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Sunday, Sep 24, 2023

Rising Up?

Digital media presents a disconnect with the work culture of legacy Hollywood. The new-kid-on-the-block mentality of online startups, with low barriers of entry, stands in contrast to the studio-dominated television and film business, and nowhere is this difference more clear than in labor organizations.

“Hollywood is heavily unionized and Silicon Valley is almost completely non-union,” said Century City-based labor attorney Scott Witlin. “Some of that is due to the entrepreneurial ethos in Silicon Valley.

So many programmers and engineers want to create a startup and build a company on their own.”

Witlin, who is a partner and head of the California labor and employment practice at the Barnes & Thornburg firm, said “that creates a different outlook.”

A small video game company based in Los Angeles, Vodeo Games, became the first union shop in the entire industry in December. A dozen Vodeo employees affiliated with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which has long represented media industry labor in news, cable TV and broadcasting.

Vodeo founder and game co-director Asher Vollmer did not oppose unionization at his company which makes puzzle video games with “Beast Breaker” as its first title.
“Unionization is the right move for the game industry,” Vollmer said. “It is notorious for taking advantage of workers’ passion by forcing employees to work long hours.”

No strikes yet

For now, the labor movement in digital media flies below the radar, unlike past upheavals that gripped Hollywood. The transition from radio to TV in the 1950s triggered a spate of labor conflicts across Hollywood with the best remembered being the Screen Actors Guild strike of 1960. In the end, employers agreed to pay actors residuals for movies licensed to TV, a practice that became an industry standard for creative talent.

The Hollywood Writers Guild of America went on strike in 2007-08 for jurisdiction over new media, but that didn’t re-set the industry.

Digital media emerging today is refashioning labor in media-entertainment more dramatically than prior revolutions, which simply inserted new slots in the existing distribution sequence. For example, giant tech outfits have emerged as mainstay Hollywood players — such as Netflix Inc., Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Video and Apple Inc.’s video services as content streamers that also produce TV programming and even movies.

Another structural change is that it’s suddenly easy and inexpensive for entrepreneurs to launch media businesses online, essentially allowing workers to become owners. Further, content for the first time is accessed directly by consumers via the internet, with no intermediary required such as a TV channel, cable operator, video store or movie theater.

Finally, digital media is interactive, unlike the analog media of the past. While traditional Hollywood talent populates online, digital media also spawns its own home-grown talent in social influencers who have generated surprisingly large earnings.
The digital world propels “talent discovery on a global scale, not just through the traditional channels of Hollywood,” said Bennett Sherman, an agent in the digital division of talent agency WME, which is a unit of Endeavor, the sports and entertainment giant.

“From all over the world, creators have the ability to shoot and distribute their own content at the click of a button.”
Sherman added that the influencers, who are digital natives, use the interactive characteristics of the online experience to build deeper relationships with audiences than possible with one-way linear media.

Game sector

Labor unions across Los Angeles experience forces push-pulling in every direction with the rise of digital media.
There is some worry at legacy unions that any influx of new members from digital industries will change the culture and ethos of labor unions to more of a free-wheeling, untraditional direction.

Also, it’s an open question how suited digital media — and the tech sector generally ¬— is to industrywide labor conformity imposed by traditional union contracts. The digital workplace is known for the “gig economy” of temp working, contract employment and frequent job-hopping.

In a tailwind for unions, California legislation AB 5 made it more difficult for employers to classify their workers as independent contractors.

It’s not clear if the unionization of Vodeo will be a trend or not, particularly in the game sector, which has a large footprint across Los Angeles. Activision Blizzard Inc., Insomniac Games, Riot Games and Sony Interactive Games are among big players with large local workforces.

Two years ago, CWA established its Campaign to Organize Digital Employees to woo workers in online media. Isham Christie, CODE senior campaign lead at CWA, said it’s still early days for the CODE initiative.

There can be lower wage rates for digital productions. For example, Hollywood major studio contracts since 2009 set 3-15% lower wages in animation than the Hollywood norm, or collective bargaining agreement (CBA rates), for many digital productions, tiered by production budgets. Those rates are for workers of IATSE Animation Guild Local 839 in Burbank. For returning TV series, wages in later seasons eventually rise to the regular CBA rate. Very low budget digital productions have no set minimum.

On the other hand, all of legacy Hollywood’s major productions tend to be unionized top-to-bottom at regular CBA pay rates, and these include big-budget original programs for video streamers.
There is a hardscrabble segment in labor toiling in the shadow of Hollywood’s glamor that may be at play, too.

A 2021 survey by startup Producers Union, which wants to organize staff producers who are not employers or owners, claimed that 41% of 474 respondents earned a living of under $25,000 a year as Hollywood movie producers.

“People not in the industry do not realize that just because you have a film on a big streaming site like Netflix or Hulu, it doesn’t mean you can afford your groceries,” lamented one producer anonymously in the survey. Another producer wrote that unglamorous “TV pays the bills.”

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