The Film Industry is on the Edge of a Precipice

On January 16th, 1960, the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) began striking against the Alliance of Television Film Producers (ATFP, now known as AMPTP). A few months later, the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG, prior to their merger with AFTRA in 2012) would follow suite in a strike of their own. As outlined by Megan Mccluskey over at Time Magazine, both guilds fought for residuals, pension plans, and health insurance; successfully coming to agreements in a matter of months that benefited the artists.

Over sixty years later and history is repeating itself, though something seems a bit more dire this time around. On April 17th, 2023, the WGA announced that its members had authorized a strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) after an overwhelming majority – 97.8% – voted ‘yes’. Fast-forward a couple months, and the 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA would join those that write their words in a strike of their own, leading to the first time since 1960 that both unions would be on strike together.

The demands of both parties boil down to two things: fair compensation in light of the continued rise of streaming, and protecting their work with the advent of artificial intelligence (A.I). Though the concerns of streaming has had me worried about the wages of actors and writers alike for years at this point, it’s the latter that truly frightens me; but let’s touch upon streaming first.

A detailed report by the WGA titled, “The State of the Industry”, outlines how the entertainment industry has remained profitable throughout the decades, irrespective of the shifts in technological advancements. From the rise of cable channels to the rise of Netflix, the executives of film and television have always found ways to continually make money—to the delight of Wall Street. Whether it be through cable subscriptions or exporting television licenses to foreign networks, media companies were generating a whopping $150 billion in annual revenue by 2013.

Source: WGA

Now, cable channels are a product of the past and Hollywood have moved to a streaming-first model, and studios are more profitable than ever—despite Wall Street and other higher-ups at legacy media companies initially insisting that the shift would be the industry’s downfall. Instead, companies like Disney, Amazon, and Netflix report profits in the billions every year, with Warner Bros, Discovery even being named Goldman Sachs’ “favorite media stock” for 2023.

So with all these companies making all this money as the good children of capitalism should, surely the writers that create the shows that generate this success are being compensated fairly, right? Right? Of course not, get outta here ya’ commie!

Alex O’Keefe, a writer for FX’s incredibly successful The Bear, told The New Yorker:

“It’s a very regular-degular, working-class existence…the only future I’m seeking financially is to enter that middle class, which has always been rarified for someone who comes from poverty…I thought we would be treated more like collaborators on a product. It’s like an assembly line now”

A chart illustrated by the WGA in another bulletin titled, “Writers Are Not Keeping Up” shows that 49% of all television series writers were being paid the MBA minimum, a sixteen point increase compared to 2013 where only 33% of all TV writers were at that scale. Furthermore, due to the nature of streaming with fewer episode orders per season, writers are working fewer weeks when compared to traditional networks like CW. This could be reconciled if the residuals writers received from their shows were adequate, but that of course isn’t the case.

WGA Writer’s Pay
Source: WGA

Leila Cohan, a producer and writer for Netflix’ immensely popular, Bridgerton, shares with Reuters that though the residuals she receives from the show is a “healthy supplement” it wasn’t representative of being a writer and producer for one of Netflix’s most successful shows, saying:

“If Bridgerton is one of the most successful shows, and it’s bringing a huge number of subscribers to Netflix or helping them keep their subscribers, I do think I should be compensated for that value”

Residuals have also affected actors performing for shows on streaming networks as well, with actors no longer receiving a cut for each time an episode is viewed but rather through a fixed annual rate that (supposedly) adequately takes into account subscriber numbers and other internal metrics that aren’t usually publicly shared. But clearly this hasn’t been working, and just like the writers, actors are continually underpaid for their work. I won’t even get into how Canadian actors continually get overlooked when it comes to residuals. I myself am still waiting to see a cheque from the many times I’m sure the two episodes of Prison Break – a series whose fifth season was shot in Vancouver, BC – I was on got viewed on streaming networks. But that’s a fight for our union up here in the north.

Brian Cox, star of (HBO) Max’s Succession, told the BBC Newscast that “The whole streaming thing has shifted the paradigm”, following to say:

“They are trying to freeze us out and beat us into the ground, because there’s a lot of money to be made in streaming and the desire is not to share it with the writers or the performers.”

Residuals, fair wages, health insurance, paid overtime, profit-sharing—these are all terms that are integral to any union. These are things that have been negotiated and re-negotiated over the decades between employers and employees. Actually, more like centuries. From the craftsmen of Egypt during the reign of Ramses III who stopped work for not receiving rations, to the 1.7 million Indian Railways workers of 1974 who halted work to demand better working conditions. Strikes aren’t new, and my hope is that the artists that create the works that fill the pockets of executives who know nothing of creating art are fairly compensated for their work.

What is new, however, is the frightening speed in which a new piece of technology has become omnipresent in our daily lives: Artificial Intelligence.

What started out as a seemingly harmless Instagram fad of people posting AI generated cartoon avatars of themselves through the use of an app named Lensa, has now become a genuine threat to the work of talented artists. But it’s not just softwares like Lensa and Midjourney that are constantly growing in their ability to create admittedly impressive pieces of artwork, but ChatGPTan AI chatbot able to churn out a myriad of text-based solutions via a simple prompt – has the potential to take the full-time jobs of 300 million globally according to Goldman Sachs.

As far as writing is concerned, the software is already capable of penning an entire feature length screenplay with only a sentence-long prompt needed on the user’s end. Now, whether that screenplay is any good is a different story. And that’s always the argument bring made. “Yes, but AI can’t write Succession.” And my response is always, “…yet.”

Pretty sure even this thing couldn’t come up with the ending to ‘Oldboy’

We have to understand that this technology is in its infancy, and constantly learning and getting better with no limitations being put on it. So even though right now Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker can say in an interview with Empire Magazine that the episode they had ChatGPT write was “shit”, this is only the beginning.

If capitalism has taught us anything, it’s that the introduction of new technologies does not benefit the workers. It’s an opportunity to increase profit margins. As such, screenwriters fear that executives and producers would be more than happy to allow AI to write-up a first draft of an episode, then simply have some of the head writers work on cleaning it up. This, in turn, would reduce the number of weeks writers would be able to work – the savings from which obviously would go to the executives – or worse, leave them without a job entirely.

Rachel Bloom, writer of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, said In a recent interview with The Independent:

“If you are not artistically ambitious and you’re like, ‘I just want…a formulaic but passable script, that’s very scary”

And we all know that many producers in these big streaming networks are more than content with the words ‘formulaic’ and ‘passable.’ Therefore it is imperative that the WGA fight for safeguards that protect the works of writers and limit the use of AI in the writing room for future projects.

As far as AI and actors go, I mentioned in my previous piece about how well Harrison Ford’s de-aged self looked in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, but also how its success could be a warning sign for actors in the coming years. SAG-AFTRA’s national executive director, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, alleged in the press conference that announced the union’s strike that studios were considering scanning the faces of background performers, offering them only one day’s pay, then using AI to recreate them in future shots; alleging that their companies “should own that scan, their image, their likeness and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation.”

Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd.

This idea that corporations can own the likeness of an actor, then use them in future projects via AI without consent – possibly even after their death – is such a terrifying notion that it almost makes me laugh—because some things are so absurd that anger isn’t enough. I’m not sure what the future holds for the film industry or, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic even though I think it appropriate, for society. We’re at a precipice, and the coming years are very crucial in seeing whether or not we fall.

Shaz Mohsin

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