Hollywood’s Hot Strike Summer – The Assignment with Audie Cornish

A few episodes back, we spoke to a flight attendant, a union leader, actually, who told us something that’s lingered in the back of my mind for the last couple of months.

I believe it’s going to be a hot Labor Summer because there’s a lot going on and there’s a lot of contracts that are in negotiations right now.

She was right. Hotel workers, Amazon employees, UPS drivers, more than 300,000 workers of all kinds have already gone on strike this year. We got that data from Bloomberg Law. But no labor action has captured attention like the double strike that’s brought Hollywood to a halt.

As of this morning, more than 11,000 TV and movie writers, they’re on strike.

Hollywood actors have joined screenwriters for the first duel strike since 1960.

So the studios and the streamers have tried to turn television writing from a career into a gig job.

The duel writers and actors strike with both the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild united and on the picket lines together among their asks, Better pay, better residuals, better working conditions, and the regulation of A.I..

And that groundbreaking A.I. proposal they proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay, and their companies should own that scan their image, their likeness, and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want with no consent and no compensation.

The eyes of the world, and particularly the eyes of labor, are upon us. What happens here is important because what’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor.

On the other side of that negotiating table, the major studios and the organization that represents them, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP for short, which full disclosure includes the leadership of CNN’s parent company, Warner Brothers Discovery.

All we have to do is outlast them. One day longer.

Why get more than 100 days have passed since the writers strike began with not a lot of movement until recently, when the studios approached the writers to discuss their latest package of terms. And then in kind of an unusual move, release the details of that counter offer to the public. People on the picket line were not happy about it.

The strike is not over. The picketing continues, and the WGA basically accusing the studios of using that release of information as a tactic to get union members to turn on each other and get the WGA to cave on that latest offer, which was not the case.

Meanwhile, the AMPTP has released a statement saying, quote, Our priority is to end the strike so that valued members of the creative community can return to what they do best and to end the hardships that so many people and businesses that service the industry are experiencing.

These talks are ongoing. So for Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer and the official holiday celebrating the American worker, we’re checking in on the state of the striking actors and writers demanding more from the studios they work for.

Franklin Leonard

00:03:32

The bigger question comes after the negotiation, which is how are we valuing the creative work of people who make these things? Are they our partners? Are they our employees? Are they our…

Franklin Leonard

00:03:47

Yeah. Are they? Those bigger questions will be litigated forever. And their answers will likely determine the trajectory of the business.

I’m Audie Cornish. And this is The Assignment. Now, the last time you and I spoke was back in January, and I had you on the show to talk about kind of the state of the movies, why people weren’t going back, whether the golden age of streaming was over and the writers strike was like just whispers. Like the idea might happen.

Franklin Leonard

00:04:23

It was.

And then four months later, the writers strike became very real. Now we caught up with a friend of the show. Franklin Leonard is the creator of The Black List, and for the last 20 years, he’s been behind an annual survey of Hollywood’s most liked but unproduced screenplays. And it’s become a pipeline for Oscar winners and a go to source for thousands of agents, managers, showrunners, producers, directors and actors. I mean, he sits right at the nexus between studios and creators, between the writers kind of scrapping to get their work seen. And the studio gatekeepers, the ones who greenlight and fund productions. So to start, we clear up the misconceptions he sees in the way the story’s being seen by the public.

Franklin Leonard

00:05:14

Yeah, I mean, I think the biggest one is that this is, you know, big Hollywood A-list actors versus the studios. And that’s not really what we’re talking about. I think, yes. The names that, you know, are members of the guild that are engaged in a negotiation with the studios who employ them. But really, what this negotiation about is about is the folks who are at the lowest rung of the totem pole, the folks who are making the guild minimums, the folks who may or may not have a job, depending on how the industry shifts in the next weeks and months. They’re the folks who may be working in a full time job as a writer, working a side job as a bartender, and still barely have enough money to cover their one bedroom apartment or their kids food or the mortgage for the cheapest house they could find. That’s what this debate is about. And I think that, you know, it’s very easy in the media to say, oh, it’s actors, which we all I think we all go to immediately the names that we know versus the studios. But really who we’re talking about is middle class people and below who just are trying to get their work valued in a way that will allow them to sustain any financial security whatsoever. In much the same way that every other union in the country is looking for the same thing.

