More than 11,000 film and television writers fear their profession is being turned into a “gig economy” of temporary workers and that artificial intelligence could endanger their jobs
The story so far: The first episode of season six of Black Mirror, the fictional anthology show on Netflix bringing to the screen scenes from a dystopian future seems to have made a correct prediction. This particular episode involves a streaming service using an AI-created version of actor Salma Hayek without her consent in a show. Reality doesn’t seem very different today when Hollywood’s actors fear artificial intelligence might be used to create their onscreen likenesses which could then speak, look, and most importantly, act like them, endangering the profession.
Putting guardrails on the use of AI in the industry, however, is just one of the many demands that have made Hollywood’s actors and writers come out in large numbers on the streets to strike.
While production companies and studios in Los Angeles and New York were witnessing hundreds of film and television screenwriters of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) standing in picket lines outside their doors since early May, Hollywood actors on July 14 joined the strike after their contract negotiations with studios broke down. This is Hollywood’s biggest labour fight in six decades and marks the first dual strike of both writers and actors since 1960.
Why did the writers go on strike?
The WGA is the union of almost all screenwriters behind Hollywood shows, films, and other television dramas. The board of the union, on behalf of its 11,500 writers negotiates a contract every three years with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), comprising all big Hollywood studios including Warner Bros. Discovery, NBC Universal, Paramount Pictures and all streaming services from Netflix to Peacock.
The contract negotiations cover issues like deciding base pay for writers, pension benefits, residual payments, and so on. This time around, the WGA’s contract with the AMPTP expired on May 1, and six weeks of negotiations leading up to the deadline did not see a consensus over the writers’ demands and what studios were willing to offer. Therefore, the WGA announced on May 2 that its members would go on strike.
According to WGA rules, while the strike continues, writers cannot make new deals, new pitches, or turn in new scripts. They are allowed to accept payment for any writing that’s already been done.
What are writers demanding?
Much like how the 2007 Hollywood writers’ strike, which lasted 100 days, was about the way “new media” or the use of content on the internet had changed the industry, the current strike is largely about the era of streaming and its ripple effects on the profession.
Decreasing pay: One would imagine that the boom of content on OTT platforms and large investments in streaming content would bring more jobs and more money to be made for writers. But the WGA argues that with streaming services cutting corners and attempting to maximise profits for their investors, writers are being left behind and their compensation has not kept up with the rising inflation.
According to the WGA, while the profits of the entertainment industry have ballooned from $5 billion (combined entertainment operating profits of Disney, Fox, Paramount, NBC, Universal) in 2000 to a whopping $30 billion in 2019 with the addition of Netflix, what writers earn has actually shrunk.
The Guild notes that the average pay of the writer-producer position has gone down by 4% over the past decade. Adjusted for inflation, it says, this is a 23% decline. Moreover, the share of writers earning just the minimum wage level called the Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) by the Guild has gone from two-thirds in 2013-14 to half of them at present, meaning more writers are not getting paid above minimum levels. This is also because streaming has meant fewer guaranteed weeks of paid work for writers. A traditional network television season calendar would give writers about 42 weeks of work in 2000, but as seasons of shows get shorter, an average writer has just about 20 weeks of work for streaming shows, The Washington Post points out.
‘Mini rooms’: Another major issue highlighted by the WGA is the concept of downsizing known as “mini rooms”, that has come about in recent years, increasingly replacing traditional writers’ rooms. Traditionally, multiple writers with different levels of experience would form a writer’s room that would be involved throughout the process of a show or film’s production. However now, studios and streaming platforms are creating mini rooms where writers first work on writing the whole show and once it is approved and production begins, only a few of them are retained through production.
Residual payments: Another sticking issue in the negotiations is that of shrinking residuals- additional payments writers get each time a show or film is aired again or licensed. However, platforms like Netflix offer smaller residuals and do not disclose internal data about the viewership of a show with writers but give fixed residuals. For network shows and feature films, residuals were also tied to how the content performed, which meant more residual payments for writers.
