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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

We are all background actors

Members of the Writers Guild of America and supporters picket outside of Netflix’s offices in Los Angeles, July 14, 2023.

By James Poniewozik

In Hollywood, the cool kids have joined the picket line.

I mean no offense, as a writer, to the screenwriters who have been on strike against film and TV studios for over two months. But writers know the score. We’re the words, not the faces. The cleverest picket sign joke is no match for the attention-focusing power of Margot Robbie or Matt Damon.

SAG-AFTRA, the union representing TV and film actors, joined the writers in a walkout over how Hollywood divvies up the cash in the streaming era and how humans can thrive in the artificial-intelligence era. With that star power comes an easy cheap shot: Why should anybody care about a bunch of privileged elites whining about a dream job?

But for all the focus that a few boldface names will get in this strike, I invite you to consider a term that has come up a lot in the current negotiations: “Background actors.”

You probably don’t think much about background actors. You’re not meant to, hence the name. They’re the nonspeaking figures who populate the screen’s margins, making Gotham City or King’s Landing or the beaches of Normandy feel real, full and lived-in.

And you might have more in common with them than you think.

The lower-paid actors who make up the vast bulk of the profession are facing simple dollars-and-cents threats to their livelihoods. They’re trying to maintain their income amid the vanishing of residual payments, as streaming has shortened TV seasons and decimated the syndication model. They’re seeking guardrails against AI encroaching on their jobs.

There’s also a particular, chilling question on the table: Who owns a performer’s face? Background actors are seeking protections and better compensation in the practice of scanning their images for digital reuse.

In a news conference about the strike, a union negotiator said that the studios were seeking the rights to scan and use an actor’s image “for the rest of eternity” in exchange for one day’s pay. The studios argue that they are offering “groundbreaking” protections against the misuse of actors’ images, and counter that their proposal would only allow a company to use the “digital replica” on the specific project a background actor was hired for.

Still, the long-term “Black Mirror” implications — the practice was the actual premise of a recent episode — are unignorable. If a digital replica of you — without your bothersome need for money and the time to lead a life — can do the job, who needs you?

You could, I guess, make the argument that if someone is insignificant enough to be replaced by software, then they’re in the wrong business. But background work and small roles are precisely the routes to someday promoting your blockbuster on the red carpet. And many talented artists build entire careers around a series of small jobs. (Pamela Adlon’s series “Better Things” is a great portrait of the life of ordinary working actors.)

In the end, Hollywood’s fight isn’t far removed from the threats to many of us in today’s economy. “We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines,” Fran Drescher, the actors’ guild president, said in announcing the strike.

You and I may be the protagonists of our own narratives, but in the grand scheme most of us are background players. We face the same risk — that every time a technological or cultural shift happens, companies will rewrite the terms of employment to their advantage, citing financial pressures while paying their top executives tens and hundreds of millions.

Maybe it’s unfair that exploitation gets more attention when it involves a union that Meryl Streep belongs to. (If the looming UPS strike materializes, it might grab the spotlight for blue-collar labor.) And there’s certainly a legitimate critique of white-collar workers who were blasé about automation until AI threatened their own jobs.

But work is work, and some dynamics are universal. As entertainment reporter and critic Maureen Ryan writes in “Burn It Down,” her investigation of workplace abuses throughout Hollywood, “It is not the inclination nor the habit of the most important entities in the commercial entertainment industry to value the people who make their products.”

If you don’t believe Ryan, listen to the anonymous studio executive, speaking of the writers’ strike, who told the trade publication Deadline, “The endgame is to allow things to drag out until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.”

You may think of Hollywood creatives as a privileged class, but if their employers think about them like this, are you sure yours thinks any differently of you? Most of us, in Hollywood or outside it, are facing a common question: Can we have a working world in which you can survive without being a star?

You may never notice background actors if they’re doing their jobs well. Yet they’re the difference between a sterile scene and a living one. They create the impression that, beyond the close focus on the beautiful leads, there is a full, complete universe, whether it’s the galaxy of the “Star Wars” franchise or the mundane reality that you and I live in.

They are there to say that we, too, are out here, that we make the world a world, that we at least deserve our tiny places in the corner of the screen.

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