Challenging the Corporate Lords of Film and TV
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 05:54

Challenging the Corporate Lords of Film and TV

Hollywood writers and actors are on strike, the first time both unions have been on strike at the same time since 1960. It’s thrown the industry into an uproar, as both groups are subverting some of the main precepts of not only the Hollywood film and television industry but the way work as a whole is constructed and managed in the digital age.

The first precept being challenged is that unions and union solidarity is a dead letter in the era of Artificial Intelligence and the ever-increasing corporate power and prestige as the twin answers to solving the world’s ills. The high profile of the two striking unions has drawn more attention and produced much more publicity for unions. The news stories in The New York Times, for example, have doubled since the actors joined the writers on strike, with most major publications feeling the need to generate stories from the picket lines, where formerly the major news outlets concentrated mainly on the beginning and end of strikes.

This has produced a kind of reverse Blacklist effect. In 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee decided that it would launch its campaign against radical elements in the labour force by first attacking Hollywood, and thus ensuring maximum publicity in its campaign of fear. Here the opposite is happening. In the wake of the Occupy Movement, and using some of that language, the coverage of the strikes of the two unions, largely favourable in the press since its readers are avid followers of films and television series, have prompted more favourable coverage of other strikes. Teamsters and nurses have shown up on the picket lines at the Hollywood studios, with the former helping to stop production in some cases, while the leaders of the Writers’ Guild joined hotel workers in a July 4th strike for higher wages.

Serfs serving corporate lords

On the actors’ picket line Fran Drescher, President of the Actors’ Guild, employed the Occupy language of the 1 percent to criticize executive salaries. She described one of the most powerful men in the industry, Disney’s President Michael Iger who makes $27 million annually, as a dazzling example of the rampant inequality in pay structure. She claimed that she was on the line representing “the 99.9 percent of the membership who are working people who are just trying to make a living to put food on the table, pay rent and get their kids off to school” while labelling the Hollywood executives as “land barons of a medieval time.” This labelling not only echoes the language of the Occupy movement but is also drawn from a popular left characterization of a new Feudalism, with the majority of the population now in the position of serfs serving corporate lords.

1The new feudalism

The new feudalism

One of the main claims of the writers is that they can no longer afford to live in a city they helped build, as Los Angeles rents skyrocket. This claim in similar to the hotel workers who say they have to live outside the city and sometimes travel 90 to 100 miles to work. The writers’ claim was validated by a studio executive who, anonymously, told Deadline that the studio producers would “bleed out” writers and force them to “start losing their apartments.”

The second major tenant of Hollywood and the television industry which the strikes are challenging is the attempt to conceal profits and keep from paying residuals. For over 70 years the vast majority of television series operated on the principle of deficit financing. Producers and talent (writers, directors and actors) understood that the vast majority of money being made on any television series would come after the series was sold into syndication. The “magic number” that would trigger these sales was 100 episodes. The show would then become profitable in perpetuity with its creators and financiers able to live off of these sales.

Part of the drive toward online subscription services, where the studio or streamer locks content behind a solid wall, is the elimination of these residuals or the limiting of them since the creators can no longer track how their work is being monetized. The streamers, on the other hand, have much more data and can track viewer habits minutely, down to the second where the viewer continues to watch or tunes out. The old system, with the Nielsen Ratings and with syndicated contracts, was much more transparent and allowed creators to track profits, though the studios often tried to conceal their gains.

A major demand of both strikes is finding a way to reclaim residuals in the age of streaming. The battle here goes beyond film and television writers and actors and encompasses the problems with monetizing digital work as a whole. Journalists, for example, often work for less or for nothing on internet publications while search engines such as Alphabet’s Google and Microsoft’s Bing accrue value by appropriating stories from news outlets and only reluctantly pay for this content.

