Based on a true story featuring greed, hobbits, and CGI zombie puppets
FADE IN — An ESTABLISHING SHOT of a HOLLYWOOD STUDIO COMPLEX. It is EMPTY. The entire area, usually busy frantically pumping out a steady stream of sequels, remakes, and Marvel blockbusters, is eerily SILENT — the most silent it has been in over six decades. The reason? An oppressed workforce’s best friend — STRIKES.
Three and a half months ago, Hollywood’s writers walked off of sets and out of offices over failed negotiations with studios. Two months later, Hollywood’s actors joined them. It started as a simple pay dispute, but as negotiations continued it became clear that the creatives were fighting an even greater enemy — one that could change the entertainment industry forever.
But let’s talk about the whole pay thing first — cause that’s important too, yeah?
Act One: The Whole Pay Thing
The main reason actors and writers are striking is a little thing called residuals. Residuals can be pretty complex, but for the purposes of this article we can basically look at them as the payment a creator gets whenever their work is viewed. These are super important for jobbing creatives – during slow periods where an actor or writer is between jobs, a residuals check can be, quite literally, life-saving.
The big problem is that studios don’t like paying residuals very much. Every time a new medium is introduced the studios do their best to cut residuals down. It happened with television, it happened with DVDs — and now it’s happening with streaming. Writers and actors have taken to social media to proudly share their 2¢, 1¢, or even 0¢ residual checks — checks which are worth less than the paper they are printed on.
The main reason the studios getting away with this in the first place is because in this age of streaming, they hold all the cards. When a new show was broadcast on television, viewership numbers could be independently verified, meaning that both studios and creatives had the information. Now, if a show comes out on Disney+, only Disney knows for sure how many people watched it, and they don’t have to disclose to creatives how they calculate residuals. As streaming has risen in popularity with viewers, studios have been able to erode away residual payments to nearly nothing, and the actors and writers have had enough. The creatives have asked for more clarity on viewing figures for streaming content, the studios have refused to even entertain this notion, and it’s one of the big reasons for the negotiation breakdown and the strike.
Act Two: A Local Perspective
So that’s what’s going on in America — but how does that affect us in New Zealand? It would be easy to think that the machinations of major studios had no impact here whatsoever. To New Zealand, Hollywood might seem as mythical and far-away a land as Middle-Earth. Until of course, you remember Hollywood used us as their Middle-Earth. And their Narnia. And their Pandora. And their live action Minecraft starring Jason Mamoa (which yes, is a real thing which would probably be filming right here right now if it weren’t for the strikes). But why do they use us for so many big productions? It isn’t just the pretty scenery: it’s because of unions.
New Zealand’s actors have a much weaker union than our American counterparts. Back when The Lord of the Rings was produced, the New Zealand actors who starred in it didn’t have any rights to residuals whatsoever, unlike their US co-stars, who had been fighting for them since 1960.
By the time The Hobbit rolled around, New Zealand actors had decided they deserved better and a strike was called. Warner Bros. retaliated by threatening to move production elsewhere, and the Government of the time (led by John Key) panicked and scrambled to ‘save the New Zealand film industry’ by literally rewriting the labour laws to make actors freelance contractors who could not collectively bargain. The strike was ended overnight by an underhanded deal between Warner Bros. and the Government. New Zealand became a friendlier place for multimillion dollar studios, and a much more hostile place for new jobbing actors.
The whole story is a pretty compelling example of why these strikes are so important in the first place. Both then and now, it’s not as if the actors were asking for much. These studios generate profits to the tune of millions of dollars, and paying fair residuals would account for a fraction of a percentage of those profits. And yet, every couple of decades, creatives have to fight just to get back what they already had — and sometimes, like in the case of New Zealand and the Hobbit law, the greed of the studios wins out and they don’t even get to keep that.
So that all sounds pretty bad, right? Well, strap in because somehow — somehow — it could get even worse.
Act Three: The Rise of AI
During these many weeks of striking, the executives have been sitting up in their ivory towers, thinking. Unfortunately, they haven’t been thinking “how do I take better care of my workers?” They’ve been thinking “how feasible would it be to replace all of my workers with robots?”
After all, AI doesn’t strike. AI doesn’t ask for a pay rise. AI doesn’t fight against executives meddling with its work to make it more “marketable.” So by studio logic, AI could — maybe not yet, but eventually — replace their writers.
And it gets better. AI can recreate the faces and voices of famous actors. AI never ages. AI never dies. Beloved stars can be scanned into a computer, and their AI powered digital duplicate can delight audiences forever. It’s not like this is future technology either; it’s already happening. Disney already uses AI voices in an effort to make Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker sound exactly how they did 40 years ago, and elsewhere long-dead actors are being ghoulishly resurrected by digital doubles for cheap cameos. Recently, The Flash (2023) ‘bought back’ George Reeves, an actor who committed suicide amid a depression spiral spurred on by his typecasting as Superman. Although the role made him famous, Reeves resented it for effectively dead-ending his career. And now, over half a century later, his likeness adorns a dead-eyed CGI puppet in The Flash. Even in death, he can’t escape his typecasting.
And this trend is only accelerating. Extras working on Marvel television shows have been reporting they were made to undergo full body scans, without being told why or how the scans would be used in future. Studios have also tried to put clauses in actors’ contracts giving them the rights to use said actors’ likeness forever, in any way they wish. It’s not hard to imagine a future where these CGI doubles are fuelled by AI in order to give more complete ‘performances’ so that famous faces can continue to inhabit roles long after the actor that face belonged to has aged or died — or y’know, asked for better pay.
Actors and writers have asked for protections against AI and digital doubles. Studios have refused. The strike continues. Meanwhile, Disney and Netflix have been recruiting AI specialists, offering them massive pay-checks the likes of which many striking actors and writers could only dream of. The future of film and television could be nothing but an endless supply of AI sludge, starring CGI puppets of long dead actors and written by AI cribbing from long dead writers. A complete victory of mindless content over meaningful art.
So what can we do about all this? In terms of the current strike, not a whole lot unfortunately, beyond hoping the writers and actors win out (and maybe rallying to revise the Hobbit law over here). But in the long term, I think the obvious solution is to show studios that real stories made by real people will always win out over soulless computer-drivel. It might seem like AI is inevitable, but it’s only going to take away our art if we let it. My advice? Support real creatives, and support good art. The AI-fuelled CGI zombie puppets might be knocking at our door, but all we have to do to keep them at bay is embrace human creativity.