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Support fair pay for entertainment workers: Opinion

From “Killers of the Flower Moon” to “Reservation Dogs,” the TV and movie industry ties to Oklahoma are growing stronger lately. TU professor speaks with Ginnie Graham about why the WGA and SAG-AFTRA labor stoppages matter to Oklahoma, even if the Los Angeles picket lines seem far away.

Recently, Tulsa and the entertainment industry experienced a momentous week. 

The locally produced, award-winning FX network television series “Reservation Dogs” aired the finale to its extraordinary three-season run. The same day saw the Writers Guild of America vote to conclude its 148-day strike, its second-longest labor stoppage (five days short of the record 1988 strike). The bittersweet end to an exceptional story was juxtaposed with the hard-won victory of writers to ensure there remains a viable future for storytellers.

We should be interested in the headline-making labor stoppages of the WGA and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. As far away as Los Angeles picket lines seem from Green Country, Tulsa has become an important hub in the North America media ecosystem.

Our city and region are home to a robust community of production companies, writers, directors, performers and others making inspired and imaginative material for the screen. We also have passionate and resourceful organizations, such as the Cherokee Film Commission and Tulsa Office of Film, Music, Arts and Culture, that work tirelessly to make the always-challenging production process more manageable for industry first-timers and veterans alike.

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Thanks in large part to this extraordinary community, Tulsa ranks higher than far larger municipalities such as Dallas and Houston in Moviemaker magazine’s 2023 list of “Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker.”

At the University of Tulsa, we take pride not only in our curriculum’s unique merging of critical and creative media practice but also in the unique opportunities our proximity to Tulsa’s production network affords our students.

This is all to say that media production is woven into the fabric of this area, and Tulsa’s present and future in media production are intimately connected to broader industry dynamics involving writers, actors and others.

While the most visible industry figures (showrunners in the case of the WGA, A-list stars in the case of SAG-AFTRA) enjoy extraordinary wealth, the truth is that this summer’s labor disputes shine a light on how unrepresentative these select few writers and actors are.

Most screen performers, for example, earn far less than we might think: an estimated 86% of SAG-AFTRA members make below $26,470 a year. Meanwhile, streaming platforms have dramatically undercut writers’ pay, including significantly lower compensation for episodes and series, and have virtually eliminated residuals that once provided crucial support for workers during sometimes lengthy spells between acting or writing jobs.

To use a recent example, the series “Suits,” which ended its run on the USA Network in 2019, was licensed to Netflix and Peacock this summer and was watched a staggering 26.5 billion minutes in its first seven weeks. The compensation for the show’s original writers amounted to just a few hundred dollars each over that period, despite the series’ popularity.

These stark realities have buttressed overwhelming public support for the WGA and SAG-AFTRA labor stoppages. They underline the existential crisis facing these workers and the overall creative process. They remind us that the stories we love also help to catalyze the economies of cities like Tulsa and Los Angeles.

The WGA’s new labor agreement represents some hard-won gains and protections that offer a viable path forward for storytellers. It remains to be seen how the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike will end and whether actors will similarly gain overdue improvements in compensation and protections from artificial intelligence.

As home to a thriving production community and as fans of captivating storytelling, we in Tulsa and Green Country benefit tremendously from media industry workers and should continue to support their efforts to procure more just compensation.

Justin Rawlins, Ph.D., is a professor of media studies and film studies at the University of Tulsa and the author of the forthcoming book “Imagining the Method” (University of Texas Press, 2024).

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