Challenging the Corporate Lords of Film and TV
Sunday, 14 April 2024 10:24

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.

"I Am Spartacus"
Sunday, 14 April 2024 10:24

"I Am Spartacus"

Published in Films

We all remember the famous scene from the 1960 movie Spartacus. Kirk Douglas plays the famous slave leader. A Roman general announces to a group of former slaves that unless they identify Spartacus they will all be crucified. Spartacus prepares to speak up but then all around him others stand to declare: “I am Spartacus!”

It is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of human solidarity and heroism. The scene was written by Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted and sent to jail for refusing to name his fellow Hollywood scriptwriters, actors and directors as members or supporters of the Communist Party. Once out of prison he wrote under false names for the film industry, but it wasn’t until 1960 that director Stanley Kubrick and actor Kirk Douglas had the courage to publically credit Trumbo as the writer of Spartacus.

That brave act was the beginning of the end of the blacklist. Trumbo was reinstated in the Writers Guild of America. Over the next few years it would slowly be revealed just how many scripts Trumbo had written under other names while blacklisted. Shamefully it took until 2011 — three dozen years after his death and less than five years ago — that Trumbo was finally credited for all his blacklisted period scripts, including for the script of the 1953 award-winning film Roman Holiday, a romantic comedy was directed and produced by William Wyler. It stars Gregory Peck as a reporter and Audrey Hepburn as a royal princess who sets out to see Rome on her own. Hepburn won an Academy Award for best actress for her performance.

The costume design also won an Oscar and another Oscar went to the screenplay. On the original credits the screenplay was attributed to John Dighton and Ian McLellan Hunter. In fact the film was written by Dalton Trumbo. It would be 40 years until 1993 before he actually collected his Oscar.

James Dalton Trumbo was born in Montrose, Colorado, on December 9 1905, the first son of shoe store clerk Orus and his wife, Maud. His family moved to nearby Grand Junction, where he attended high school and became a cub reporter for a local paper. Trumbo continued his writing while attending the University of Colorado.

His family moved to Los Angeles. When his father died young, Trumbo took a job in a bakery to help support his mother and younger sisters, working as a baker for 10 years while learning his writing skills producing short stories and novels, none of which he could get published.

He worked his way through the University of California, paying his way by doing odd jobs, and by the early 1930s, Trumbo began selling his writings to magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Vanity Fair and the Hollywood Spectator.

He became the managing editor of the Spectator in 1934, a year that also saw him publish his first novel, Eclipse, as well as land a job as a script reader in the Warner Brothers studio. Then in 1935 Trumbo signed a contract with the studio as a junior writer, launching what would prove to be a long and amazingly dramatic career.

In 1936 Trumbo received his first screenwriting credit, specifically for the crime drama Road Gang. Over the next 10 years he became one of the most successful and sought-after writers in Hollywood. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), starring Spencer Tracy and Robert Mitchum, won Trumbo his first Academy nomination. In 1939 he married Cleo Fincher, with whom he would have three children, and in September of that year his anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun received a National Book Award.

Like many intellectuals and artists at the time, Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party with left-leaning political positions. US nazis read into the anti-war message of his novel an opposition to going to war with nazi Germany. Nothing could have been further from the truth — he was a enthusiastic anti-fascist.

When the Nazis wrote to Trumbo he passed their letters to the FBI. Rather than pursue the letter-writers, however, the bureau opened a file on Trumbo. In October 1947, as post-war paranoia about communism was building up in the US, Trumbo was among a group of 10 Hollywood directors and writers called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Trumbo and the other nine all refused to testify. They refused to betray other communists and as a consequence, the Hollywood Ten were found guilty of contempt of Congress. They were subsequently blacklisted by the heads of the major studios, and in 1950 Trumbo served almost a year in prison for contempt.

Following his release, Trumbo was unable to find work in California and moved his family to Mexico City. From there, he continued to write screenplays, which he was able to sell by using either pseudonyms or other writers to act as fronts for his work. Finally, in 1957 Trumbo returned to Hollywood. He had written the screenplay for The Brave One under the pseudonym Robert Rich. The screenplay received an Academy Award.

When journalists were subsequently unable to find the mysterious Robert Rich for comment, it emerged that the film had in fact been written by Trumbo, revealing the blacklist as a fiasco. The year after Robert Rich won the Oscar for The Brave One, Trumbo was hired to write the script for Exodus, the story of the fondatio of Israel, and in 1959 he was chosen by Kirk Douglas to write Spartacus.

Trumbo’s authorship of these two highly successful pictures was revealed shortly before their release in 1960, along with the announcement that Trumbo would receive on-screen credits for his work.He returned to work in earnest and for the remainder of his life continued his prolific and successful output. In 1971, he wrote and directed a film of his own novel Johnny Got His Gun, for which he received two awards at the Cannes Film Festival.

Now Hollywood is at last recognising the talent and the torment of one of its finest screenwriters. A new film, Trumbo, stars Bryan Cranston as the blacklisted writer and also features Helen Mirren, John Goodman and Diane Lane. It will be released in Britain early next year.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star.