The AMPTP, meanwhile, has said it presented a generous deal that included the biggest bump in minimum pay in 35 years, higher caps on pension and health contributions, and “a groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses.”
“A strike is certainly not the outcome we hoped for as studios cannot operate without the performers that bring our TV shows and films to life,” the group of production houses said in an earlier statement. “The Union has regrettably chosen a path that will lead to financial hardship for countless thousands of people who depend on the industry.”
Why have actors joined the strike?
Talks between the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and the AMPTP also broke down on Thursday. The issues remain more or less the same — shorter seasons, lesser work and lower base pay, as well as residuals.
Actor Matt Damon, who has supported the strikes, pointed out at the London premier of the upcoming release Oppenheimer, how many people exist on the margins. “We got to protect the people who are kind of on the margins. 26,000 bucks a year is what you have to make to get your health insurance, Damon told the Associated Press. “And there are a lot of people who ― residual payments are what carry them across that threshold. If those residual payments dry up, so does their healthcare, and that’s absolutely unacceptable.”
Why is artificial intelligence a concern for the writers and actors?
Notably, AI has emerged as a crucial area where actors and writers want production houses to put guardrails so their professions are not endangered in the near future. Those on strike see unchecked AI as an “existential threat”. While the two guilds wanted productions to set ground rules for the future and current use of AI in production, the latter has proposed meeting once a year to discuss this as AI is a developing technology. Writers are demanding that AI not be used to create new and unpaid content from their original work and their scripts not be used to train AI like language learning models. As for the actors, they do not want studios to use their AI-created likeness or performances without their consent or without compensation.
Notably, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator, told the BBC about an already proposed AI use by studios. He pointed out that studios had asked to scan the faces of background artists, paying them for a day’s work. Crabtree-Ireland criticised how the studios would then be able to possess and use the actors’ likeness “for the rest of eternity, in any project they want, with no consent and no compensation”.
What is the current and potential impact of the strike on films and television releases?
Since WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike rules prevent members from participating in any new or pending work, including promotions and festivals, some productions have already come to a standstill while many others are expected to be impacted in the near future or the end of the year.
When the writers’ strike began in May, late-night talk shows in the U.S., which depend heavily on same-day, current-events-based comedy writing soon went into hiatus. These include popular shows like NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” ABC’s “ Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”. If the strike goes on for some more weeks, and now with the joining of actors, the fall TV season starting September, which sees fresh seasons of comedies and dramas that will likely be delayed.
Films to be released in theatres are protected from an immediate hit because movies take two to three years to produce. But future releases, such as Marvel’s Blade and Thunderbolts, have been delayed, and films in production such as the Avatar and Gladiator sequels look likely to be hit by actors’ strike. The production of Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman’s much-awaited film Deadpool 3, Tom Cruise’s eighth Mission: Impossible movie, Disney’s Lilo & Stitch remake, Brad Pitt’s Formula One movie, and Tom Hardy’s Venom 3 are a few of the many projects that might have to wait until the Hollywood studios and the striking actors and screenwriters come to an amicable agreement. Award shows like Emmys too might have to be rescheduled.
How big is the economic impact?
It is patent to note that the dual strike does not just affect its participants but a large number of those employed in production related jobs and tertiary industries such as costume, catering, lighting, for hire location providers, and so on. The last writers’ strike in 2007 which lasted 100 days cost $2.1 billion to California’s economy alone.
- Hollywood’s actors fear artificial intelligence might be used to create their onscreen likenesses which could then speak, look, and most importantly, act like them, endangering the profession.
- Much like how the 2007 Hollywood writers’ strike, which lasted 100 days, was about the way “new media” or the use of content on the internet had changed the industry, the current strike is largely about the era of streaming and its ripple effects on the profession.
- Writers are demanding that AI not be used to create new and unpaid content from their original work and their scripts not be used to train AI like language learning models.
(with inputs from Associated Press)