More than 11,000 writers and 160,000 performers have joined forces in arguably the biggest Hollywood strike ever — or at least since 1960, the last time writers and performers went on strike together. Why are they doing it and what does it mean for content creators?
A Quick Breakdown Of The Hollywood Strike
What started as a "writer's strike" morphed into something much larger last week when 160,000 additional creatives joined in. How, exactly? Well, SAG-AFTRA (which stands for Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television Radio Artists) announced that all of its members would be joining the WGA (Writers Guild of America) in its strike against Hollywood studios (or more specifically, the union that represents them, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers).
Together, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA unions represent a large majority of the people responsible for bringing you much of the TV and film content you love (from the United States, at least). That even includes things like late night TV and awards shows, which feature writers for pretty much everything except acceptance speeches.
It all started with the WGA writers, who started striking in May. They claimed studios were paying them less money for more work, cutting their residual payments, and refusing to guarantee protections against generative AI work. The strike wasn't necessarily a huge surprise.
Many of the previous agreements between the WGA and studios took place before video streaming rose to prominence. Writers claim executives are capitalizing on streaming business models and old agreements to undermine fair wages.
Actors and other performers share similar concerns, which is why SAF-AFTRA agreed to step in and also strike. It's important to note that these two unions are not necessarily in the "same" strike, in that they both have representatives responsible for addressing concerns with studios. It's feasible that one stops striking without the other. However, given how their grievances are intertwined, it's probably fine to just think of them as striking together. Plus, plenty of people are members of both unions.
What Role Does AI Have In This?
A big one. We see unions go on strike in order to demand better working conditions or fair wages with some regularity (the WGA last went on strike in 2007-2008). However, the entertainment industry is at a major crossroads with generative AI.
Now, writers and performers aren't just looking to address concerns in economic models and workplace environments — they're looking for protections against a potentially disruptive, legally dubious, and perhaps unethical new technology.
While many industries and sectors are looking to use advancements in AI to do things like increase their own workflow and handle menial tasks, the creative industries are essentially staring at a massive plagiarism monster. Right now, generative AI gets trained on a lot of different existing texts, images, videos, and audio samples. A lot of it is copyrighted. So when you ask a generative AI platform to give you a short story in the style of a certain author, you're almost certainly getting back a mishmash of essentially stolen material.
It is, of course, more complicated and nuanced than that. The concept of human authorship and AI is going to be a huge legal battle, probably over the next several decades. But right now, writers are largely concerned studios are going to use generative AI to write projects and replace their roles, either partially or in their entirety.
Beyond yielding likely really boring content, such a move would completely undermine the creative role of writers, their rights to their own content, and the very real likelihood that generative AI as it exists now is ethically questionable at best.
Actors have similar concerns with their name, image, and likeness. There's a serious fear that studios could simply map their bodies, facial features, and voices to create seemingly endless content. Again, while probably creating a subpar experience for viewers, the practice could jeopardize how performers control their own image. Even down to background actors: image replacing background performers with AI-generated faces and bodies trained on the image and likeness of real humans. Yikes.
And for their parts, studios have said that content will "stay human," but refused to actually put that in writing or agree to steps to regulate the use of AI in content.
How Does The Hollywood Strike Affect Regular Consumers?
You've probably noticed that you haven't seen any new episodes of TV shows with quick turnarounds, like your favorite late night programs. But you're still seeing new seasons and shows and new movies hit theaters. That's because many of those shows and movies have been ready to go long before the Hollywood strike took place.
But a year from now when everything that was already done is out? That's a different story entirely.
We're going to see a drought in new content coming out of America, while shows produced internationally may still continue on. That is, if international unions don't also strike in solidarity with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA.
Also more immediately, we'll see a lot of writers and performers pull out of promotional appearances, like this year's Comic-Con. We could also see these strikes galvanize other unions on the verge of striking, like the Teamsters union, which could lead to massive delays from companies like UPS.
What Does This Mean For Content Creators?
The Hollywood strike is a big deal because it will have a ripple effect into all kinds of content creation. Many creators with their own projects are members of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA.
A strike doesn't mean they're not allowed to work at all — it just means they're not allowed to work on most major productions. So we could see a lot more small-budget, independently financed content hitting the Internet soon. We'll also likely see a lot of productions utilize their existing social media and YouTube channels to either repurpose old content in new ways or create new, union-friendly offshoots (like podcasts).
We're also likely to see a decent shift in where people consume content as the pipeline of new material dries up. There will obviously still be plenty of replay value in catalog content, but things like independently produced videos, livestreams, e-sports competitions, and longer social media content should certainly see a boost.
We doubt the boost to alternative entertainment platforms will be as strong as it was during the pandemic, but we definitely expect to see an uptick in online consumption outside of major productions and streaming platforms.
If you're a content creator who relies on a steady supply of union work to make a living (like the majority of WGA and SAG-AFTRA members), several organizations have promised to step up and aid in providing support, financial and otherwise. The Entertainment Community Fund, The Union Solidarity Coalition, and The Snacklist (a particularly precious name if you're familiar with the reference) are all organizations that exist to help during the work stoppage.