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How to Destroy a Creative Industry (And How to Save It)


THE WGA/SAG STRIKE has brought into sharp relief the existential crisis of the writing and acting professions in today’s film and TV industry. What’s at stake is the very real possibility of a massive ecosystem collapse. The music industry—now a streaming and live-event oligopoly, in which most artists have no bargaining power and no chance to build enduring careers—offers a grim cautionary tale.

A positive resolution of the labor dispute cannot completely eliminate the danger. Without a major, long-term course correction, the writing profession might eventually be restricted to the following groups:

(1) The minority of writers who are already rich, either by being born into privilege or because they already achieved a high measure of success. Free from the pressure of making a living, these writers would be able to work on spec, and would generally be treated well: Hollywood respects money.

(2) A majority of young, hungry writers willing to work for low wages while holding other jobs. Most of these writers wouldn’t have a family or a mortgage and would never be able to afford either (at least not in Los Angeles or New York). Any writing employment would be a gig—unsafe, underpaid, and devoid of opportunities for advancement.

(3) Foreign residents without union representation, who would be paid below WGA minimum. US-based companies would operate through a local intermediary, skirting direct responsibility and bypassing the union deal.

(4) Writers willing to become glorified AI editors, who would get paid minimum fees to improve and “humanize” the output of a machine. There are big problems to resolve along the way to fully operational generative AI in film and TV, starting with copyright issues. Nevertheless, it’s clear that this is something the companies would like to pursue.

Every other writer would be forced to race to the bottom. In short, there would be no more “middle-class” professional, consistent with the macro-trends that decimated the American middle class in general.

A similar scenario applies to actors.

Of course, devaluing the writing and acting professions would have a negative effect on the quality of film and television. Unfortunately, quality itself is only a value to the extent that it can be monetized. For the Wall Street overlords, customers spending their money on a lower-quality, cheaper product would be a perfectly acceptable outcome.

When HBO became HBO Max, and then disappeared altogether from the label to leave us with just Max, many were baffled by the decision to marginalize such a prestigious brand. After all, HBO was virtually synonymous with quality television. The fact is, quality is expensive and time-consuming, it empowers creatives, it may be unevenly appreciated across different demographics, and it makes the crap look crappier when you put it in the same basket. Max heralded the strategic integration of what Warner Bros. Discovery’s CEO David Zaslav called a “lean in,” “male skew,” “appointment viewing” type of product and a “lean back,” “female skew,” “comfort viewing” kind. Other studios have recently expressed their desire to produce less-engaging shows, better suited to be kept on in the background while scrolling through a social media feed. If the telephone used to be the “second screen,” it seems that platforms are starting to accept a role reversal.

While studio moguls of lore were themselves showmen, with a basic pride in the quality of the product, we are now generations deep into a different reality, where top executives are minted in business and law school, and may rise through the jungle of infotainment, reality TV, and other lucrative but artless sectors. They may love glitz and celebrity, but they don’t have to love making films or television shows, anymore than Big Oil executives need to love refining oil. If the old moguls relied on their taste and their “golden gut,” the new breed of brand managers can firmly rely on stats, polls, and algorithms. In this light, it’s easy to understand why AI is such a big focal point of the strike. The technology can obviously already produce competent writing, music, artwork, and performances. The fact that the product will lack originality will not deter the masters of the industry as much as we would like.

In fact, originality has been systematically devalued for decades, while creative and financial resources have concentrated on sequels, remakes, and adaptations. Original content has been increasingly outsourced to foreign countries like South Korea, Israel, Sweden, or, more recently, Italy, strengthening the platforms’ international reach while providing low-cost variety for US audiences. Foreign industries learned quickly to manufacture content with just the right kind and amount of local flavor to suit this new model of cultural imperialism. On the domestic front, originality became the province of unproven filmmakers who couldn’t yet be entrusted with a valuable property. Those who showed talent and commercial instincts could then be pressed into the service of a brand before having a chance to create their own. The studios have no interest in letting the next George Lucas or James Cameron invent and control their own franchises: much better to recruit them as stewards and reanimators of existing ones, firmly controlled by the studios themselves.

You could track Hollywood’s systemic push to devalue originality through the escalating use of certain buzzwords. The ubiquitousness of the term “intellectual property,” which emphasizes and elevates ownership, defines the current state of the business.

