Residual Payments and the Fight for Fair Compensation for Labor in Hollywood

Curator's Note

SAG-AFTRA and the WGA have played a central role in Hollywood since the 1930s, and their contracts with the studios define the terms and conditions under which a large part of Hollywood labor functions, how they are credited and paid, and where, when, and how media is exhibited. The introduction of television in the mid-twentieth century was the first period of industrial disruption when unions and guilds were a strong force in the industry, and the early battles over the reuse of film work in television set the stage for every negotiation and labor strike that has since taken place.

The production of film and television is highly collaborative, and without clearly identifiable, singular authors for films and television series, the questions of how to assign credit, who is paid for what, and who determines how, when, and where the texts appear have always been difficult to resolve. The studios typically hold the copyright, or legal authorship, to the content they produce, but creative laborers felt (and still feel today) entitled to share in whatever wealth the studios made from the reuse of their work. Residual payments were one way the unions and guilds ensured that even though they were not the legal owners of their work, they would still be compensated and credited for their contributions. 

Residual payments have typically been determined by taking a percentage of the profits made from the reuse of content often in another medium. With the introduction of television, the guilds and studios had to determine the value of their film work in the television medium, and then what is a fair percentage of that value that provides sustainable, fair compensation for laborers while still making it possible for the studios to make a profit? Those basic questions led to the first major, simultaneous SAG and WGA strikes, and today’s strike is also prolonged by the challenge of determining a residual structure for streaming media that is acceptable to both the guilds and the studios. SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher outlines many of the central challenges in the video of her strike announcement.

In order to resolve the current conflict, will today’s unions and guilds need to, just as the unions and guilds had to in the face of the new technology of television, completely rethink their compensation structures for streaming media? Or will they be able to figure out a way to make the existing residual structures work?

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