One hundred and 19 days later, Hollywood is finally, mercifully back in business today. But everyone – artists and audiences – should be prepared for an entertainment landscape that will look dramatically different.
Certainly, movie stars will immediately be back on the red carpets to promote their wares. Theatres will be able to finally screen the blockbusters they have been too many times denied. And for those home viewers – someone, somewhere, I guess? – complaining that there’s nothing new to watch, well, get ready to be pacified.
But in the not-too-long run, everyone is in for a shakeup. Sooner than we would like to think, there will be fewer shows to binge, fewer blockbuster-sized movies to obsess over, and fewer jobs for everyone, both in the United States and Canada.
While the details of the tentative deal reached late Wednesday between SAG-AFTRA, the union representing more than 160,000 U.S. performers, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) won’t be known for a few days, word is that workers earned significant wage and health benefits. And they will gain some measure of protection against artificial intelligence, the current boogeyman haunting just about every industry, including the one you’re engaging with right now.
No doubt it was a hard, brutal slog of a fight for workers, with the studio chiefs often all too eager to play the cartoon villains. And now that the unrest is over, it’s time for the real struggle to begin.
Not to play the hard-edged cynic – though the past several months have made it particularly, distressingly easy – but the entertainment industry was heading to an inflection point long before SAG-AFTRA’s contract was nearing its expiration date. The advent of streaming – that thirsty pursuit for more and more “content” to achieve increasingly impossible dreams of subscriber growth and market dominance – was a revolution in the production and distribution of film and television that the sector has only begun to truly reckon with.
Generations-old business models – in which a film was released to theatres, subsequently earning money in ancillary home-entertainment markets that led all the way down to the free-TV window – were upended almost overnight.
And it wasn’t just the David Zaslavs and Bob Igers of the world who were hoarding the spoils of the streaming wars: Both story-tellers and story-sellers were eager to bury any second thoughts about dubious business models in order to keep the firehose of content flowing freely. Eventually, someone in charge would notice people were drowning in cash, and decide to turn off the spigot.
At last week’s American Film Market in Santa Monica, Calif. – as pessimistic a staging ground as any industry gathering in recent memory – noted industry attorney and executive producer Jere R. Hausfater summed things up best when he told a crowd, “Last year, there were 600 new scripted series available. There’s far too much content. There’s going to be a shakeout.”
It was only a case of bad (or perhaps, in the long run, good?) timing that the two major strikes happened when they did, with the Writers Guild of America’s action forcing everyone to take stock of the festering conditions that birthed your favourite streaming series, and then SAG-AFTRA making sure that everyone also knew just where AI might take us in the suddenly-extremely-very-soon future.
There’s an argument to be made that, in its targeting of next-gen tech as a Sauron-level kind of evil AI, SAG-AFTRA might leave Hollywood open to being swallowed by inevitable innovation rather than become an active partner with it. But that’s a nightmare for another time. Like, say, two weeks from now, when ChatGPT reaches singularity or some such.
Either way, Hollywood’s workers are now left to re-enter a market drastically less sunny than the one they were forced out of by avaricious studio heads. The excitement of the next few weeks and months – in which producers scramble to restart stalled productions, sound stages become choked with overlapping productions, and writers’ rooms begin to flood the phone lines of local restaurants – will, sadly but realistically, start to give way to a more confounding reality of cost-cutting and “right-sizing.”
Just a few hours before the SAG-AFTRA deal was reached, Disney announced that it would slash expenses by US$2-billion, after already reducing US$5.5-billion, in order to rebuild its business in the midst of a rapidly shifting media landscape. The day before that, Warner Bros. Discovery announced a third-quarter net loss of US$417-million. And just a few days before that, Paramount reported third-quarter streaming losses of US$238-million, and gave no timeline on when it anticipates that line of business might actually turn a profit.
These are the leaders of the industry, not fly-by-night sideshows.
Make no mistake: the end of both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes represent dearly welcome news, and both deals were far too long in coming. But instead of popping the Champagne, pack all that ice in a towel and affix it to your head, because the real headaches haven’t even begun.