“Content” is the other key word, which reduces everything from Hamlet to Power Slap to an undifferentiated morass. When everything is just content, what matters is owning the biggest container, and the ultimate dream is “the everything store”: Amazon selling pharmaceuticals, mortgages, and insurance along with socks, dishwashers, and movies.

“Content,” in turn, spawned “content creator,” a label that can cover any serious artist as well as anyone who posts fart videos on TikTok. Under the cover of fake democratization, both groups must compete for attention on the same platforms, with the second likely to fare much better.

The proliferation of these terms was part and parcel of the overall drift toward a new normal, in which movies will be routinely based not just on other movies or on comic books but on absolutely anything that is a brand, from Play-Doh to Skittles. Barbie (2023) was great because it was something new, but now be ready for a slew of sequels and spin-offs, with Mattel trying to build yet another “cinematic universe” around all its toys.

The rise of AI now allows us to foresee an even darker future: originality getting phased out altogether. Megacorporations will be able to throw the entire cultural output of the human race into the AI grinder and churn out an endless stream of sausage. It will be cultural appropriation on a civilization-wide scale, disenfranchising all human creativity to benefit a corporate elite.

Sure, this sounds dystopian—but it has the ruthless logic of predatory late-stage capitalism. Why bother with pesky human artists if you can replace them with unpaid, compliant machines that can steal from any text, replicate any actor, living or dead, and turn War and Peace into Vanderpump Rules at the push of a button? Why take chances on any unproven, original work if you can instantly generate Transformers: The Musical, CSI: Mars, or M3GAN vs. Chucky, and add whatever addictive flavoring might be needed to hook the customer? In a food desert, chicken nuggets rule: the nugget barons don’t need to sell anything different, and they just want to sell more.

To be fair, there are plenty of executives in the industry who understand creativity. They genuinely love cinema, and they love working with writers. Yet there is also an ingrained view that creativity can be a process strictly directed from the top, with management deciding what should be created and creators following orders. Those espousing this view may not be many, but they tend to occupy positions of power. AI is the tool of their dreams—and everyone else’s nightmares.

On August 11, the companies made their first offer to the WGA since the strike began. It included the stipulation that AI-generated material will not be considered “literary material,” meaning that any writer working on it would be credited and compensated as the creator (and not at the lower rate for rewrites or adaptations). This was consistent with a recent court decision establishing that the product of generative AI isn’t copyrightable. However, as long as the companies could still train AI with screenplays written by humans, and still have human writers work on AI-generated material, the fundamental problem remains. The companies would actually have a system to launder intellectual properties through a human intermediary, in order to secure copyright. The AI issue requires a far clearer commitment to protect artists. Consumers should also be able to know what kind of labor went into a show (perhaps with a kind of “certified human” label), not unlike the notion that they should be able to know what’s in the food they eat. A full regulatory framework may need intervention from the government, whose record of standing up to Big Tech isn’t exactly encouraging.

Yet there is good news: people are mad. Awareness of the dangers we are facing is spreading and deepening. The destruction of creativity will not happen without a fight.

The industry titans didn’t see it coming. It is perhaps inevitable that when privilege reaches a certain level, the lives of the privileged are so disconnected from ordinary people that they lose the ability to comprehend the pain of financial hardship, and the kind of determination it generates. When Louis XVI first learned of trouble at the Bastille, he asked the Duke de La Rochefoucauld whether it was a riot—prompting the Duke’s famous reply: “Non, sire. C’est une révolution.”

Drunk on their own Kool-Aid, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP, the umbrella organization of the platforms and studios) thought that this was the right time to try to break a union or two. Instead, they ended up strengthening solidarity between them and supercharging an entire labor movement (well, not the DGA—but I suspect many members came to regret their guild’s hasty deal).

This uprising of Hollywood labor is not a revolution—but it is a turning point. A whole generation of writers and actors will be shaped—politically, morally, aesthetically—by the experience. You will see it in future negotiations. You will see it in the films, on the talk shows, on social media, at any gathering of people connected to the industry.

The balance of power has already shifted in profound ways. I entered the industry at a time when people were afraid to be heard in public criticizing the uber-powerful—the likes of Mike Ovitz, Les Moonves, or Harvey Weinstein. Blacklisting was real. The winds have changed: today, no one is afraid to call out a mogul. On the contrary, it was the “sources close to the AMPTP” who had to issue their threats anonymously. If the executive who crowed about putting writers out of their homes is ever named, that’ll be a tough apology tour.