4AI Eats Brains

AI Eats Brains 

The third major precept which the strikes are challenging is the parceling of work, a trend that is going on throughout industry as a whole and which is being exacerbated by experiments with Artificial Intelligence and programs such as ChatGPT. The idea of breaking all kinds of work into tasks has of course been around since the Taylorist experiments with assembly lines in the 1920s. What is new, or as the owners say “innovative,” is the potential ability, once the work is broken down into its component parts, to have labourers replaced with robotic replicators of their work, or to reduce work to “smaller, more degraded, poorly paid jobs.” 

From careers to gig work

One of the complaints of the actors, echoed even more strongly by the writers, is that their careers have been turned into gig work. The meteoric rise in streaming has been fed by the work of writers creating television series of high quality and moving themselves into all aspects of production, to make sure, like the Hollywood directors of old, that all aspects of the series (costuming, makeup, set construction) form a seamless whole. This expansion fuelled the rise of more and better showrunners, responsible for the overall concept of the series.

Instead, the producers are attempting to limit the writers to just their time in the writing room, and then release them. Their preferred model is to pay a single creator an exorbitant salary (Shonda Rhimes-Bridgerton, Ryan Murphy-American Horror Story, Taylor Sheridan- Yellowstone) and dispense with the rest. The Writers’ Guild has been tracking this trend and says that writers’ time on a series has decreased because they are let go faster and that in 2022 over half of the writers, stripped of their producing jobs, are being paid at the weekly minimum, as opposed to one-third eight years ago.

3Tom C

Tom Cruise vs. The Entity 

Contrary to the Tom Cruise version of AI in Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning where an all-powerful “Entity” threatens a machine takeover of the earth, the real challenge of AI, which this Hollywood fantasy version conceals, is that it will be used to un-employ workers in all kinds of industries as well as forcing them to work harder through its monitoring capacities. Thus, warehouse workers describe being tracked minutely, pressuring them to skip breaks, while setting them up for disciplinary actions if their goals are not met. The personal touch of service workers, who one worker described as providing “a kind of therapy” to their clients, is discounted as their work is automated. A recent Biden administration summit to “regulate” AI rather than impose restrictions allowed the seven major makers of the service to voluntarily agree to guidelines. None of the restrictions even mentioned AI’s power to eliminate, tame and discipline the U.S. workforce.

2Maverick

Maverick

A long-term goal for Hollywood’s use of AI is potentially to use the machine to grind out scripts that are then “created” not by the writer, but by the studio/streaming service. The scenario for this goal involves the studio plugging in a basic concept with AI or ChatGPT which then churns out a (highly unworkable) script. A writer would then be hired to turn the script into a workable scenario but the credit, and the profits, would then go to the studio. This is an attempt to turn television production back to the 1950s when, for example, Warners cheated the “showrunner” Roy Huggins out of the “Created By” credits for both Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip, two shows which kept the studio afloat. For Maverick, the studio bought the rights to a book that a plot turn in the pilot employed and thus claimed it owned the property. With 77 Sunset Strip, Warners screened the pilot in a cinema outside the U.S. and claimed the studio then owned the rights to “the film.” Huggins himself addressed this ignominy in his next contract with Universal which granted him the “Created By” credit and established it as a norm for the industry.

An actor on the picket line described AI as “a tool to generate wealth,” noting that the main task of the “Entity” was “cutting jobs for corporate profit.” While another writer’s guild member summoned up the end game as “creating material in the cheapest, most piecemeal, automated way possible” so that “one layer of high-level creatives take the cheaply generated material and turn it into something.” The demand of the Actors’ and Writers’ Guilds to have control of how this process is used, is a crucial attempt to counter this thrust.

Robin Hood and his Merry Men
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 05:54

The Big Short

Published in Films

Is 'The Big Short' a big con? Alex Simpson looks closely at a film where Robin Hood steals money from the rich and keeps it for himself.

At heart, ‘The Big Short’ – which just won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars – is a parable. Much like Robin Hood, it warns of the dangers that come from taking money from the poor for personal gain. While the film pretends to question the moral foundation of the Wall Street establishment, as the narrative unfolds it only serves to uphold and legitimise the basic assumptions of the financial markets. The outcome is another dramatisation of the events surrounding the financial crisis that leaves a sour taste and a questionable moral lesson.