Hearing the stories of people who are struggling as a result, It’s been an interesting breaking of the fourth wall, quite literally, of like how the creative process really has been working the last couple of years.

Franklin Leonard

00:06:42

Yeah, I think, you know, I don’t know that a lot of people want to think about how the sausage is made, and I think there are a lot of assumptions made about Hollywood that it’s the most glamorous reality in the world, but.

Or that the starving artist is the cost of doing business. Like kind of you signed up for it.

Franklin Leonard

00:06:58

That’s a very good point. And I think that is definitely the this romantic notion of the starving artist is has taken hold and goes back centuries. But I don’t know that that’s the way it should be. And I would certainly argue that the starving artist doesn’t result in the best movies and television for audiences to watch. What you want is an artist who is economically secure so that they can focus on making good film and television and economically secure at the bottom end of the rung doesn’t mean a $20 million contract for a movie. It means a middle class existence that will allow you to provide for yourself and for a family in the way that literally every other American wants to be able to. And every probably everyone in the world.

Right When it was just writers, I think people are kind of like, yeah, they probably don’t get paid that much. Once actors kind of joined, did all of it, then all of a sudden people got wobbly about what was going on.

Franklin Leonard

00:07:50

I think that’s true. But again, like we’re not talking about like SAG is not negotiating on behalf of The Rock And Meryl Streep. Right. The Rock and Meryl Streep have agents who will negotiate with the studios on their behalf. And I can promise you that everything in their contract is significantly better than the minimum set out in the SAG AMPTP agreement. SAG is negotiating on behalf of the actor who is trying to get by, who’s just barely making ends meet, who is hustling to go to auditions for which they are not paid just to get a job that they may be underpaid for, and then may have to give up the rights to their likeness if they want to be employed at all. That is not, to me, a sustainable system. And if we continue to have that system, we will lose out on the next The Rock and the next Meryl Streep and all the next great talent that exists because they will not be able to afford in any way, shape or form to pursue the thing that will allow us to enjoy something great.

And in the meantime, similarly with writers, so much of what the argument was that what was making television kind of better than the movies for a bit was the writing. Yeah. And you know, one thing that is clear is that the sort of streaming, the promise of streaming has not come out the way they thought either in terms of their revenue, in terms of what they consider success for these platforms. Are we on the edge of a whole different approach to the content that a lot of us have been enjoying for $7, $9 a month?

Franklin Leonard

00:09:24

I think we might. I mean, I think, you know, there are certainly other ways to do this. Yes. It’s very possible that the streaming economics didn’t work out the way that the studios thought they would. I don’t believe that the writers or the actors should be bearing the cost of that in misassessment by the studios fundamentally. And certainly, if it’s there in misassessment, it would be wise to come up with a go forward business plan that allows them to actually go forward in a way that is a sustainable business. And if the folks who are running those companies can’t come up with a sustainable way to go forward, they may need new leadership. Look, at the end of the day, I would like the film and television business to be profitable, to be relevant, and to continue to provide the stories that we all share that bind us together as a society.

So that means shifting my expectations as a viewer about what is what is the value of a show or what is the value of a film beyond the things you and I talked about once, about theater, not theater. But, you know, I’ve had it pretty good, right? From my couch payibg less than $10 for all this stuff in an industry where basically it seems like the model has been underpaid people until they make it big.

Franklin Leonard

00:10:44

I think that’s possible. I think and again–

I like that you don’t want to blame me.

Franklin Leonard

00:10:50

Well, no. Well, well, here’s what–

I mean, the proxy for everyone else.

Franklin Leonard

00:10:54

Well, here’s what I think about that. I think that, you know, as a consumer, if you have the option of paying $10 a month for a never ending supply of content, of course you’re going to you know, and especially if those are pretty much the only options, right? It’s not like we’re all not grazing wherever the good stuff is. Right. So, you know, we’re watching streaming. If there’s an amazing film, if it’s amazing enough or we hear people talking about it, we’re definitely still going to go see it. Barbie and Oppenheimer sort of proved that just weeks ago when there is a compelling value proposition for the consumer. They will take advantage of that value proposition. And I think that we know how much we think things are worth, and we’ll make rational economic decisions as viewers, as consumers, about what we’re willing to pay for. And again, I think this goes back to we have to compensate the people that make the amazing things, the things that have value, the things that compel people to pay money for them. They deserve to be compensated when that money is paid as well. And right now they’re not. So I think there’s a lot of changes coming. I don’t fear a world wherein audiences have to pay more for the good stuff or pay more for the things that they believe have value. I think the challenge for us is how do we make things that have value to the consumer? How do we communicate that value to the consumer? And how do we build a financial model that allows everybody to participate in that value if they’ve been involved in creating it?

