This is being written in the last throes of April, on the eve of what may be another industry-altering walkout by the WGA. But things are moving so swiftly, that by the time this runs, that walkout may have been averted, or actually underway — or further deferred as contract talks are extended.
Still, there seems to be a growing sense that some kind of stoppage may be inevitable. Our colleagues over at The Ankler have gone so far as to announce a dedicated newsletter, “Strikegeist,” now being made available to readers, indicating a certain confidence that there will be at least a minimum number of such dispatches as to make the branding worthwhile. The question is – how long a run will those particular missives have?
The writers have already, of course, almost unanimously authorized a strike, a move so completely expected that the AMPTP issued a statement ahead of the actual tallying, saying “a strike authorization vote has always been part of the WGA’s plan, announced before the parties even exchanged proposals. Its inevitable ratification should come as no surprise to anyone.”
True enough. In the aftermath of the vote came a statement from IATSE emphasizing that they “recognize and support our fellow entertainment workers in their mission to negotiate an agreement that addresses their issues from the AMPTP, an ensemble that includes media-mega corporations collectively worth trillions of dollars,” adding that the authorization came “in response to the AMPTP’s familiar resistance.”
What that resistance may lead to is well-covered in a very thorough overview from Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson, who notes that aside from the immediate effects on late-night television, which would shutter first, sans writing staffs, or “unless you work in the industry and can’t find work, you may not even realize a strike is happening — that is, unless it goes on for a very, very long time. Or, of course, unless other unions get involved.”
However, by “other unions,” she’s not referring to IATSE, supportive as they may be about the conceptual issues at stake, but rather the also soon-to-expire DGA and SAG contracts.
She notes many similar concerns, especially over streaming payments, which became even more of a force to be reckoned with since the last contract, thanks in part to historical variables like a pandemic and the ever-expanding spread of a computer-in-every-pocket in our networked — overly networked? — world.
And so, instead of simply dealing with those legacy studios who used to face hard dates for getting products into theaters, striking guilds now have Netflix, with not only an endless shelf of available content, but the ability to invest $2.5 billion dollars in creating new content in places like South Korea (home, ironically enough in these circumstances, of Squid Game), doubling its previous investment there. As the Financial Times said Netflix users spent “more time watching shows from South Korea than from any country outside the US.” Additionally, “other global streaming services such as Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus are also increasing investment in South Korea. The country’s exports of content including music, films and video games reached a record high of $12.4bn in 2021, according to the latest government data.”
All of which is well and good for the creative folk there. Who are also, of course, doing that creating far outside the purviews of the WGA, DGA, or SAG.
SAG also shares another big worry with the writers, regarding another quickly unfolding technological disruption that shouldn’t be underestimated — namely, AI. As Wilkinson observed, the actors union is “concerned about and prepared to fight for protections related to AI — particularly important for actors since their likenesses and voices, which AI is increasingly able to imitate, are their livelihoods.”
And AI will refine those imitations far beyond what’s already seen in “deep fakes,” which, unsurprisingly, have already established themselves in the not unrelated fields of pornography and politics.
In fact, the Republican National Committee has already begun taking us down that road, with what it gleefully announced as an “‘AI-generated look into the country’s possible future if Joe Biden is re-elected in 2024,” which MSNBCand others have observed “likely explains, in part, why the spot is so shoddy as a piece of messaging. But,” they add, “the clumsy execution masks something darker. This technology will become more sophisticated over time — and with that, the capacity to manipulate, confuse and misinform the public will grow too.”
Including, doubtless, the inevitable metastasizing misinformaton about who created what, who is owed residuals for which stories or performances, or even whose original work the deployed AI’s were “borrowing” from to begin with.
As a recent Indiewire column about the late entrance of AI issues into this year’s negotiations said, “AI is developing so quickly that by the time the WGA agrees on an interpretation, it will be obsolete.”
Obsolescence still won’t stop those contract expirations from arriving between this column and the next, however. So we’ll see you again on the yonder side of that gulf.
Mark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood and its contents and discontents in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”