Technology

Hollywood strikes will change the booming creator economy


The last big strikes reshaped the movie business and fueled the rise of reality TV. The latest walkout likely will help turn established actors into TikTok stars — and vice versa.

Strikers outside the Netflix headquarters in Hollywood this month. (Sean Scheidt for The Washington Post)

The historic double strike that is paralyzing Hollywood could supercharge the creator economy, the wildly popular market of online influencers and video makers who increasingly rival industry titans for money, attention and cultural power.

The fast-growing cast of amateur and professional creators — chefs, comedians, models, musicians and many others — already attracts tens of millions of fans on platforms like YouTube and TikTok without the resources or support of more established mass media.

Now, as American film and TV production grinds to a halt, possibly for months, they stand at the center of a major shift that could change entertainment and further blur the lines between traditional and digital fame.

Studios and producers are scrambling to recruit creators to help fill a content void, stoking tensions over scab work and changing styles of storytelling. But striking actors and writers are increasingly less reliant on Hollywood, too, experimenting with new ideas on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Twitch in ways that could net them lasting followings — if not steady paychecks — that go beyond traditional industry success.

The last Hollywood strike radically reshaped the media landscape by fueling the rise of unscripted content, like documentary series and reality TV shows, that were cheaper to make and easier to mass-produce, such as “Cops” in the late ’80s and “The Celebrity Apprentice” in 2008.

The ongoing walkout of tens of thousands of actors and writers, Hollywood’s first double strike in 63 years, could have similarly sweeping ripple effects, by potentially eroding Hollywood’s institutional advantages and elevating a new generation of stars.

Creators once saw online virality largely as a way to break into established TV or movie gigs. But some now make so much money selling sponsored content, merchandise or monthly subscriptions that traditional entertainment, with its uncertain paychecks and relevance, can seem like less of a draw.

An upcoming series from The Washington Post examining the industry of online influence and its impact on American culture, media and power.

Hollywood’s business model has rarely looked so precarious, with box office sales, streamer subscriptions and advertising revenue all trending down. Striking actors and writers have also been enraged over industry practices, from high executive salaries and low residual payments to artificial intelligence techniques they worry could erase their jobs.

The changing entertainment scene

The online creator industry, on the other hand, is exploding. Goldman Sachs Research analysts said in April that the market would likely double in size over the next five years, from $250 billion today, thanks to increased spending from advertisers, viewers and tech platforms eager to capitalize on creators’ virality.

Streaming services now beat out cable and broadcast TV for U.S. viewership and account for more than 37 percent of all TV use nationwide, data from market researcher Nielsen show. But the biggest streamer last month wasn’t Netflix or Hulu, the data found; it was YouTube. More than 75 percent of American teenagers told Pew Research Center last year they watch the Google-owned video app every day.

Beyond Americans’ media consumption, YouTube and other platforms have lowered the barrier of entry for people wanting to make content themselves, from TikTok’s free video-editing tools to Twitch’s frenetic live streams. That creative competition has led to viral hits and marketing deals, turning what was once an online hobby into, for the lucky few, a million-dollar revenue stream.

Studios and streamers will likely try to fill out their release calendars with new deals for influencers’ content if the stoppage stretches out for months, said David Craig, a University of Southern California professor who researches creators and once worked as a film and TV producer.

Though some still see creators as “basically brand ambassadors for advertising … they’re in fact a much more broad and complex class of cultural producers that preoccupies vast swaths of people’s attention,” he said. Hollywood is still the king of long-form, premium storytelling, he said, but “if that goes away for the next year, there’s less incentive for people to stay on to see old libraries of content,” and the industry “may start to realize that the creators are the only ones left to do business with.”

The worry that creators could spy an opportunity to break into Hollywood’s turf has led some writers and actors to post warnings against undermining the strike on TikTok, where armies of fans have started chastising creators they believe are considering “scabbing” jobs. Franchesca Ramsey, a writer and actress who first gained popularity with her YouTube videos, said in a TikTok video earlier this month that any new deals with studios would be regarded as a betrayal.

“If you are a content creator or influencer with any aspirations to become an actor or a writer in the future, now is not the time to take a job because the rest of us are on strike,” she said. Doing so is “considered scabbing, and it will hurt your career.”

