Hollywood Standstill

The Writers Guild of America strike entered a new, more serious phase on July 12, 2023, when SAG-AFTRA, the screen actors guild, joined in their labor dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

No one knows how this story will end, least of all the Hollywood scribes whose fate hangs in the balance. On Tuesday July 18, the Writers Guild of America — representing 11,500 screenwriters — entered the 12th week of a historic strike. 

More is at stake than living wages.

“Existential threat” is how some insiders describe the advent of generative artificial intelligence. At issue: Will smart machines be enlisted to write new episodes of hit series “in the style of” creatives who have painstakingly crafted original stories and characters? Can writers be called on to improve machine-generated rough drafts? Might AI be tasked with on-the-fly modifications once filming begins? 

A separate menace to writers’ livelihoods is the cut-throat business culture of Silicon Valley and the new economics of streaming, which no longer favors the traditional 13-to-24 episode format. Netflix, Prime, Apple, and other tech giants have gutted residuals and introduced six-episode contracts, hedging their bets to gauge audience appetites while leaving storytellers scrambling to feed their families. 

Ariel’s Bad Bargainz

The battle lines are drawn, and success may hinge on solidarity across Hollywood unions — something sorely lacking in the past, according to Miranda Banks, an authority on power and labor in the entertainment industry. 

“The issue at stake is not about creatives using AI. It’s about the studios using AI to upend creative work.”

But Banks, who chairs the LMU School of Film and Television program in film, television and media studies, thinks 2023 will be different. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, she described “a cohesion rarely witnessed in Hollywood labor fights.” 

In May, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the Director’s Guild of America (DGA), as well as the Teamsters and IATSE — the union that represents set builders, costume designers and post-production workers — signed a joint statement in solidarity with the WGA. 

Directors historically have hewed close to the studios, so Banks wasn’t surprised when DGA reached a deal in early June with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). But SAG-AFTRA has emerged as a key ally in the WGA’s fight. In June, 97.9 percent of the 160,000-strong actors’ guild voted to authorize a strike. On July 12, their negotiations with AMPTP collapsed.

The writers’ strike had already shut down 80 percent of the industry; when SAG-AFTRA joined the fray, it brought Hollywood to a standstill.

“If two major groups go out, it becomes a moment of introspection that forces all sorts of conversations,” Banks says.   

Like writers, actors face existential threats with the advent of AI. Last year, James Earl Jones, 91, famously sold Darth Vader’s voice in perpetuity. “He’s old, and he’s getting paid a lot,” Banks notes. “It’s not the same thing as a 20-year-old rising star giving up their voice.” That sounds more like Ariel’s unholy bargain with the sea witch in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Banks doesn’t think AI is inherently a bad thing. “If we as artists want to use certain technologies and play in these spaces, that’s great. The issue at stake is not about creatives using AI. It’s about the studios using AI to upend creative work.” 

For industry bosses who disagree, Banks has a modest proposal: 

“You want to have machines tell stories? Great. Don’t stop there. Why do we need studio heads? Why do we need executives?”

Pens Down

Michelle Amor Gillie, writer and professor of screenwriting at the LMU School of Film and Television, is optimistic the unions will prevail. 

The strike began just as she inked a deal with Lionsgate to bring Connie Briscoe’s 2002 novel “PG County” to the screen. Other projects in the pipeline include “The Honorable,” Gillie’s dramatic series for CBS, and a feature film with wrestler Booker T. Huffman. All came to a screeching halt in May. 

The writers’ strike had already shut down 80 percent of the industry; when SAG-AFTRA joined the fray, it brought Hollywood to a standstill.

“I know writers who are struggling,” says Gillie, who is active in the union, having co-chaired WGA-West’s Committee of Black Writers for eight years. She feels lucky to have a faculty appointment at LMU that keeps her head above water.

She encourages less financially secure guild members, as well as her screenwriting students and recent graduates, to find non-writing work, gain life experiences that might lead to fresh story ideas, and keep writing for themselves. “I tell them: That story you always wanted to write — use this time to do it.”

Above all, Gillie warns hungry writers not to cross the picket line — a decision with lifelong consequences. “I know a writer who crossed the lines back in 2007,” she says. “When he won an Oscar, we didn’t celebrate with him. He’s not even allowed in the [WGA] building.”

For Hollywood “hyphenates” like writer-producer-actor Gloria Calderón Kellett ’97, it can be a tricky balancing act to continue working with studios in her non-writing roles.

The award-winning playwright, stand-up comedian, and Emmy-winning sitcom creator currently has a handful of projects on pause, including “With Love” for Amazon and “The Horror of Dolores Roach” for Prime Video. Two new shows were greenlighted just before the strike began. Her income has flatlined, and she’s had to lay off her personal assistant. 

While she remains involved in studio meetings and publicity as a non-writing producer, Calderón Kellett has no reservations about picking sides.

“I’m 100 percent with the writers,” says the LMU alumna, who has previously taught screenwriting and theatre arts on campus.

Of Human Capital 

As for Hollywood’s infatuation with generative AI, Calderón Kellett has a fairly cynical take.

“Technology is supposed to solve a problem, and we don’t have a problem of too few writers, directors, or actors. We have an abundance of them,” she says. 

Nor does she buy the inevitability of streaming. “It has killed a lot of businesses,” she says, “and by the way, it doesn’t work. No one’s making money on this model.” 

Gillie sensed a problem from the start. “I remember when streaming began, and we were told: ‘Oh, there’s no residuals.’ I was like, ‘I’m sorry, what? You’re telling me that if 80 million people watch my show, there’s no way to monetize that?’ They’re spending $200 million to make one movie. Dave Chappelle got $60 million for three comedy shows. And then they don’t want to pay us?”

When studios and streaming services cry insolvency, Calderón Kellett shrugs. 

“I’m not interested in saving them money,” she says. “I’m interested in a world where people are making art, and where technology is used as an asset to make our lives easier. I think this writers’ strike is the beginning of many conversations we need to have as an industry.”

Diane Krieger is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who for many years was on the staff of USC Trojan Family Magazine and USC Chronicle. Her work also has appeared in publications at Tufts University, Johns Hopkins University and The Idaho Statesman, where she was the resident philharmonic and theater critic.