Do striking writers and actors still need the studios?

Major League Baseball is no stranger to labor disputes, but even the 1994 strike that led to the World Series being canceled paled in comparison to what happened in 1890. Baseball’s two leagues — the National League and the American Association — had colluded to keep player salaries low, and the NL instituted a reserve clause, which prevented players from switching teams in search of a higher salary.

After the 1889 season, the players didn’t just go on strike, they started their own league. The NL and AA continued play with scab players, but the Players League also fielded eight teams — including a Buffalo team that was called the Bisons, despite the minor-league Bisons already existing and occupying the same stadium. (Buffalo finished last in the Players’ League, and one lowlight was a game against the Brooklyn Wonders in which a Brooklyn man known only as “Lewis” asked for a tryout with the Bisons, was named starting pitcher on the spot, and proceeded to give up 20 runs in the first three innings.)

For one glorious season, baseball players controlled their own destiny. The PL outdrew the NL, as most of the era’s best players had joined the strike. But with three major leagues now competing, there weren’t enough fans to go around, and all three lost money. The PL’s financial backers got nervous and the league folded after one season. The AA, wounded by the strike, would fold a year later, so the National League, now the only game in town, had tremendous leverage. The players’ freedom was gone, the reserve clause would remain in place until 1975, but baseball history buffs still wonder what might have been if the Players League had stuck it out.

One hundred and thirty-three years later, the Writers Guild of America strike is in its fourth month, now joined by the Screen Actors Guild, with every other major union in the film and television world voicing its support. Writers and actors are striking over a streaming model that has cut severely into their compensation, even as c-suite salaries continue to grow exponentially. But what’s really at issue is a question that cuts to the soul of Hollywood as a creative enterprise. The studios seem to believe that, between CGI and ChatGPT, they no longer need writers and actors. Scan some actors’ likenesses, have a chatbot spew out a script that’s an amalgamation of every script that came before it, and no humans need be involved at all.

Never mind what the results of that might look like. Last month, gaming news site The Portal breathlessly reported that World of Warcraft was introducing long-awaited character “Glorbo,” when no such character existed. Reddit users posted fake announcements about Glorbo, and the AI bot that now writes The Portal’s articles dutifully scanned those posts and reported them as news, unable to fact-check, review sources, or use basic common sense. If the studios get their way, this will also be how movies and TV shows are written in the future.

Does Hollywood need creative talent? Our good friend Glorbo assures us it does. But maybe that’s not the question we should be asking. Does creative talent need Hollywood? Or like the baseball players of yore, could they simply start their own league?

We’re already one step ahead of Karl Marx, as the means of production are firmly in the hands of the workers. High-quality digital cameras are cheap. Editing software comes with every Mac. (And professional-quality editing software is $21/month.) And worldwide distribution — once something no one but a major studio could do — is instantaneous and free. (Which is to say, if Pewdiepie can reach a global audience of millions, how hard can it be?)

YouTubers have already bypassed the studio system and found what’s essentially a massive television audience. Good Mythical Morning has roughly the same-sized audience as The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Children’s television behemoth CoComelon got 83 million daily viewers on their YouTube channel in 2019; CBS, the number one broadcast network, averages just under 6 million nightly viewers in primetime. Mr. Beast has a net worth of half a billion dollars, even after giving countless millions to charity. Surely some of these striking writers and actors could put a show together and make enough money streaming it themselves to give cast and crew a better deal than they’re currently getting from either the streaming services or the traditional studios. It’s certainly an easier task if you don’t also have to make enough money to pay a bunch of executives’ eight-figure salaries and satisfy an army of shareholders.

Which may be the entire reason the studios are squeezing writers and actors in the first place. Their business model has been completely upended since the days when three broadcast networks dominated and a full quarter of the population would watch the finale of a hit show like Cheers or Seinfeld. Studio executives must see comedians putting their best material on Instagram and TikTokkers building up millions of followers the same way oil company executives watch wave after wave of electric cars roll off the assembly line. The world is changing, and they’re trying to squeeze every dime out of their old model before it’s obsolete.

The irony is that the harder they squeeze, the quicker they move towards the scrap heap. Underpaying — or eliminating — writers and actors might save them some money in the short term, but alienating a generation of creative talent by announcing they want union members to “start losing their houses” is just going to push more writers and actors to work outside the system (or work with a small studio like A24, which has been exempted from the strike for treating creatives well even before any demands were made). And Hollywood’s strategy of locking in on sequels and franchises has become a creative and commercial dead end, as the middling returns for Scream VI and The Flash show. The success of Everything Everywhere All at Once and this summer’s Barbenheimer phenomenon are reminders that audiences want something new, and we want something interesting and well-written. AI-generated, focus-group-directed movies can’t deliver that, but talented writers and actors can, within Hollywood or without it.