Social Media Stars Try to Navigate Hollywood’s Summer of Strike

Social Media Stars Try to Navigate Hollywood’s Summer of Strike

Gadiel Del Orbe secured the kind of opportunity social media stars dream of: a concert presenting a documentary for a major Hollywood studio.

It was a chance for the Los Angeles-based actor and internet comedian — who has close to 300,000 followers on TikTok and Instagram combined — to get his name out there and chase showbiz success.

So SAG-AFTRA, the union of film and television actors, went on strike.

This month, Tinseltown actors began picketing outside the studios, refusing to do more work for big entertainment companies until your demands for higher wages, increased waste and artificial intelligence limits are met. Among the companies hit was the one that had hired Del Orbe.

A headshot of TikTok artist Gadiel Del Orbe.

Like many social media creators, Gadiel Del Orbe now finds herself navigating the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes.

(JD Renes Photography)

Many influencers, including Del Orbe, are not part of SAG-AFTRA, although the union launched an “Influencer Agreement” in 2021 making them eligible. Now SAG-AFTRA has published guidelines on how influencers should operate during the strike, asking them not to promote stricken companies or content unless required to do so by an existing contract.

Even an unpaid fan post about a studio project — say, “Barbie” or “Oppenheimer” — is discouraged.

And there can be consequences for testing the rules. “Any non-member who intends to be a member of SAG-AFTRA in the future and who performs covered work or services for a company hit during the strike will not be admitted as a member of SAG-AFTRA,” the guild said in an FAQ.

Del Orbe, 36, didn’t know if he still had permission to make the documentary, but the threat of being penalized in the future caught his attention and he wanted to sympathize with the actors. He decided to give up the business.

“Although I am a social media influencer now and earn money from social media… in the future I would like to work in the industry [and] work with SAG,” he said. “I know that what they are doing today will benefit me in the future.”

Influencers and social media creators like Del Orbe occupy a strange space in the modern pop culture landscape. Many Americans, especially younger Americans, spend more time consuming free social media content on platforms like TikTok, YouTube and Instagram than they do watching movies and television shows.

Especially after TikTok’s rise to prominence during the pandemic, this demand has given rise to a sort of Hollywood shadow, where non-union influencers and web personalities make their living through sponsored content, ad revenue, fan subscriptions, and merchandise.

This “creative economy” exists mostly outside of the old Hollywood union scene, including SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America, also currently on strike; the Directors Guild of America, which recently secured a new contract; and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents workers below the line.

While joining these syndicates can take years of work, anyone can become an influencer for free in the shortest amount of time it takes to create a social media account. However, this low barrier to entry comes with trade-offs. Without a meaningful industry workforce, many influencers face inconsistent income, grueling hours, and no collective resources to demand change.

Now that the actors’ and writers’ associations are on strike, that discrepancy has been cast in high contrast. With actors explicitly barred from doing the press, red carpets and social media to promote their films, one would expect studios to turn to influencers to replace them.

Influencers must decide whether they want to voluntarily comply with SAG-AFTRA policies — and take a financial hit by a union they’re not a part of — or risk burning a bridge in an industry that many are hoping to join. the studios sometimes launch recognizable faces from social media in mainstream projects to appeal to younger audiences — like starring as TikTok megastar Addison Rae in Netflix’s “He’s All That.”

“Every creator is going to say they want to act, so I think on a personal level, every creator is freaking out,” said Maddy Abrams, a talent manager who works with influencers. “It’s scary whether they have talent or not.”

Currently, no one on Abrams’ roster is partnered with a studio or streamer, but she still had to tell her clients what the strike meant to them: “If we get anything in the way of [an offer to make] a sponsored post for a movie or TV show, we can’t do that.”

Jessica Vanessa, a Los Angeles-based influencer who makes videos about movies and pop culture, said the strikes have already caused problems for her.

Vanessa, 31, is a SAG-qualified actress. Although she has not yet joined the union, she is being redoubled so as not to jeopardize future job opportunities.

“I’ve been invited to some upcoming screenings of new movies that I would LOVE to see, but at the last minute I decided to cancel,” Vanessa said in an email. “I also had to let go of some deals with brands [because] none of us are allowed to promote any movies at this time.”

Jessica Vanessa, a social media influencer who talks about film and media, has opted out of some film screenings and brand deals due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes.

(From Jessica Vanessa)

Another influencer – an Abrams client – was recently invited to a red carpet event celebrating the opening of a new movie theater. The client felt torn between honoring the RSVP and staying in the union’s good graces, choosing to attend the event but not take photos – for an influencer, as good as not to go.

Mario Mirante, a Las Vegas firefighter with 3.6 million followers on TikTok, said he was in the middle of his own deal to promote an upcoming studio project when the SAG-AFTRA strike took effect. He ended up backing out of the deal and says he’s committed to not accepting any more contracts with the studios while the strike lasts.

Mirante soon learned the term “stabbing” — or working in the face of a strike — and posted a video urging fellow TikTokers not to cross picket lines. As with many web personalities, his rationale was twofold: both to keep the door open to future union affiliations and to show solidarity with the striking writers and actors.

“If I were to take advantage of this chapter in the entertainment industry… to make some money,” he said in an email, “I couldn’t live with myself.”

Representatives of SAG-AFTRA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers – the group that negotiates on behalf of the studios – declined to comment.

The decisions influencers have to make are complicated by the nuances of modern brand marketing, where campaigns often involve cross-promotion. What if, for example, a beauty influencer has a deal with a makeup brand that is partnering with “Barbie”?

“It’s a very gray line,” said Vanessa DelMuro, managing director of influencer management company TalentX. “What we are trying to do is encourage [clients] to see everything case by case.”

“Circumstances may vary” when it comes to cross-promotional marketing campaigns, per SAG guidelines. There are also limits on whether and how influencers can attend industry conventions like Comic-Con.

While there has been some speculation online that studios will use influencers to help meet the demand for new content during the strike, it’s unclear if this is still happening.

Such a move would not be unprecedented, however. When the WGA last went on strike in 2007, studios turned to unscripted reality television to fill the content gap, and they’re doing it again this time. TikTok and YouTube native content could be another 2023 version of the strategy.

But even as the strike closed the door to some types of social media posting, it also opened it to others. Over the past few days, New York actress and TikToker Sarah Pribis has racked up views with videos explaining why influencers must not break the strike and how the work stoppage is playing out.

“I’ve kind of turned around the last few days to … just trying to give information,” said Pribis. “What I’m really trying to avoid is people vilifying creators and actors and pointing fingers.”

She added: “It’s just a whirlwind of emotions and policing.”

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