So you kind of went from last year saying, you know, I don’t necessarily think this will happen. We’ll see. To now having to take action yourself. And even though The Black List is mostly about films, can you talk about how you’ve decided to weigh in, what moves you’ve made that you think were necessary to support the strike?

Franklin Leonard

00:12:44

Yeah, I mean, we work with writers, you know, writers of screenplays, original television pilots and theater players can submit their work and feedback. And, you know, we distribute it to people in the industry that can advance a writer’s career or a project. And we remain in sort of constant conversation with guild leadership because we’re an organization that wants to support writers. You know, we are a for profit company, but we have an explicit goal of advocating for writers. So even before the strike started, I was having regular conversations with Guild leadership. And the first thing we did, the day the strike was announced was to post on social media and email every email address that we had for writers making clear the Guild’s positions on what is and what is not appropriate during the strike.

So first, you just weighed in on, listen, we’re backing these folks on what you’re allowed to do or not allowed to do. While strike is going on.

Franklin Leonard

00:13:38

That’s right. And and I think, you know, that serves a number of purposes. The first is obviously to be in solidarity with the guild during the strike action. The second was to make sure that writers who were not in the guild who are trying to become professional writers, have the information that they need. So in their pursuit of a professional career, they don’t do something that runs them afoul of the guild, and it has a negative consequence in the long term.

And let me see if I can decode that for a minute, because one of the things The Black List does is you kind of unearth scripts, right? In the past, they were sort of considered scripts that would never get made. And now there are scripts that end up winning Academy Awards. But it might mean that you’re the kind of person who would think, oh, there’s a strike. The studios need content now. This is a good time to kind of boost my script to try and get it in front of people.

Franklin Leonard

00:14:26

That’s exactly right.

And you guys are like, don’t even think about it.

Franklin Leonard

00:14:30

So, you know, you’re absolutely right. You know, look, the Guild was very clear. You should not be getting compensated by these companies. You should not be working for these companies. You should not be pitching to these companies. You should not be meeting with these companies. And if you do, you run the risk of being blacklisted, pun intended, from the guild for the rest of your career, which is a pretty, you know, not ideal scenario if your goal was to be a professional writer.

After the break, the looming threat of AI and the potentially catastrophic effects of the strike. We’ll be right back.

The thing looming over all of this is artificial intelligence. In a way, this has been a moment in which I guess, like it’s really one of the first industries to raise their hand and say, we are scared of the way that I could impact our work. Which is interesting to me because for years in politics, we always talked about manufacturing. Robots will make the cars and then like no one will have a job. But here we are, really the creative arts standing up about this. What’s your take on this discussion more broadly?

Franklin Leonard

00:15:42

I think it’s probably a consequence of a few factors. The first being that the content, the thing that this industry makes is so easily reproducible electronically. I think I suspect that might be part of it. I think the other part of it is just the sort of fundamental philosophical notion, right? Like, you know, one of the conversations around the actor conversation with the studios on A.I., as I understand it, is that the studios position is we can scan your face as a background actor, as a as an extra as people used to call them. And then we own your face and we can use it whatever we want, however we want, forever.

Franklin Leonard

00:16:18

Yeah, with no compensation. Now I think there’s a sort of there’s a practical Hollywood like, Oh, we just need to fill in background. But like, let’s talk about what that really means. That really means that a corporation owns your physical likeness for use at its discretion for no compensation.

Franklin Leonard

00:16:38

Forever. Putting aside the SAG versus AMPTP at all. I would hope that most of us are uncomfortable with a world in which that is considered normal. I certainly am.

Right. And in an industry that was vulnerable because in some ways there are there are some kind of like reductive, creative approaches, meaning is it really all that hard for chat GPT to kind of come up with a premise for a sitcom that is a bunch of roommates, right, or whatever?

