AI, Strikes, and Burning It Down: Highlights of the ATX TV Festival
Celebration of the small screen becomes a war room for writers
By Richard Whittaker,
2:45PM, Fri. Jun. 9, 2023
It started with one person clapping. Then a row of people. Then a second row. A third, and so on until the entirety of the Stateside Theatre was clapping in unison. That, Beau Willimon said, is what it's like to be in a union, "and we're pro worker, we're pro labor, we're pro union."
That word, union, was probably said more than any other excepting "television" and "tacos" during last weekend's ATX TV Festival. The industry is in meltdown right now because of the Writers Guild of America strike and ongoing negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers
It's a strike that – as Willimon, serving as both a negotiator for the WGA East, and a moderator for the hastily-assembled WGA On Strike! panel, noted – has cost over $1 billion to date. The ridiculous part? If the nine networks and streamers had given the WGA everything it was asking, it would have only cost them all a total of $450 million. Or, from another perspective, less than 2% of their combined yearly profits.
The reality of TV today is that the old model of putting a bunch of writers in a room to develop a script, and then having them around to finesses and consult on set – and, importantly, paying them for that work – is dying. Or, rather, is being killed by media corporations.
It's all part of the consequence of the shift from network TV to streaming and digital downloads. In prior negotiation cycles, the WGA tried to get ahead of the changes but were still blindsided. Now everyone is paying the consequences (except the streamers, who are not paying anything). WGA West negotiator Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries) saw the current fight as pivotally different to the last WGA strike, back in 2007. "Back then we were nervous about what was coming round the bend," she said. "Now we're mad."
Greg Iwinski (The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Last Week Tonight), representing the WGA East on the negotiating committee, explained that the last contract was based on long runs for series on streaming: However, between streamers canceling series before those pay bumps kick in and now deleting shows off their platform, that's lead to dramatic pay cuts of up to 60% across the industry.
Additionally, what's replacing the old writers room are the so-called mini-rooms, where a team of writers are expected to draft out a whole season without a pilot for minimal or no pay up front, zero commitment, and unpaid rewrites. Even if they're on a show, the system is weighted against them: If a writer works on a late night talk show, they'll get a minimum 13-week contract if it's on a network. If that writer is on a streaming show, shot on the same soundstage with the same crew, the AMPTP is offering single day contracts with no minimum wage. Try getting a mortgage, or even getting approved for an apartment, on that kind of contract.
All that means that these current negotiations are about getting ahead of next big shift, and with the Directors Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild, and WGA all renegotiating at the same time, it's that rare moment when everyone is in the same position. Moreover, both the Teamsters and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) are honoring the WGA picket lines, amplifying the pressure on AMPTP.
For Plec, the biggest change this time around, and why the WGA is digging in for the long haul, is who is across the table. In 2007, the AMPTP represented people who cared about the bottom line, but also cared about people and story and art. "I think that's all but gone," she said, replaced by corporate overlords who only care about finances. "There's a room full of folks who want to see union labor go away."
There's a disconnect between the owners and the staff. As Willimon noted, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav wasn't across the table from the WGA reps in the unimpressive conference room in the Sherman Oaks strip mall where the negotiations are happening. "He's at BU getting booed."
Gutting writers rooms prevents any kind of career development, which also means the studios are cutting off their own talent development system. Not that talent development – and especially career development and training – has been much of a priority, as shown in the recent revelations about abusive management practices on shows like Lost – revelations made in Maureen Ryan's new book, Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood.
Ryan's appearance at ATX TV had been scheduled months before the first shocking chapter was printed in Vanity Fair, just ahead of the festival. "This has been an interesting week," the writer drily noted.
She blamed, in part, the cult of the showrunner. It’s the job title that has been presented as the be-all, end-all for writers, but it’s a position that has only existed since the mid-2000s. Now creators with that credit are cover stars and subject to a level of hero worship, creative latitude, and license for poor behavior previously reserved for actors and directors.
"The system got the benefit of the doubt," Ryan said, and only in the last five years did that change. The standards of conduct have just changed, but the people in the system came up under the old rules of engagement, rules that has enabled and created monsters. There are those showrunners who enjoy the chaos they wrought, and those who could do better but have had no leadership skills or training, and no support or guardrails from the studios. Lost veteran Javier Grillo-Marxuach (Co-EP and writer, Cowboy Bebop, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance) said, "We need to teach each other to be professionals" so the drama stays on the screen, but the AMPTA’s proposals – especially the halfhearted proposal to bring writers on-set as basically unpaid interns – won’t provide that kind of experience.
Moreover, the concept of the showrunner focuses the attention on one genius, and diminishes the vital collaborative nature of the writers room. Or, as Grillo-Marxuach bluntly put it, "The problem with our industry is that there's too many goddam geniuses and not enough artisans."
And the studios are circling the idea of getting rid of all the artisans, giving them that dream of not having to deal with writers at all. As Iwinski bleakly warned, it doesn't matter how glitchy or derivative an AI-generated script is. "The threat is not of us being replaced because they can do our job, it's because our bosses don't care."
Grillo-Marxuach (who also pulled double-duty on the Artificial Intelligence & Us panel) bleakly stated that "there is absolutely going to be AI-generated entertainment everywhere, and we just have to live with it."
Arguably, we're already living with it. Dickinson creator/showrunner Alena Smith argued that there were already onset job losses due to technology. "This horrific future that we may be facing with AI is just the horrific present."
Fellow panelist Kevin Bigley noted that he'd already worked with a deepfake performer on season 1 of Upload. Since then, he's seen some of the near-future tech of the science fiction show become reality, and recalled a conversation in which he asked showrunner Greg Daniels, "Is this a dystopia or a utopia and he said 'It's just reality.'" Bigley's even seen that reality coming for himself, having walked onset and into a globe of 3D cameras taking images of his face for future rendering. "It's deeply unsettling."
For writers, the doomsday scenario is that the studios just throw some prompts in a machine and then hire them to polish the garbage that it spews out into a filmable – not necessarily good, but filmable – script. And Grillo-Marxuach noted that this could happen to anyone, poo-pooing the slightly snobbish idea that an AI could write a Marvel movie but not Succession. It can write either, he stated, but any script is only going to be as good as the thinker who starts the process. That's why he argued that the current negotiations need to find a way to ensure that writers are in at the beginning of any AI scripting. Moreover, since AIs can currently only remix a dataset, systems need to be put in place to ensure that writers and copyright owners (i.e. the studios) are getting compensated for their source material.
The long-term future is unclear, but the current prognosis is for a continuing strike, one that will only make life tougher for the producers. As the last of the festival attendees started to drift home, word came that the DGA leadership had negotiated their own tentative deal, one with the word "historic" attached due to immediate residual increases but whose terms look worse over time. It's also a deal that many DGA members – especially the hyphenates, the writer-directors – still dislike, and may vote against. Then the bombshell dropped: A vote of 97.8% support for a SAG strike if their negotiations are unfruitful.
And it doesn't stop there. Both IATSE and the Teamsters are renegotiating their contracts next year, and since they've showed solidarity now, as Plec noted, they should expect it from the other guilds next year.