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Unprecedented Hollywood Double Strike: Writers and Actors Unite Amidst the AI and Streaming Revolution

As the TV and film writers’ strike passes 100 days. The WGA and SAG-AFTRA failed to reach an agreement on a new contract with television producers amidst the largest interruption to the American television and film industries since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the actor’s and writer’s strikes persist, new movies and TV shows have been put on hold. (Illustration by Ixele Akinmowo-Simon)

On May 2, after six weeks of failed negotiations, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), representing 11,500 writers of film, television and other entertainment forms, went on strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the collective bargaining group that represents major Hollywood studios and streamers such as Amazon, Apple, Disney, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Paramount, Sony and Warner Bros. 

Among the labor disputes between the two parties are contractual concerns, the film industry’s adaptation to inflation, equitable profit distribution, as well as proper residual payments and protection against Artificial Intelligence (AI) usage and influence in film and streaming. 

Following the first two months of the writer’s strike, on July 17, the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the entertainment industry’s largest union, which represents 160,000 actors and performers, joined the WGA on strike marking the first time in 63 years both the SAG-AFTRA and WGA unions have simultaneously been on strike 

The television and film writers’ strike has passed the 100-day mark and the WGA and television producers have yet to agree on a new contract. The WGA plans to remain “resolved and united” amidst the largest interruption to the American television and film industries since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The 2023 Writers Guild Strike rules prohibit members from meeting or negotiating with a struck company (a company represented by AMPTP) and prevent writing services and the sale of literary material. 

The rules also extend to mediums such as animation and fiction podcasts covered by the WGA and the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. Other literary representatives, such as lawyers and agents, are also prohibited from negotiating new, pending or future deals on projects for their WGA member clients. 

The strike has had monumental consequences for Hollywood and tangentially impacted  Howard students as well. “I want to be a director and  I know that comes with either writing my own scripts or bringing in somebody that’s writing the script,” Keith Stokes, an aspiring director and junior television and film student at Howard, said. 

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“I guess it makes me wary of how far this strike goes regarding my future,” Stokes continued. “What people don’t understand, especially if you’re not in the business, is nothing gets done without writing.” 

“You don’t have a show without writing so if they are not fairly compensated, what are you doing?”  Stokes asked rhetorically. 

Writers have voiced their concern regarding compensation for their work on streaming platforms like Netflix and Disney+. According to a March 14 bulletin post to its members by the Guild, the strike has been “driven in large part by the shift to streaming [as] writers are finding their work devalued in every part of the business.” 

The WGA said in a later statement that “the companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing.”

Chandler Pope, a television and film student who spent the summer interning for a streaming service in Los Angeles spoke about her experience with the streaming industry.

“I became familiar with the opposite side of the writer side, the studio side which includes streaming. It was really interesting to see since my job was development, specifically script coverage,” Pope continued.

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“Not a lot of scripts coming in because, obviously, no one was pitching anything,” Pope said.   

Pope also discussed the use of AI within the industry. “I learned a lot about how, with the rise of AI, it’s sort of becoming less of a priority for them to have original content, as sad as that sounds,” she said.

The use and regulation of AI in filmmaking have been a key issue in negotiations between the SAG  and the studios. The WGA is concerned that studios represented by AMPTP could forgo hiring human writers in favor of scripts produced by text generators like ChatGPT to cut costs. 

The SAG-AFTRA is concerned about AI’s potential to replace actors and utilize their digital likenesses without actors’ consent. Major Hollywood studios such as Disney have utilized and embraced AI while writers and actors consider the emerging technology as a threat to their profession. 

On Oct. 30, 2012, Disney purchased Lucasfilm, the production company founded by George Lucas, for an estimated $4.05 billion. According to Disney, the purchase provided the company the right to produce new Star Wars movies, television series and other products, and also provided access to one of the world’s biggest and most popular movie franchises. 

Disney has since used the likeness of deceased actors and actresses through AI technology, such as Peter Cushing, who played Grand Moff Tarkin in George Lucas’ original “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016), and Carrie Fisher to reprise her role as Princess Leia in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (2019). 

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More recently, in “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett,” Disney used a special digital deepfake technology to de-age then 70-year-old Mark Hamill to a younger Luke Skywalker. Even though AI has the potential to create content, the question of whether viewers will be interested in watching content produced by machines or humans looms large over the industry. 

“I think there has to be a way to protect writers because AI doesn’t have human experiences, it isn’t able to connect with viewers, the same way that the storytellers are,” Sydney Lewis, a sophomore television and film major, said. 

”I think staying ahead of the curve is important, but how will we do that?” Lewis asked.

Eric Azike, a strategic, legal and management communications major at Howard, commented on the strike’s impact on his experience and the difficulty of marketing without writers and actors. 

