The Writers Guild of America (WGA) and its 11,500 members went on strike this week. The industry-wide strike is the first in 15 years, bringing Hollywood production on many new projects to a halt.
According to the WGA and other industry experts, the entertainment industry is currently undergoing a major transformation with the rise of streaming services and massive changes in consumer viewing habits, which is adversely affecting writers and their livelihoods.
The labour union, which represents creators who write scripted series, features, news programs and other content, pointed out that despite massive revenues for streamers worldwide, writers are not receiving their fair share of profits from the booming streaming industry and they want to see writers’ wages, residuals and health care increased accordingly.
However, some studios and producers are hesitant to give in to the WGA’s demands, citing the financial implications of increasing their pay and benefits as just too costly.
The wide gulf between the two sides could lead to a prolonged standoff between writers and industry executives with the potential for creating long-term damage to the entertainment industry as series and projects go dark.
Opponents of the strike cite the last strike of writers in 2007, which lasted 100 days and cost the Hollywood entertainment industry and Los Angeles economy an estimated $2bn.
US media and Hollywood insiders noted the most immediate effects of the strike.
“Now that the strike has been called, industry insiders are scrambling to shut down shows – late-night comedy programs, including ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and daytime talk shows are the first to feel the hit,” reported Variety, a top Hollywood trade publication, adding that studios are initiating contingency plans to keep film production rolling on projects with completed scripts.
The Los Angeles Times pointed out that a long strike could have a ripple effect on not only film and television production but also the Southern California economy.
“The impact is also likely to be felt in Georgia, New York, New Mexico and other production hubs nationwide. Without writers, scripted television shows will struggle to continue filming and live late-night shows will stop immediately,” the biggest newspaper on US West Coast noted.
However, writers say the time has come to redress the inequities of the current system.
“Some studio and streamer executives say they need to cut costs to ensure profitability,” Bob Underwood, a member of the WGA’s Foreign Task Force, told Xinhua.
“But writers have difficulty believing they need to make so little when some of the same executives who talk about the need to contain costs are making sure that they are paid tens or even hundreds of millions per year,” he asserted.
Triple-threat Writer-Producer-Director Jeff Most, best known for “The Crow” film series, concurred and pointed out that entertainment company executives – particularly streamers – have taken advantage of the massive revenues coming in to be paid some of the highest salaries in history, while writers’ incomes have continued to erode.
“Far fewer feature film scripts are being bought now and the trend is for smaller TV ‘writers rooms’ with fewer writers per series and very low residuals. None of those trends is good for the writers,” Most told Xinhua.
In decades past, he explained, scriptwriters could earn a healthy living in TV working on series that aired 13 to 22 episodes per season. But, with the advent of streamers, orders have dropped to only 8 episodes per season, yet their writers might be “held” off the market by the series producers for as long as six months with no work and no pay.
Most also contended that rather than provide everyone with an equal share of the bountiful revenues the streamers are generating off subscriptions, streamers seem to be leaning into big ticket “eye candy” to enable them to compete with feature films, such as spectacular locations, off-the-chart production values, and of course big name A-List Hollywood talent.
“All that brings in very high revenues for the streamers and an appreciably enhanced viewing experience for television consumers than ever before – but none of that has been reflected in what the writers earn,” Most noted, adding that profits need to be more fairly divided and residuals need to be increased.
“Writers are the backbone of everything we do,” Most explained. “They are the architects who create the plans for the whole structure the entire industry is built on.”
Another contentious issue behind the WGA strike is artificial intelligence (AI) programs.
The WGA wants Hollywood’s top studios and producers to regulate the use of AI on their creative projects – specifically demanding that AI cannot write or rewrite literary material, be used as source material or use the WGA’s Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) covered material to train AI.
However, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) moved swiftly to reject that proposal, offering only annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology instead.
The trade association represents more than 350 American television and film production companies in collective bargaining negotiations with entertainment industry trade unions including the WGA.
Creative AI programs like ChatGPT can now use massive data analysis and machine learning to simulate human-like literary works and visual arts. That has raised questions about whether media corporations will scale back on humans to use AI to write everything from advertising copy to TV shows to blockbuster movies.
“I don’t think AI will be a threat to screenwriters anytime soon,” contended WGA’s Underwood.
“But if and when AI does become advanced enough that it can replace the best human screenwriters, it will also be advanced enough to replace the most expensive human executives,” he quipped, hoping to make the point that AI should not be used only to increase profits for a handful of the world’s wealthiest people regardless of how much harm it causes to others.