Charlie Kaufman Slams Hollywood Studios, Unambitious Writers, And Careless Consumers

The Writer’s Guild of America have been on strike for more than one hundred days, making it one of the longest in the industry’s history. Per Variety, representatives from the guild met with film studio heads last week to negotiate offers for the first time since May, and the WGA are slated to respond later this week. Demands for better compensation, residuals, limiting the use of artificial intelligence, and more are at play.

During these months, notable names from around the industry have made their thoughts clear, with most siding with the workers. One such name is acclaimed writer-director, Charlie Kaufman, who spoke in a masterclass during the Sarajevo Film Festival from where he is to receive a lifetime achievement award before a screening of his Oscar-nominated film, Adaptation. Kaufman, as reported by Deadline, did not hold back when venting his thoughts to the packed room about the current situation regarding the strikes. One point that he focused on was the over-saturation of, as he puts it, “garbage” that has been the trend for Hollywood of late, saying:   

“At this point, the only thing that makes money is garbage. It’s just fascinating. It makes a fortune, and that’s the bottom line…It’s very seductive to the studios but also to the people who engage and become the makers of that garbage, especially if they’re lauded for the garbage because they don’t have to look inward or think long about what they’re doing.”

According to Deadline, Kaufman used this thread to then talk about the dangers of AI, saying that a broader discussion needing to be had is about writers themselves, and the works they create—or rather, are “trained” to create, saying:

“Writers have been trained to eat and make the garbage too…As long as they are in that arena making that shit, then you might as well have AI do it,”

Charlie Kaufman | Credit: Variety
Charlie Kaufman | Credit: Variety

He would finish by calling upon writers to not give in to film studio’s attempts to use AI to write their screenplays, saying that once they gave that up, “there’s no going back.” Which is a more than apt call to action as the advent of A.I softwares like ChatGPT have already disrupted jobs across various industries globally, and without regulations or limitations can continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Though I do think Kaufman’s approach here is a little skewed when alluding to the idea that the “maker’s of garbage” (aka, the writers) are in some way responsible for the desires of studios to replace them with AI. Questioning their integrity as artists is one thing, but let’s not fool ourselves in thinking that Hollywood executives would hesitate to replace a writer of Succession with AI if given the opportunity to do so. Furthermore, though I share his zeal when calling out the creative dearth in modern-day film and television, we must acknowledge that many of the individuals working in those writer’s rooms—most of whom are already deemed replaceable, AI aside, and are continually underpaid—are mere pawns who have to abide by the pecking order of things; siphoning away any creative freedom.         

The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind writer didn’t end there. He would continue later in the talk to lambast not only the current state of Hollywood, but audiences as well. While talking about how Hollywood right now is simply a “movie machine” that creates shallow films whose “agenda is to sell a product” and cannot be considered art, he says:

“The diet is so corrupted and has been for so long. It’s like if you eat shit all your life, you want shit. If you eat processed food, you crave it. And you wouldn’t if you hadn’t been fed it all your life. That’s what the movie machine does and I find it really offensive. It makes me angry.”

It reminds me of Martin Scorsese’s iconic Empire Magazine interview wherein he said—albeit in a far less admonishing tone than Mr. Kaufman—that he didn’t believe Marvel movies were cinema. He dove deeper into his thoughts in a piece with The New York Times, bringing up the impact film has historically had in our society and, much like Kaufman, believes that the current market only allows for the existence of big-budget franchise films. In a piece I wrote a few weeks ago about how the success of ‘Barbenheimer’ may be a good thing for the industry, I outlined how the over-saturation of superhero content over the past decade may be finally leading to a fatigue amongst audiences. This fatigue could potentially lead audiences to be more open to buying tickets for auteur works of a Gerwig or Nolan, which hopefully could see a rise in sales for independent films—the success of recent A24 productions is already evidence of that.

Martin Scorsese
Kaufman’s words are similar to that of Scorsese, though with a far more blistering tone | Credit: NYT

Though I can understand Kaufman’s frustrations towards audiences, he fails to acknowledge that the existence of these insipid franchise blockbusters are—just like chain restaurants and strip malls—a result of the continual commodification of everything in the U.S, a practice that is tattooed to the very root of corporate America. As such, big studios churning out uninspired, cookie-cutter films is nothing new for the country. It took a series of critical essays by influential French filmmakers and critics, as well as a wave of change throughout European, Asian, and Middle-Eastern cinema to push the studio-led movies of 1950s America to begin adopting a more independent, creator-focused approach to filmmaking; giving birth to the Scorsese’s of the world and a slew of compelling movies that challenged American tradition. Though things would revert backwards only a couple decades later with movies like Jaws and Star Wars, bringing in a new era of the ‘American Blockbuster.’

Still, Kaufman’s strong words are felt deeply amongst fellow filmmakers and goers alike. His assertion that if the sole purpose of a film’s existence is to be a product to sell tickets, then said film cannot be considered art is something that many—myself included—can agree wholeheartedly on.

Shaz Mohsin

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