“I witnessed it firsthand when I was in Los Angeles for my internship…the strikes impacted my day-to-day experience over the summer because we had multiple schedules when I was interning,” Azike said.

“It was harder to market the show because, during the strike, the actors weren’t necessarily allowed to promote any work they were on,” he continued. 

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Some Howard faculty members, such as Clifton Jones, the director of the Cathy Hughes School of Communications, view technological advancement as a positive asset to creative pursuits. 

“I think our knee-jerk reaction right now is to say streaming, AI and all this technology is taking jobs, but I think classically, technology has always enhanced and let us create more and better,” Jones said. 

“I don’t think that we should shy away from AI but find out how we can harness the power of this technology to further our creative endeavors,” Jones said. 

The strike has led to various television projects being placed on halt. Popular shows such as “Abbott Elementary,” “House of the Dragon,” “The Last of Us,” “Euphoria,” “Severance,” and “Stranger Things,” among others have either been delayed or suspended production. 

The SAG-AFTRA’s strike is similar to the writer’s concern over worker compensation and AI.

“Artificial intelligence poses an existential threat to creative professions, and all actors and performers deserve contract language that protects them from having their identity and talent exploited without consent and pay,” the president of SAG-AFTRA, Fran Drescher communicated in a message to current members.  

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Since the strike began, SAG-AFTRA’s members have been prevented from filming any movie or television series, participating in any press or film premieres or promoting productions such as “Gladiator 2,” “Deadpool 3,” and “Dune: Part Two” along with other delayed films. 

The strike has also led to profound economic implications in California, where film and television production accounts for more than 700,000 jobs and nearly $70 billion per year in wages, according to the California Film Commission. 

Todd Holmes, an entertainment media management professor at Cal State Northridge, has estimated that the strike has cost California $3 billion

The 2007-2008 writer’s strike, which lasted for 100 days, led to 37,700 lost jobs and $2.1 billion in total losses to the California economy. The ramifications have carried on to other significant film and television production states such as New York and Georgia. 

The AMPTP and the WGA negotiators met on Aug. 11 and have been in communication since. And on Aug. 22, the AMPTP released details of its Aug. 11 proposal to the Screen Writers Guild. 

“Our priority is to end the strike so that valued members of the creative community can return to what they do best and to end the hardships that so many people and businesses that service the industry are experiencing,” Carol Lombardini, president of the AMPTP, said in the proposal.

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“We have come to the table with an offer that meets the priority concerns the writers have expressed [and] are committed to ending the strike and are hopeful that the WGA will work toward the same resolution,” Lombardini said. 

The new terms of the proposal feature the highest wage increase for writers in 35 years, residual increases and protections for writers in response to artificial intelligence. 

The WGA responded in a press release declaring “We accepted that invitation…in hopes that the companies were serious about getting the industry back to work, instead, on the 113th day of the strike…we were met with a lecture about how good their single and only counter offer was.”

“This wasn’t a meeting to make a deal [it] was a meeting to get us to cave, which is why, not 20 minutes after we left the meeting, the AMPTP released its summary of their proposals,” the WGA statement continued. 

September Hill, J’ai McCorkle, and recent Howard University graduate Andre Wilkes outside of Paramount Pictures Studios. (Photo by Andre Wilkes)

Andre Wilkes, a recent Howard University graduate and current Master’s student at the University of California’s Marshall School of Business, has witnessed the development of the strike and became an active participant while interning for the NAACP Hollywood Bureau.

“People do come together best over a common struggle. We shouldn’t have to come together struggling, but you do see the united effect on the ground,” Wilkes said.

“If not anywhere else it’s diverse on the picket line and thus far, some successful writers and actors [have supported strikers] by sending food trucks and smoothie trucks, and it feels communal on the ground.” 

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“The strikes are representative of the industry in their negative ways too because the strikes aren’t exactly equitably fighting for Black and Brown people,” Wilkes said, emphasizing the need for more Black and Brown inclusion regarding negotiations. 

“It’s very hard to become a member of the union, especially for Black people. I think the studios need to listen to the unions, but the unions need to listen to their members and non-members alike,” Wilkes continued.

Wilkes urges aspiring students at Howard University going into the entertainment industry to pay attention to the strike because the values and beliefs of the owners and decision-makers in the industry have been revealed throughout the strike. 

SAG-AFTRA entered its 40th day on strike earlier this week, and the union’s chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, told Variety the importance of Hollywood’s major studios and streaming services CEOs to step in and mediate a new agreement. 

As the WGA strike continues to develop, the organization said in a statement to its members, “We will see you all out on the picket lines and let the companies continue to see what labor power looks like.”

Copy edited by Alana Matthew

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