Ben Affleck holding a camera on the set of AIR
Ben Affleck directing on the set of Air.Courtesy of Ana Carballosa/Prime

Ben Affleck Has a Plan for a Fairer Streaming World

With his new movie Air about to hit Amazon Prime, the actor spoke with WIRED about ways to better compensate everyone in the filmmaking process.

meme. A WAG. A Dunkin’ shill. Now 50, Ben Affleck has become a lot of things to a lot of people.

With Air, his feel-good account of Nike’s wooing of a young Michael Jordan, out this week on Prime Video, it’s worth remembering that Affleck is also a filmmaker with a sneakily great shooting percentage. He’s won two Oscars: one for Best Screenplay for Good Will Hunting, which he shared with Matt Damon, and one for Best Picture for Argo, which he also directed and starred in. (And which, ahem, was based on a WIRED story.)

And with his new production company, Artists Equity, Affleck is something else too: a self-styled challenger to Hollywood capitalism. At Artists Equity, it’s not just the producers of a movie but also the cast and crew who get points on the package through profit sharing. If the movie does well, everyone does well.

It’s a bold vision, one that seems even more urgent with the Writers Guild of America on strike over things like the residuals paid by studios and streaming services. In a recent interview, Affleck spoke to WIRED about his plans.

WIRED: How did the idea behind Artists Equity first come to you?

Ben Affleck: It came to mind, slowly, through my experience producing and directing movies and looking at how the resources were spent. Also recognizing that the evolution of streaming services was putting a cap on people's abilities to benefit in the long term on an annuity basis.

Say more about that. There’s been a lot of talk recently about residuals shrinking as streamers got bigger, but you were also able to produce Air with Amazon Studios.

One of my fondest memories is of discovering a $400 residual check in the mailbox when I was on the verge of bankruptcy—if you can call it that when you don’t own anything. If you're an actor and you did a week on a TV show that was very successful, you would expect to be able to make some [annuity] money because of the success of the collective effort. Now, that’s not the case. So I constructed this model.

Obviously now with the WGA strike, there’s a feeling in Hollywood that things have to change.

The work stoppage is the same effort by other means—to fairly compensate people and to adjust the market for the reality of streaming. I don’t pretend to speak for the WGA. They're better at messaging what their goals are. But it’s no secret that the streaming model has capped a lot of the historic gains made by labor in terms of residuals, in terms of actually making the work more equitable, in terms of pay.

People forget that residuals are what pay the artists’ bills in between gigs.

Historically, if you’re an actor or a writer, those annuities were really meaningful to keep people stable. There’s no tenure. The phone stops ringing for everybody sometimes. It’s fickle. It’s capricious. It’s not just the high end of the very few who manage to become extremely successful. It’s the workaday artists who show up and make it happen.

Is that reflected in the kinds of movies you want Artists Equity to produce?

Air, in many ways, is critiquing that aspect of capitalism which historically has been exploitative or patently unfair because it's rooted in a notion that says, well, if you invest the capital, you get the reward. That needs to change. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish, and that’s what the WGA is trying to accomplish in a much bigger way. If we are going to practice capitalism, which has led to real iniquities, at the very least we ought to recognize the human beings who actually do the work and create a better world. They should be rewarded at least as well as the investors.

What’s the best way of explaining Artists Equity?

The founding philosophy is to reward the artist, to allow them to be more responsible and accountable and to expand their compensation if their work is successful. And by the artist, I mean writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, prop people, and a whole host of people you never see in movies but who are contributing an enormous amount.

It’s still early days, but what have been the results so far? What’s the on-set experience like?

We’re in our fifth movie. It’s been the greatest pleasure to see people capture bonuses based on their own work, that reflects their merit—and to not have people feel like anonymous drones. I’ve worked in this business for a long time. I know that anyone who’s really good has put their work before their self-interest as a matter of course. But they want to be empowered.

So you’re calling for full socialism now? I’m fishing for a headline.

[Laughs] I won’t editorialize too much, as I remember we’re on the record. But it’s an interesting thing, the message of the labor movement. One of the best ways to get traction is to communicate effectively and powerfully and persuasively on what it is that is being sought and the righteousness of it. If you don't do that, you allow the message to be distorted. An organization becomes hamstrung by its internal conflicts. It becomes easy to characterize the whole broad notion of a more equitable economy as impractical or naive or just greed in the guise of fairness. And I really don’t believe that.

The 40-hour work week—that’s more meaningful than the steam engine. Those things are as much, if not more, evidence of human progress than the mechanical things we’ve created to speed up our economy. [Pause] But I won't give you the full Eugene Debs speech.

This interview has been edited and condensed.