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Can I Watch ‘Barbenheimer’ Despite the Hollywood Strikes?

A clip from the sitcom “The Nanny” has been making the rounds on social media. It shows Fran Fine — played by Fran Drescher, the current Screen Actors Guild president — telling her boss one of her mother’s three cardinal rules: “Never, ever, ever cross a picket line.”

Drescher is not only adhering to that rule in real life, but she is also leading the union that represents the 160,000 actors who went on strike on July 13.

The actors’ strike centers on profit-sharing and artificial intelligence protections. The Writers Guild of America has been on strike since May. The writers have said that their compensation has stagnated during the rise of streaming services. It’s the first time since 1960 that the two unions are striking at the same time.

The strikes raise a question for consumers who want to support the workers: Does watching Netflix or going to the movies amount to crossing a proverbial picket line?

Right now, it seems that it does not.

A line of striking workers in front of a workplace or employer (or in this strike, in front of major studios) is what typically constitutes a picket line. Historically, a person supporting those workers would not cross that line.

“The notion that people who watch Netflix or go to the movies are crossing a picket line is a stretch — where, after all, are the pickets?” James Bennett, a professor of economics at George Mason University, said. Traditionally, a picket line needs to include people picketing, he said, adding, “a virtual picket line is a novel concept.”

Though unions with workers in digital media or with companies that offer online shopping have invoked the idea of a digital picket line, the actors’ and writers’ unions have not called on consumers to stop watching television and movies on streaming services or to cancel their “Barbenheimer” tickets.

For individual consumers deciding whether to watch, it depends on their goal.

“The question for all workers and consumers in any strike is: Which side are you on?” said Dan Cornfield, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and a labor expert. When workers are striking, there are ways for consumers and members of the public to show their support. In some cases, people can march with the workers on the picket line. Or they can boycott.

A boycott could cause financial pain to a company, but it also sends a wider message that people care about the fair treatment of workers, Cornfield said.

Adam Seth Litwin, a professor of industrial labor relations at Cornell University, said, “We really need to listen to the request of the striking unions.” Watching the content that writers and actors make may prove the point that the streamers and studios need them because of the revenue the programs bring in, he said.

On the other hand, streamers may be able to weather a long strike because of the large inventory of content they’ve built up. If customers keep paying their monthly fees, Litwin said, Netflix and other companies “can hold on for a long, long time.”

And the unions could be saving a consumer boycott as a tool for a later stage of the negotiations if no deal is reached, experts said.

As far as not going to the movies, that might end up hurting movie theaters, many of which have been struggling after the pandemic, as well as their workers. “At the moment,” Litwin said, “it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to take this out on the theaters themselves.”

Still, some people want to make a statement. David Escobedo, a former improv actor in Los Angeles who is studying toward a Ph.D. in England, said he felt like he had to do something to support his friends who are on strike and decided to cancel his Netflix membership, even though the unions hadn’t called for that.

“To be honest, I really like Netflix,” he said. “‘Black Mirror’ is one of my favorite shows of all time.”

But he added, he wanted to send a message, especially since it can be hard to get the attention of such big institutions. When canceling, he specified that it was in support of the strikes. “It sends a message across that there’s support,” he said.

Escobedo said that he also used other streaming services — Disney+, which includes a lot of favorites of his young son — and that he didn’t plan on canceling those yet.

Others are also thinking about it, including Litwin, the industrial labor relations professor. “I haven’t canceled my streaming subscriptions yet, but I’m listening,” he said, indicating that he might follow a boycott if the unions were to call for one.

Janine Granda, an actress and a member of the Screen Actors Guild who is on strike, said, “We actually want people to go to the movies.” She said she was planning a double feature of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” this weekend herself, with a group of friends.

If the unions change their minds, Granda said, “you’ll hear us.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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