Despite the harsh economic reality, this is real change. Transformative moments always start with a new understanding of the world. Talk to the Hollywood workers on strike and you will hear it loud and clear: untrammeled greed has become contemptible. Private jet owners are no longer cool. Retreats for billionaires are gross. CEOs getting paid hundreds of times more than their average employee represent a political, economic, and moral failure. “Growth” that requires impoverishing labor is not growth—it’s a predatory transfer of wealth to the top.

Ultimately, writers and actors are asserting their true worth in a system that has historically taken advantage of them.

In the early days of the strike, Zaslav stated that the labor dispute would eventually be resolved by “love for working.” His words lent themselves to satire, but they also pointed to something profound. Most people do not love their jobs. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would love packing boxes at a robotic pace in an Amazon warehouse, cleaning hotel toilets for poverty wages, driving a UPS truck in sweltering heat without AC, or screening hundreds of hours of traumatizing internet content (all jobs involved in other recent or current labor disputes).

Writers and actors are among a minority of people who love their jobs with a passion. They simply have to: learning the craft takes years during which employment is unstable, compensation is modest, and rejection is constant. The work itself requires curiosity, empathy, discipline, and a kind of courage—none of which can be supplied without loving it.

But here’s the rub: while loving what you do for a living makes you lucky, it also makes you vulnerable to an insidious kind of exploitation. No one’s going to pack those Amazon boxes or drive that UPS truck “on spec.” Writers and actors, on the other hand, have traditionally been expected to perform enormous amounts of free work. When writers pursue an assignment, they must study the material, develop a take, and pitch it up the ladder for weeks and months, taking notes along the way, typically competing with other writers. The one who eventually gets the job might then be pressured to turn in several more drafts than the contract calls for. Payment will often be late, sometimes by months. Actors, of course, must go through the grueling, soul-crushing audition process, now even harder with self-taping (which has resulted in longer scenes, shorter deadlines, and extra costs for equipment).

The system has always been ripe for abuse, and in the last decade, both groups have seen a steady erosion of income. Despite the production boom of “peak television,” more and more writers and actors have been forced to cut basic expenses, take on side hustles, put off medical care, or move out of the cities where the industry is based. Just like in other industries, lower wages for the rank and file are accompanied by stupendous bonuses for upper management—less bread for the many, more caviar for the few. But unlike other industries, this one could count on the fact that the workers still love the work, and every new generation brings a fresh supply of dreamers. I’ve heard it described as a classic abusive relationship.

Ironically, this couldn’t be more at odds with the ethos of most films and TV shows. Netflix, which single-handedly broke the previous and more sustainable business model, is the home of the hugely successful Squid Game (2021– ), Money Heist (2017–21), and Lupin (2021– )—all of which can be seen as indictments of inequality and greed. But you wouldn’t know it from the company’s relationship with labor. The industry at large skews Democratic, proclaims egalitarian values, and endlessly celebrates itself for supplying the world with great entertainment and storytelling. Yet the entertainers and storytellers have been forced to pound the sidewalk for fair pay. In an act so fantastically petty that it would make any movie villain proud, someone at Universal even decided to trim the trees that gave the picketers some shade, during a record-breaking heat wave.

The industry has been tremendously efficient in leveraging love for the work against the worker in order to depress wages, reduce benefits, and eliminate job security. The strikes catalyzed a collective resolve to invert that trend. Writers and actors do love the work: what they proved is that they love it enough to fight for it to remain a viable profession.

An entertainment industry dominated by a handful of megacorps, with a gig-economy model of employment, obscene income gaps between the top earners and everyone else, and human creativity sacrificed to an artificial simulacrum, is a very real danger. We’ve been heading that way at full speed, with no brakes.

But another version of the future has been visible from the picket lines—one where a collaborative medium fosters community, fairness is a shared value, transparency isn’t a controversial concept, everybody is rewarded for success, human creativity is protected and nurtured, and companies thrive when they treat their workers better, not worse.

This future isn’t a given. It may not even be likely. But it’s the only one worth fighting for.

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Alessandro Camon is a writer and producer, currently based in Los Angeles.

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Featured image: Vasily Kandinsky. Painting with Green Center, 1913. Art Institute of Chicago, Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection. artic.edu, CC0. Accessed August 31, 2023.



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