Franklin Leonard

00:17:11

Well, yeah. And I think the other thing is that like Chat GPT in order to create that is consuming other people’s creative work, sort of remixing it and then sort of making a prediction about what the next word would be in any sequence of words. If you remix a song and you put it out there, rights to be paid, and if you don’t pay those rights, you get sued and you probably have to pay out some money. I think it makes me deeply uncomfortable on a sort of fundamental level, but I suspect that the law also protects the intellectual property of both writers and frankly, of the studios. I’m not sure why the studios are terribly excited about an A.I. that will take the IP that they own, remix it, and then allow other studios to use it for no compensation because they certainly wouldn’t do that if i was–

Well people are just starting to kind of wrap their head around what the “use case” would be. Like, how would people be using artificial intelligence?

Franklin Leonard

00:18:13

I think this is kind of what it comes down to for me. I fundamentally don’t think that the studios would allow other companies to use their copyrighted material without being compensated. I similarly don’t think, therefore, that the studios should expect the writers or the actors to use their material, their faces, their work, whatever, without being compensated and made aware.

What are the ripple effects? Because we’ve talked to you about kind of the entertainment industry as a whole, right? And you have such an interesting vantage point on it. What do you see as the ripple effects long term?

Franklin Leonard

00:18:50

I mean, the first is, is that there’s not going to be a bunch of stuff for us to watch. I’m sure people have already begun to notice that there’s you know, when you’re trying to solve the, “what am I going to watch tonight” question you’re left with a lot of unscripted stuff and maybe you enjoy that, like fair play. I think we all have our are things that we do like in that genre but–

hough we should mention there is now a movement of reality actors, writers do or filing a lawsuit over their treatment. So that’s not going to be the easy falback that it use to be

Franklin Leonard

00:19:19

And that might not even be the fallback that’s available. But in the immediate term, the stuff that we all love won’t be there. And so, you know, if you’re thinking about what movies are coming out next summer, there may be no big movies next summer. If you’re thinking about what TV shows are coming back, it’s going to be a while. It’s going to be a while before there’s a new thing that we can all be very excited about because it’s amazing. And the longer the strike goes on, the longer that’s going to be the case. That’s all of our realities. That’s the cost of this situation for all of us. If the studios don’t make the writers ann offer and the actors an offer, that’s acceptable. I think that, you know, you can imagine the long enough term, the catastrophic effects on the economics of those companies. We as human beings will consume some stories. But I don’t know that you can sustain these companies on unscripted television series. And then you can also very easily imagine the catastrophic effects on the individual economics of everybody who works to make these things if these things are not being made.

For someone who’s listening to this, who agrees with you or wants to be in solidarity in some way, what should they be doing?

Franklin Leonard

00:20:31

The first thing you know, if you have some extra dollars right now and I say this knowing that, you know, given the circumstances of the world, many people don’t. But if you do, seek out things like the Entertainment Community Fund, the Support Staff Relief Fund, I believe the Guild has a specific fund. And they are specifically for writers, support staff, members of the industry who’ve been negatively affected by the strike. They give direct grants to folks who need that money. If you have the ability to help them, help them, and again, we’re not talking about giving money to Ben Affleck. Right. And no shade on Ben. Big fan. But like, he’s going to be fine and he’ll be fine after the strike, too. We’re talking about the, you know, the writers room assistants who went from making very little money, barely enough to survive to making no money and are walking the picket lines right now. So that would be one. I think, two, when you watch something, celebrate the people who made it. You know, we all have a tendency to celebrate, you know, go on social media and post about the things that we watched and we love. You know, we all have favorite episodes of television shows and we all have favorite movies. Learn who wrote those things. You know, their their names are in the credits, their names are on IMDB. Celebrate them because I promise you, they wouldn’t exist without those folks in particular because no one else had anything to do until they did their job.

That was Franklin Leonard, film producer and founder of The Black List. That’s it for this episode. And if you liked it, please share it with your friends. If you loved it, go ahead and give us that five star review. The assignment is a production of CNN Audio. This episode was produced by Jennifer Lai and Isoke Samuel. Our producers are Lori Galarreta, Carla Javier and Dan Bloom. Matt Martinez is our senior producer and a big welcome to Michael Hammond. He did this episode’s mixing and sound design. Dan Dzula is our technical director. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. Special thanks to Katie Hinman. I want to thank you for listening. I’m Audie Cornish.

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