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How The Actors’ and Writers’ Strikes Saved Hollywood

by Viren Abroal( '27)

On April 17, 2023, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) voted to strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents many of the major film and television studios in the United States. It is evident that the motive behind 97.85% of the Writers’ Guild voting to strike ties back to the controversial issue of Artificial Intelligence.

A.I., though rapidly accelerating in quality, is a relatively new concept for many Americans. While there are many conflicting opinions regarding the morals of A.I., the most active discourse recently has taken place in the U.S. film industry.  

When information began to circulate that major Hollywood executives had been discussing the creation of film and television screenplays using artificial intelligence, reactions among the general public were mixed. However, when studios started suggesting the usage of WGA screenplays by producers t o train their hypothetical artificial screenwriters, it became clear how the Writers’ Guild would be affected.

With the knowledge that screenwriting jobs would soon be at risk, an overwhelming majority of the Writers’ Guild of America voted to enact what would become a 148-day-long strike. Many of the 11,500 unionized screenwriters reasoned their refusal to comply with AMPTP’s suggestions with the unjust morals they saw within their plans.

“I think that from the perspective of a writer, we just want to make sure that we’re all on the same page — that AI is going to be used as a tool for everyone, not as a replacement,” WGA writer Mr. Damon Lindelof said, in an interview with Deadline Hollywood

But writers were not the only victims of the major Hollywood studios’ A.I. proposals.

“...companies will tell background performers, 'If you don't give us the consent we demand, we won't hire you and we'll replace you with someone else,'" SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Mr. Duncan Crabtree-Ireland told Reuters

The introduction to the possibility of replacing the likeness of actors using artificial intelligence may have been enticing to the studio executives who were known to have been discussing the topic, but many actors, including a large number of well-known established actors, found these plans to be somewhat dystopian. As a result, the 160,000 unionized actors in SAG-AFTRA decided to join the Writers’ Guild and strike against AMPTP. During some rallies, many actors directly named the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Mr. Robert Iger.

“We’ve got a message for Mr. Iger: I know, sir, that you look at things through a different lens. We don’t expect you to understand who we are. But we ask you to hear us, and beyond that listen to us when we tell you we will not be having our jobs taken away and given to robots. We will not have you take away our right to work and earn a decent living,” declared SAG-AFTRA unionized actor and star of AMC’s Breaking Bad Mr. Bryan Cranston, speaking at the “Rock the City for a Fair Contract” rally.

Before these strikes, both actors and screenwriters had very similar struggles, especially surrounding the rise in popularity of online subscription streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+. The revenue generated from the millions of accounts on each of these platforms had no path to the writers of the media or the actors on screen, and the money would instead funnel back into the company itself. Additionally, the artificial intelligence controversy heavily affected both of these industries. However, the most influential similarity between the groups was the effect that their strikes were to have on the industry.

For months, the production of all narrative television and films were put on hold, pushing back release dates of popular movies and delaying the production of many popular shows watched by students at SBHS. Talk shows, especially those involving celebrity actors promoting their own media, also paused production since the shows required written jokes, and many actors were unable to promote their media upon its release as a condition of the SAG-AFTRA strike. This strike affected many more than just producers. The pause in production resulted in around two million Americans finding themselves out of work after being mainly employed in the film industry.

For many weeks, the strike raged on and rallies continued. Both WGA and SAG-AFTRA members acknowledged the other group’s strike and supported their decisions, given that the unions were in similar positions. Many members of the AMPTP stayed silent during this time, and those who spoke out brought about lots of concern. During the strikes, an anonymous studio executive was recorded insisting that AMPTP was to allow the strike to continue until the unionized writers and actors lost their homes during the drought of work.

On Sunday, September 24, 2023, the Writers’ Guild made a tentative agreement with AMPTP, allowing the strike to end three days later. The writers reached a deal that allowed for a higher pay, additional pay from the revenue of streaming services, and close to complete restriction in terms of artificial intelligence influenced work and the use of W.G.A. screenplays to train artificial intelligence. These guidelines gave SAG-AFTRA representatives a clear path to reach an agreement with AMPTP, which occurred on Wednesday, October 8, 2023. The actors’ strike ended on Friday, November 10, 2023. Their strike was 118 days long, which is recorded as the longest SAG-AFTRA strike in history. W.G.A.’s strike was recorded to be 148 days long, exceeding that of SAG-AFTRA by 30 days.

The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes in Hollywood had a major influence, inspiring some Walt Disney animators as well as Marvel Studios visual effects artists to unionize and protest for a lighter workload, a criticism often noted about the studios.

However, the influence of these strikes exceeded that of other smaller-scale protests in the film industry. It was an essential moment in the industry for film producers as well as those associated with AMPTP to be uncovered plotting an A.I.-generated film industry future, not because it was outlandish, but because it had a sliver of possibility. Artificial intelligence has been improving at a significantly fast rate in recent years, and some are already falling victim to the misinformation that is spread by the resource. Although it sounds futuristic to be able to recreate one’s likeness without having them there at all, it is possible that artificial intelligence could make AMPTP’s dream possible in the future. 

However, many esteemed filmmakers and others in the industry have expressed concerns surrounding the loss of artistic value when it comes to completely A.I.-generated content. The conflict that sparked these strikes was beyond fueled by a loss of jobs, more so being pushed by the fight for real, human art rather than a lifeless content machine.

AMPTP took months to even consider reaching an agreement, instead deciding to wait out the days until artificial intelligence would have the capabilities to create the media that would regenerate the companies’ money, restoring what was lost in the strikes. However, these plans were discussed very early, and artificial intelligence was overestimated by many members of the AMPTP. Many companies associated with AMPTP lost a significant amount of money while waiting for the strikes to end. The producers’ artificial-intelligence-fueled vision could have been a reality had it not been for the strikes.

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This divisive but nevertheless fascinating issue will be with us forever. As they used to say: Stay tuned!

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