Hollywood Strike Leaves Influencers Sidelined and Confused

Deanna Giulietti is not in the actors’ union, but she turned down $28,000 last week because of its strike.

Ms. Giulietti, a 29-year-old content creator with 1.8 million TikTok followers, had received an offer to promote the new season of Hulu’s hit show “Only Murders in the Building.”

But SAG-AFTRA, as the union is known, recently issued rules stating that any influencer who engages in promotion for one of the Hollywood studios the actors are striking against will be ineligible for membership. (Disney is the majority owner of Hulu.) That gave Ms. Giulietti, who also acts and aspires to one day join the union, reason enough to decline the offer from Influential, a marketing agency working with Hulu.

The union’s rule is part of a variety of aggressive tactics that hit at a pivotal moment for Hollywood labor and shows its desire to assert itself in a new era and with a different, mostly younger wave of creative talent.

“I want to be in these Netflix shows, I want to be in the Hulu shows, but we’re standing by the writers, we’re standing by SAG,” Ms. Giulietti said. “People write me off whenever I say I’m an influencer, and I’m like, ‘No, I really feel I could be making the difference here.’”

That difference comes at a cost. In addition to the Hulu deal, Ms. Giulietti recently declined a $5,000 offer from the app TodayTix to promote the Searchlight Pictures movie “Theater Camp.” (Disney also owns Searchlight.) She said she was living at home with her parents in Cheshire, Conn., and putting off renting an apartment in New York City while she saw how the strike — which, along with a writers’ strike, could go on for months — would affect her income.

Representatives for Searchlight and TodayTix did not respond to requests for comment. Hulu and Influential declined to comment.

The last time Hollywood’s screen actors and writers went on strike, social media platforms and the $5 billion influencer industry didn’t exist. The actors’ union began admitting content creators in 2021 and still has only a small number of them, but questions have quickly emerged around how the union’s dispute with the major Hollywood studios will affect popular internet personalities.

The union’s message that content creators will be blocked from membership if they provide work or services for struck companies has sent many scrambling. A number of creators have pledged support for writers and actors and circulated “scab” lists of influencers who promote new releases or appear at related events. Others have been frustrated or confused by instructions from a union that doesn’t protect them, and that some had never heard of.

SAG-AFTRA, which represents some 160,000 movie and television actors, approved a strike on July 13. The division with the studios is driven largely by concerns about compensation in the streaming era and artificial intelligence. They joined screenwriters, who walked off the job in May, the first dual shutdown since 1960. During the strike, actors are not able to engage in publicity efforts for their projects or appear at film festivals or events like Comic-Con.

Influencers have become crucial to the entertainment industry in recent years, especially during the pandemic, building buzz and promoting products. They post videos to hype new TV shows and movies, appear on red carpets and at events like the MTV Video Music Awards, and unbox products tied to film and television characters. Typically, as in the case with Ms. Giulietti, outside agencies hire creators on behalf of the studios.

“If I were to help the big studios amid this, I’m just hurting myself in the future,” said Mario Mirante, a comedian with 3.6 million followers on TikTok.Credit…Marshall Scheuttle for The New York Times

Now those activities, besides limiting their career ambitions, could lead to internet backlash, with one nonunion influencer already posting an apology video for appearing at a recent Disney movie premiere. Others have posted promotional videos anyway, without backtracking or pulling the content. At least one creator posting from a recent premiere opted to turn off their TikTok comments, possibly to avoid potential criticism.

On the flip side, videos from creators about jobs and events that they rejected in solidarity with actors have racked up praise and views on TikTok.

“We don’t have power to make decisions for the talent, but we will in this moment recommend not engaging with struck work or struck companies on paid or organic projects,” said Victoria Bachan, president of Whalar Talent, a unit of a creator commerce company that works with more than 200 content creators. She added that young creators were also more apt to be supportive of unions and organized labor.

Still, Whitney Singleton, a 27-year-old with 1.2 million TikTok followers, has been frustrated by what is being asked of her. She had never heard of SAG-AFTRA until the past couple of weeks. Ms. Singleton, using the moniker @KeepUpRadio, has attracted fans by singing and rapping about her favorite video games like Fortnite and streaming herself playing video games. It has been her full-time job for three years. She has collaborated with struck companies like Amazon in the past.

“I really do value creators, and I want them to get what they deserve,” Ms. Singleton said. “But it’s really hard for me to just be finding out about an organization and being expected to fall in line with their initiative when I feel like it’s new to me and the influencer space.”

She said some influencers were being asked to turn down five-figure deals, and that “the majority of creators I’ve talked to about it feel it’s unfair that as nonunion members, they’re being included in this conversation.”

Ms. Singleton was invited to an early screening of the “Barbie” movie and said that while it wasn’t a paid promotion, the union’s guidelines for promoting the movie were “what I would deem murky.” Ultimately, she decided to post about the event, for which she dyed her hair pink.

“I actually got no negative feedback, it was all positive,” she said. “For a moment, I felt a bit scared and put in a corner with these requirements because I respect creators in all industries, but I wouldn’t be being true to my heart if I had let those things stop me from living my life and sharing the content.”

The union did not respond to questions about the criticism or about how many influencers are included in its membership. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates on behalf of the biggest studios, has said its offers to the writers and the actors were “historic” improvements on their previous contracts.

The reality for many creators is that they dream of someday achieving a level of fame beyond the smartphone screen, making the threat of blacklisting by Hollywood’s most powerful union an ominous one.

Mario Mirante, a 28-year-old comedian on TikTok with 3.6 million followers, recently posted a popular video about turning down a deal to promote a show based on his support for actors and writers and his long-term ambitions. Mr. Mirante has hoped to work in Hollywood since childhood, and even has a tattoo of Jim Carrey as “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” on his arm.

“That’s a lot of influencers’ goal and aspiration and why they do it,” said Mr. Mirante, who lives in Las Vegas. “We love to entertain and express ourselves, and that’s the Super Bowl, that’s the ultimate, being in a movie or a TV show.”

Mr. Mirante has previously been paid to promote the movie “Champions” starring Woody Harrelson and a product tied to the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise.

“If I were to help the big studios amid this, I’m just hurting myself in the future, if that makes any sense,” he said. “Of course I’m not a part of it right now, but they’re fighting for basic rights, livable wages, not to have their A.I. likeness taken.”

Krishna Subramanian, a founder of the influencer marketing firm Captiv8, said studios might need to pivot away from creators during the strike and get agencies to make more traditional display ads to place on Facebook and other sites.

Simone Umba is a TikTok creator with more than 300,000 followers who primarily posts about TV shows and movies but has paused making such videos. She said that many influencers felt that they were “stuck in the middle,” but that most were opting to side with the union even as invitations and deals piled up.

“We knew we were going to get approached, and it’s like we’re in a really messy family feud,” Ms. Umba, 26, said.

She added, “Regardless of if you want to join the union or not, you don’t want to be one of those people that was willing to take a check instead of standing in support of people fighting for actual livable wages.”

Ms. Umba said that it had been painful to miss out on posting about the star-studded “Barbie” movie after this summer’s marketing bonanza and that she had declined to attend an early screening of the film in Atlanta. She and a friend were messaging recently after trailers for “The Marvels” dropped, agonizing over their inability to post.

“We were texting each other back and forth, like, this is so hard,” she said. She said she was prepared to hold out for months but was already thinking of holiday releases. She crossed her fingers, held them up and said, “Please, please, don’t let it get to Christmas.”

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