But many in the industry expect the strike will further nudge traditional entertainers into becoming creators themselves, allowing them to use social media to pursue and help fund independent projects, secure greater ownership of the product and profits, and show sides of their personality and creativity they hope will secure them audiences that outlast any one production.

Since the strikes began, Paul Scheer, an actor, writer and director known for his TV roles on “The League” and “Veep,” has invested more time into “FriendZone,” a Twitch channel where he and comedians like Rob Huebel tell jokes and perform skits for a sprawling digital audience.

When Scheer launched his first Twitch channel in 2020, after the pandemic froze Hollywood, it proved so successful that he and Huebel hosted a two-episode comedy game show there called “Celebrity Yard Sale” that won a sponsorship deal from Hyundai and became a genuine hit.

“We had over a million people watch each day for two hours. That was better than a lot of television,” he said in an interview. “I love that just because we’re in a moment where our industry is on pause, it doesn’t mean that we have to be on pause. We can make our own stuff.”

Several actors said they expect their social media accounts could become a lifeline now that traditional work has dried up. Brian Morabito, an actor in New York who has amassed over 600,000 TikTok followers with his comedy videos, said he plans to double down on merchandise sales and increase his output on TikTok and Instagram Reels during the strike.

Others are reevaluating which business offers the best rewards. Sarah Pribis, a working actor for more than 15 years in New York who has built a dedicated audience on TikTok, said that while she still receives paid acting gigs, the money she makes as a creator has consistently beaten her acting income for the last six months.

“I’m seeing actors right now take to the internet, when they normally don’t make content, and it’s really powerful stuff,” she said. “Hopefully they find: ‘Oh hey, I have a voice here, maybe I can turn this into something that monetizes for me.’”

Adam Rose, a TikTok star with more than 4 million followers who’s been a member of the actors’ guild since he was 9, said he and other creators have already turned down gigs promoting TV shows and movies during the strike and found the change of pace refreshing. “I’m able to devote more time to online videos,” he said, “because I’m not on set and I’m not working on-site for auditions and self tapes.”

Other creators have called on their followers to see the unions as their allies. Reece Feldman, a TikTok creator who makes videos about TV and movies, said in a video Monday that his 2 million followers should show solidarity for the Writers Guild of America, which he one day hopes to join. “We have so much more in common with the 170,000 plus people currently striking than we do with any of the studio execs who are just hoarding millions,” he said.

TikTok and YouTube as alternatives

A decade ago, Hollywood regarded the online creator world as a sideshow, and after a disastrous attempt in the early 2010s to jam digital talent into typical acting and hosting roles, the two industries increasingly developed parallel spheres of influence, with their own stars and styles.

Pandemic-era changes to entertainment habits and creators’ growing influence, however, have led big Hollywood players to increasingly embrace the power of TikTok and YouTube. Many studios now build buzz for their movies and shows with creator partnerships and companion podcasts, like those HBO sponsored for “Succession” and “Game of Thrones.”

In 2021, a year after Netflix told shareholders in a letter that TikTok’s “astounding” growth showed “the fluidity of internet entertainment,” the company launched a short-lived, TikTok-like video feature called “Fast Laughs” and signed a multimillion-dollar deal with one of its biggest creators, Addison Rae. And last year, to drive online buzz, Scott Seiss, a TikToker who went viral for his sendups of an angry Ikea employee, showed up in a trailer for the Universal Pictures horror-comedy “Cocaine Bear.”

In an acknowledgment of the blurring lines between Hollywood and the web, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, known as SAG-AFTRA, allowed creators to join in 2021 through what was called the “influencer agreement.”

The union recently told its creators that they should reject any work promoting “struck” companies or content and report any new brand-sponsorship deals via an online form. Any nonunion influencers who worked for one of the targeted companies during the strike, it added, would not be admitted as members later on.

It’s unclear how many influencers have joined the union, which is negotiating with a studio trade group, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and not the online platforms where the creators make most of their cash. (The AMPTP represents more than 350 companies, including Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post and whose interim CEO, Patty Stonesifer, is a member of the Amazon board.)

But Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s national executive director and chief negotiator, said the guild is working to use the strike to recruit more creators into its ranks for both this walkout and what he expects will be coming labor disputes with the giants of technology, including companies like Apple and Amazon, which have interests in both traditional entertainment and the creator economy.

