09 Aug 2023 Scott Shepard: Hollywood Writers Have Scripted Their Own Redundancy
For the first time since 1960, when Ronald Reagan was still president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, Hollywood’s writers and actors have gone on strike at the same time. This strike is technically larger than that one, since it involves not only SAG, but AFTRA, the television actors’ union, which in the ‘60s was a separate shop but has since merged with SAG.
The actors’ side of the strike is just funny. Rachel Zegler, 22, who is playing Snow White in a movie that wrote out the dwarves and might be so bad that it won’t ever be released, has declared – with that full grasp of reality and context that generally characterize both 22-year-olds and Hollywood players – that “[i]f I’m going to stand there 18 hours in the dress of an iconic Disney princess, I deserve to be paid every hour that it is streamed online.”
Firefighters who wear thick protective uniforms instead of dresses while they haul heavy lifesaving equipment into burning buildings instead of, you know, standing, were apparently unavailable for comment. But had they been available, I suspect they would have said, as one, “for the love of god, when can she be replaced by CGI?”
And while it has its funny side, the writers’ strike serves better as a morality play. The moral: if you stop doing your main, core job, it’s easy to get rid of you.
The writers went on strike because they were afraid that artificial intelligence (AI) would be able to replace them.
Well, these days, yeah – that’s probably right. But by admitting this concern, much less striking about it, the writers have also accidentally admitted that they had already by their own choices rendered themselves mostly redundant.
People have been going to the theater less often for years, a process sped up by the unnecessary lockdowns, acts of government overreach that Hollywood actors and writers so performatively (and nauseatingly) supported.
But the lockdown effect is not responsible for the continuing drought in boffo box offices (in the idiom I think I’m legally required to use to discuss this sort of thing). The good people of America can still get themselves to the theaters, as the gimmicky Barbenheimer week has so recently proven, as has the soaring success, without advertising support or a gigantic theatrical release, of The Sound of Freedom.
The problem for movie receipts is that the movies themselves have become unwatchable. This problem is best captured by Disney, and has been discussed in these pages recently. At Disney in particular, but also to a significant extent at Warner Bros. and elsewhere, good storytelling has essentially been forbidden so that the political- and social-policy obsessions of the likes of Bob Iger and Dana Walden can be jammed into every production.
The writers should, of course, not have gone along with these developments. They should have realized that if every story were to follow the same plot, the same pattern, with the same wooden, off-putting characterizations and the same gimmicks, people would rapidly get tired of them – first those who found the politics and social messages offputting in themselves, then the people who got tired of heavy-handed lectures, then pretty much everyone except a few true believers who just couldn’t get enough of having their own tedious predilections reflected back to them.
More than that, though, these writers – who talk an immense amount of guff about artistic integrity and disrupting paradigms and breaking the mold and marching to the beat … blah, blah – might certainly have been expected to refuse to write the same things repeatedly on purely artistic grounds. What kind of artist is willing to write to someone else’s politics or, even if they are shared politics, to write the same thing over and over again in slightly shifted guise? What kind of writer is satisfied with churning out the 18th version of a frayed old story – but this time race-swapped! – or the 300th installation of a superhero franchise, of all things.
Oh, that’s right: a hack.
That is the immutable problem for Hollywood’s writers, one that a strike can’t do anything to fix – and that a union, of all things, is about the worse possible organization to address. Unions by their nature discourage innovation, productivity, achievement, unique success. A union is the antithesis of an auteur, but also the enemy of originality, daring and striving, which are the only things that can save Hollywood – and particularly its writers – right now.
If Hollywood’s writers were churning out original, exciting scripts that move in unpredictable ways to reach unexpected conclusions, audiences might return to theaters and actually watch the stuff thrown up on the streaming services, all of which would create more revenue with which more writers could be hired for more projects. But so long as all of Hollywood is just producing the same thing again and again – the same women protagonists who are so strong as to be inert; the same flailing men; the same extensions on the same exhausted franchises; the same predictable late-night “jokes;” the same political screeds in place of honest sports coverage – as long as that’s it, there’s not much need for many writers at all.
The writers have voluntarily reduced themselves to the position of assembly-line workers, and so have handed themselves up for replacement by automation. Now the automation will follow. A strike can’t change that. Only a return to the production of bespoke artistry can.