Been there, done that. And by that I’m talking writers' strikes. And yes, it’s happening again over the same old shit. The companies have it. The writers want a share of it in exchange for services rendered. And the earth continues to revolve around the sun. I’m old enough to have seen a few of these. I survived.
Though I’m not sure you will. Sorry that I mean that.
If you are interested in the minutiae of the present conflict between writers and our rulers of all things entertainment, this piece might not be for you. Feel free to Google or visit the WGA website. There’s a cornucopia of info and opinion.
Now, for the macro view.
It sucks. I mean, really really sucks. And not just for the writers. It sucks for directors and actors and producers who can’t make their movies or TV shows without writers to script them. It sucks for the assistants, the cinematographers, camera operators, cable pullers—you know what? Just pull up the credits for any film or series and look at the miles of credits and imagine that it sucks for each and every name on screen, as well their families, friends, and just about everyone and everywhere that caters to their daily lives. I’ll even draw that time old metaphor of ripples on a pond, expanding outward and forever. Let’s just say this, it sucks for the ripples and the pond.
So, why strike at all if the effects are so negative?
Well, some time ago, if viewed through the way-back machine, writers decided to organize. Ever since, that is how the studios and networks have decided to arbitrate their differences—primarily over how writers are paid—through collective bargaining. When those negotiations break down, well, here we are again.
I say again because ever since the dawn of television, the constant evolution in technology has opened new sources of revenue for the companies. After TV became a platform, it was video. Then came cable and DVDs, and pay-on-demand, and streaming like Netflix and Prime Video, and every network adding a plus to their moniker, thus creating a new portal to screen their libraries of product in a way undefined in the last agreement with the various guilds. And when the writers ask for commensurate share of those newly discovered money streams, the answer is usually “no,” and/or “go pound sand,” or “let’s see if our investment pays off and then we’ll talk.”
Billions of dollars later, the dance begins again.
Granted, there are other issues that crop up during negotiations, such as property rights, credit, advertising, perks, healthcare, pension programs, and this time around, a looming executioner’s blade otherwise known as Artificial Intelligence. But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on that in a moment.
During strike time, the usual rhetoric is employed by both sides. The companies like to say that so many writers are already rich and greedy while the Guild and some of its vocal members resort to dialogue straight out of the blacklist era or Warren Beatty’s almost-masterpiece on the Bolsheviks revolution, otherwise known as Reds. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend. The great Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is stellar.
It is kind of true that writers are hardly like poor factory workers ripe for exploitation. Yes, it’s a feast or famine sort of business, with some word jockeys flaming out after one movie or staff job while others on the more successful side of the equation make handsome livings, even becoming rich as their fees are negotiated by high-powered agents and attorneys. In other words, writing for showbiz entities can become lucrative and a free market derived paycheck.
Those lucky, talented, or craftsperson enough to reside at the top levels have much more to lose by going on strike than they have to gain, because most actions, such as the current one, are called basic minimums. These are the guaranteed protections companies agree to pay, most importantly in regard to all writers under the WGA banner, new, retiring, wealthy, and struggling.
Now, the companies will suggest that the rich writers, from the showrunners to the current tentpole scripters, have the luxury to strike. And it’s a fair argument, but I think best discussed between spouses and accountants. As well I can personally admit that crawling out of a shiny new Mercedes minutes before and after grabbing a picket and marching and chanting slogans for a few hours is not the best of looks.
These arguments are more misdirection than debate-worthy.
The studios and networks and streamers are the side that can afford a lockout, because, like warlords preparing for a siege, they have stockpiled content—ergo scripts and cash and finished product and libraries—along with the threat of changing programming to inexpensive reality-type stuff that doesn’t require the talents of writers. This, despite that most reality shows (spoilers ahead) are written by writers who are not covered under the banner of the guild.
I will give the companies this one good excuse. They are nearly all publicly held entities governed by boards and responsible to their stockholders to show profit. Pro tip. Without for-profit endeavors there’d be no work for writers, let alone the leagues of others who’d be unemployed.
Profits are good. Greed is not.
Using history as a guide, it’s not as if the WGA or any of the other guilds have asked for actual profit-sharing. That would require the companies to open their books to the scrutiny of bean-counters. No. The WGA asks for percentages of percentages.
For example, some ways back, my collectively bargained cut of a movie DVD was something like five cents. A nickel. Not a literal penny more, no matter what the disc retailed for. Mind you, it’s a big world. USA built entertainment exports well. Take it from me, those nickels add up, and I’m grateful for every single one, not to mention all those other writers who fought hard for it.
Like I said. It’s the same old same, been there done that kind of dogfight. That is but for this singular, horror of an issue—Artificial intelligence.
The studios want to utilize it in all its potential. Same for the writers, only because most of us love the actual craft of writing, the use of AI would be largely to enhance the process and product instead of using it as a crutch or a ghost writer.
The companies would like to use AI to eliminate writers. Forever.
I’ve heard so many jokes and one-liners, both in print and out of the mouths of producers and executives. They all go something like, “Now, if we could only get rid of those pesky writers, making mass entertainment would be easy.” It used to be good for a laugh or two, in that we all knew that was an impossibility. Without human imagination and those calling themselves writers who were willing to put those ideas into an organized fashion—let’s call that story—there would be no such thing as movies or TV shows. So, the companies and their executives had to put up with us, our questions, our endless variety of work ethics, and even more annoyingly, our opinions.
AI threatens nearly all of that—especially nowadays when so much of what is fobbed off as entertainment is just regurgitation of what was before. So, instead of writers being hired to breathe new life into tired and overused tropes, they can simply ask an algorithm to put a new coat of paint on it. We all know algorithms work cheap and don’t complain. At least not yet.
Next, they will pitch overboard the actors in lieu of stars that will never get old or that can be remade with a simple command. Directors will follow, with AI being able to spin out visuals, once it memorizes nearly every inch of motion picture and filmic art ever produced.
What about producers, you ask? I’m not sure AI can replace them. My guess is not even Artificial Intelligence can explain what the hell so many of them actual do.
Scarier still, as old as I am, I might yet be alive to see it come to be. It feels like, as I’m writing this, technology is racing ahead of me, trying to cut me off at the pass.
I’d very much like to keep the human aspect of my entertainment as something made for humans by humans. As a species, it’s hard to imagine we’d fall complete victims to something akin to a sophisticated magic trick.
My guess—or more sincerely, my prayer—is that the Writer’s Guild, powered by this present strike by writers, finds a way to slow the progress of AI’s influence in Hollywood, keeping the human process of invention to production to presentation somewhat intact.
As well, all those nickels continuing to roll in for me and you and generations to come.
*Feature Photo: Doug picketing 2008 WGA strike (credit: the way-back machine).