Sidney Raskind, a creator known as “Sidneyraz” with 4 million TikTok followers, told influencers in a video on Tuesday that his union membership had helped him get health insurance and a pension plan and encouraged them to consider joining, even if they never wanted to be a traditional actor, because it would help “legitimize this profession in a way that you never thought possible.”

“We’re producers, we’re actors, we’re editors, we’re everything,” he said in an interview. “This is a great opportunity for internet influencers to actually be a part of something that’s bigger and better.”

Josh Cohen, the co-founder of Tubefilter, a media company focused on the creator economy, said the “us vs. them” mentality pitting Hollywood against digital creators has become less adversarial over the years, with both sides collaborating across different platforms in hopes of building audiences and cachet.

Liz Hannah, a prominent screenwriter and film producer, said many in the industry see Hollywood and the creator economy as not mutually exclusive. “One influences the other, and both are serving different purposes,” she said. “I don’t go on TikTok to watch ‘The Bear,’ but I do go on TikTok to watch people talk about ‘The Bear.’”

Creators generally offer a very different product from Hollywood, reliant less on highly produced stories than on colorful or inventive slices of life. But the content is nevertheless quite popular because it’s quick, free and easily available. It’s especially captivating for the young audiences the media has long fought to capture: The parental-control app Qustodio, which tracks user screen time, said in a report that children last year averaged nearly two hours a day on TikTok, plus another hour on YouTube.

Unlike major studio productions, most creators work by themselves or in small teams, and their funding generally comes in small installments from ad deals, viewers or the platforms themselves. Many operate like independent media companies, planning and making content, tracking audience metrics and negotiating brand deals in hopes of competing in a crowded market.

Creators can make a fraction of what similar performers might earn on studio work, and many of them cannot afford to make content full time. Despite efforts in recent years to unionize, creators are generally treated as freelance contractors by tech companies, not entitled to benefits or health care.

Many creators burn out from the stress and demands of constant production. The relatively few very successful creators earn their money through paid partnerships with clothing lines, energy drinks and other companies, or through subscription platforms like Patreon and OnlyFans.

Strikes at this scale often leave a lasting impact on the industry. The last dual actors and writers walkout in 1960, when the industry’s biggest disrupter was TV, led to a deal negotiated by SAG president Ronald Reagan granting actors payments known as residuals when their movies were licensed for the small screen.

The most recent big Hollywood strike, in 2008, poured rocket fuel into the once-niche genre of reality TV — and, in some ways, the creator economy itself. By swapping professional actors for real people, those productions helped lay the groundwork for influencers by showing how even those outside the realm of mainstream celebrity could still capture audiences and command fame.

Reality shows will, again, likely benefit from the strike: SAG-AFTRA has said crew members on those productions can keep working because they are governed by a separate contract, known as the Network Television Code, that covers talk shows, game shows, soap operas and other non-primetime TV.

But the strikes are in their early days, and it’s unclear how consumer viewing patterns will shift because today’s streaming-media landscape is quite different from the linear model that once dominated American screens.

The strikes also won’t zero out new content. Streamers have produced so many new movies and TV shows that have yet to be released, and they can re-market and reintroduce older titles to help fill the void. Productions filmed overseas, like Netflix’s hit “Squid Game” and HBO’s “House of the Dragon,” also won’t be stopped by the U.S.-based strike.

An exceptionally long strike, or boredom with the status quo, could further nudge viewers onto their phones. But Jonathan Handel, an entertainment and technology lawyer who has represented the actors’ guild, said he suspects concerns about the death of old-school TV and film are greatly exaggerated.

He thinks the creator economy, like the industry for video games, another dominant entertainment medium, won’t supplant Hollywood, but instead will fuel a new era of crossover successes, like the hit game “The Last of Us” that became a hit HBO show.

Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator, said the guild sees the Hollywood and creator communities as not so different, and he expects the gap will only narrow.

“The talent and skill that’s required to be successful as a content creator is greater than ever,” he said in an interview. “Whether people are consuming content in more traditional forms or in newer formats, the key is that unique element of human creativity. Each [creative] is doing something special, whether it’s distributed by YouTube, TikTok, Reels or in a movie.”