By Tauseef Parkar
After a 146-day standoff, the writers' strike finally came to an end. On September 24, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the body representing Hollywood's writers, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the association of the industry's leading studios and producers, announced their agreement. The strike officially concluded when the WGA ratified its contract with the AMPTP. The Writers Guild of America reported that 99% of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) members voted in favour of the contract, with 8,435 members saying "yes" and only 90 voting "no", according to the union's announcement on 9TH October 2023. This new contract will be effective from Sept. 25, 2023, to May 1, 2026.
Art finds itself in uncharted waters in an era punctuated by technological innovations and shifting socio-economic terrains. The recent strikes by writers and actors unearth more profound questions about the space of art in this digital age. One pressing concern is the role of AI in the arts. As screenwriters grapple with the prospect of AI scripts and actors facing potential replacement by 3D mapping and CGI, it is clear that technology is not merely complementing art but is shaping its very nature. With platforms now showcasing AI-generated podcasts and eerily accurate imitations of public figures, the conundrum stands: Can AI truly replace human creativity?
Erosion of Earnings in the Streaming Age
On March 14, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) published a report titled "Writers Are Not Keeping Up." The central focus was on how the emergence and dominance of streaming platforms have adversely affected writers' earnings. The report highlights a concerning trend in writers' compensation. Despite a marked increase in series budgets in the past decade, the average pay of writers and producers has declined. Disturbingly, a vast majority of staff writers (98%) are now earning just the Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) rate. The report also emphasised other disparities. For instance, comedy-variety writers on streaming platforms were not given the basic MBA protections like their episodic series counterparts despite working for the same streaming companies. On the film front, there has been a concerning 14% reduction in screenwriters' pay over the past five years when adjusted for inflation.
A Triumph for the Writers
In response to these glaring issues, The WGA effectively secured several of its stipulated goals, such as stricter rules on AI use, mandated minimum staffing, bonuses tied to streaming viewership, data transparency, increased contributions to health and pension plans, and a rise in streaming residuals, among other benefits. Additionally, they negotiated a 5% pay raise for this year, with subsequent increases of 4% in 2024 and 3.5% in 2025.
The WGA's provisions on artificial intelligence (AI) are particularly noteworthy. The guidelines permit the application of generative AI tools by writers or producers but underscore that such AI must not compromise writers' roles or remuneration. According to the tentative agreement, a writer has the discretion to employ AI in their work, given they have the company's approval and adherence to relevant company policies. However, the company cannot force writers to use specific AI tools like ChatGPT in their writing process.
The agreement also addresses concerns about using writers' works to train AI, especially after reports that companies like Meta were doing so. The WGA believes such practices might violate existing agreements or intellectual property laws.
SAG-AFTRA's Struggle: An Ongoing Battle
On the evening of October 11, the AMPTP announced a suspension in their ongoing negotiations with SAG-AFTRA, citing a considerable difference in their stands. In their statement, they commented, “It is clear that the gap between the AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA is too great, and conversations are no longer moving us in a productive direction.” A significant contention was SAG-AFTRA's proposal of a "viewership bonus." While rewarding performers of hit projects, this bonus would force studios to reveal streaming numbers - a disclosure they have consistently resisted. According to the studios, adopting this would mean an unsustainable additional expenditure of $800 million each year.
But compensation is not the only bone of contention. SAG-AFTRA countered in the early hours of October 12, expressing dismay that AMPTP's offer was even less favourable than their pre-strike proposal. They also claimed that AMPTP had inflated the costs of their proposal to the media by a staggering 60%. Further intensifying matters, SAG-AFTRA underscored that while AMPTP's offer seemingly respects performers' consent, it mandates performers to grant permission to use their digital likeness across entire film projects from day one of their employment. This issue has been particularly contentious since the strike's inception in July. Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union's key executive, highlighted an alarming proposal from the AMPTP: to scan and perpetually own the likeness of background actors without any further consent or compensation. Considering many of SAG-AFTRA's members depend on earnings from background roles or minor parts, such a proposal would severely impact their livelihoods.
Moreover, the lingering disagreement has broader economic implications. Hollywood strikes have already dealt a crippling $5 billion blow to California's economy, as reported by the Financial Times. If both parties don't hasten a mutually beneficial agreement, individual livelihoods will suffer, and the entertainment industry will continue haemorrhaging money, with the aftershocks felt across the state's economy. This dire situation underscores the urgency for reconciliation, with higher stakes than ever.
Treading the Uncertain Path of Technological Progress
As we delve deeper into the rapidly changing world of technology, the unpredictable intersection of AI and the arts becomes increasingly apparent. While tech advancements offer promises of innovation and streamlined processes, they cast doubts on the value of human creativity. Streaming platforms currently dominating the entertainment arena operate on a business model prioritising the continuous influx of new subscribers. Yet, as they grapple with fluctuating viewership, the long-term viability of such a model remains uncertain. A residual system based on viewership might seem like a progressive step, but in a digital ecosystem where viewer loyalty is fickle, its sustainability is questionable. Recent shifts in Hollywood underscore not just present-day pay parity problems but hint at a potentially turbulent future for the entertainment sector. In a landscape constantly reshaped by technology, the balance between artistry and algorithms will be a focal point of contention.