoring a book titled AI Snake Oil with Arvind Narayanan.

Princeton graduate Feuerstein’s acting credits include the feature films What Women Want, In Her Shoes, and Practical Magic, and television shows Royal Pains, The West Wing, Prison Break, 9JKL, Babysitters Club, and Power. He will be seen in the new Chris Brancato series Hotel Cocaine for MGM+, the upcoming Apple limited series The Lady in the Lake with Natalie Portman, and as the title character in the indie feature Man in the Long Black Coat.

Zabel, also a Princeton graduate, is a writer, producer, and showrunner who started writing for television on such shows as JAG, Star Trek: Voyager and Dark Angel. In 2001, he began a long tenure on the NBC medical drama ER, during which he eventually became an executive producer and the drama’s showrunner. He continued on numerous series including Detroit 187, Betrayal, and Mercy Street. His most recent work is Daryl Dixon, a spinoff of The Walking Dead universe, set and filmed in France.

Whitehair is an executive vice president of SAG-AFTRA who has worked more than 100 projects with Oscar and Emmy winners in film, television, dubbing, commercials, and more. He has served on over a dozen SAG-AFTRA committees, including Innovation and new technology committees, and was the founding chair of NextGen Performers. He also heads a social media management firm.

Moderator Homes is the author of 13 books of fiction, short stories, and non-fiction, including most recently a novel, The Unfolding. Her 2013 novel May We Be Forgiven won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and her memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter, was published to international acclaim. Homes is active in television and film and serves on the Council of the Writers Guild of America East. She was co-executive producer of David E. Kelly’s and Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes and Falling Water on USA and a writer/producer on the original L WORD. She writes frequently on the arts for publications and is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Bomb and Blind Spot.

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