In this parable, King John is played by Wall Street (but it could so easily be set in the City of London or any other global financial hub) representing the bloated greed of wealth, entitlement and privilege. But it could so easily have been set in the City of London or any other global financial hub. Built on asymmetrical contracts of debt, what was once a staid and secure industry that offered a stable funding structure for homeowners has now become a toxic web of sub-prime lending. In this image, the financial services industry has generated its vast wealth and power out of overestimating the public’s ability to repay their debt.

At one stage, the film questions the moral line this raises between stupidity and criminality. 'If stupidity is a crime, my brother-in-law should be arrested,' Ryan Gosling’s character retorts. Throughout the film we are told of how complex financial instruments, such as Collateral Debt Obligations, have a vice-like grip over the society’s most vulnerable.

We follow various hedge fund operators, investors and ‘garage’ traders who have spotted the precarious foundations to this ivory tower. Their intelligence, cynicism and ‘outsider’ status enables them to spot a gap in the market, one which will wreak havoc for many millions of ordinary, low-income members of society. In the Robin Hood parable, it is down to this band of Merry Men to take from the rich ‘fat cats’ and return the wealth to those who have lined their pockets. At this stage the parallels with Robin Hood end. We are told at great lengths of the costs this systemic and reckless form of gambling has on many individuals. Brad Pitt’s character, a “reformed” ex-Wall Street banker now living a renewed life of earthy ethics and simplicity, serves as a moral compass to remind the audience of who is paying the true price of this greed and excess. It is a story that seeks to challenge how the financial service industry has succeeded in privatising wealth yet socialising risk - and yet this still remains a film that upholds the sanctity and virtue of the financial markets.

The Merry Men of 'The Big Short' themselves adhere to the logic of the market, by making a high-risk play which yields a great return. In the financial services industry this is everyone’s dream. It is a competitive landscape that rewards a particular type of risk-taking and combative intelligence. The market does not reward sheep, but selects and bestows wealth upon leaders. In challenging the dominant assumption of housing market growth and betting on a downturn, these Merry Men have pitted their wits against the market, have been ridiculed for their stupidity and yet, by the end of the film, stand victorious. Had they lost, they would have been punished through losses, but their victory rewards them with sizable bonuses and enhanced personal reputations. As an audience, we are being asked to follow and invest emotionally in their market strategy as if it somehow fixes the harms pressed onto those at the bottom of the complex web of Collateral Debt Obligations. In essence, their actions are no different to those of the Wall Street ‘fat cats’. They may not have structured these instruments or traded in them and their outsider status seemingly insulates them from the taint of bankers. However, the entire premise of the film is one in which seven men bet on the destruction of livelihoods and win.

In asking us, the audience, to ‘be on their side’ and follow them through the journey, the effects that the financial services industry has had and continues to have on our everyday lives remain fundamentally unexplained. It is a parable in which Robin Hood steals from the rich and keeps all the proceeds for himself. Brad Pitt reminds us of the social costs of this wealth and fortune, but the sheen of Hollywood glamour sticks. Rather than bringing the viewer closer, and increasing a collective understanding of how we are all inextricably linked to this high-stakes world of greed, aggression and collusion, the film legitimises the accumulation of private wealth. At the same time, those who are paying the highest price for the crisis are the ones who contributed the least to it. It is a film about betrayal, destruction and an industry in need of radical change. Without a greater focus on these social costs, as an audience, we are in danger of becoming further removed from understanding the true causes and ongoing effects of the financial services industry. The ‘true story’ of ‘The Big Short’ is entertaining, but much like the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’, it leaves a sour taste and unanswered questions.

If Hollywood continues its warped fascination with the actions of the financial services industry, it would be interesting to see a film being made of Joris Luyendijk’s book, Swimming with Sharks. Going beyond the usual accounts of banks as casinos and bankers as ‘spivs’, Luyendijk's book highlights how far from curbing the industry’s nature, the financial crisis has reinforced it.