Shortly after midnight on December 8, 1962, on West 43rd Street in Manhattan, right at the epicenter of the world, hundreds of people who worked in the newspaper industry walked out of the New York Times building and into the cold streets to begin a strike that would last 114 days. About 17,000 newspaper employees, from pressmen to paper handlers, elevators operators to reporters, joined the picket lines. “At its core, the New York newspaper strike was a battle over technology,” Scott Sherman wrote in Vanity Fair. “The 1950s and 1960s saw the emergence of computerized typesetting systems that would revolutionize the newspaper composing room. Newspapers that prohibited unions, such as the Los Angeles Times, rushed to install cutting-edge computers such as the RCA 301. Newspapers with union contracts, including those in New York City, faced tempestuous resistance from labor leaders, who could easily see that automation would cost jobs.”
Of course, the newspaper strike didn’t stop the future. If anything, it simply hastened the demise of numerous newspapers. What the union leaders at the time didn’t understand (or want to accept) was that technology cannot be stopped, slowed, or avoided in an industry that is being disrupted. Either you find a way to adapt, or someone else does. Years after that strike, the veteran reporter Tom Wolfe, who had been a journalist at the Herald Tribune at the time, would say, “This was an absolutely foolish strike. There was a stubborn union leadership that was not going to give in, no matter what.”
Hollywood, which has mostly avoided the dislocations affecting the rest of the media industry, now faces its own moment of reckoning. Unlike journalism, where technology has decimated profit margins, Tinseltown is still living high on the hog, sustaining an entire ecosystem of agents and middlemen who do nothing, add little value, and get paid incredibly well for their services. That’s why trying to get a movie or TV show made in Hollywood is like watching a salmon swim upstream with a cinderblock hooked onto its dorsal fin. And it’s also why the current brouhaha between the unions and agents puts so much at stake in the industry.
If you don’t live in one of the most expensive ZIP codes in America, here’s a little recap of what’s going on. Last week, the Writers Guild of America required its members to fire agents who would not agree to a new code of conduct regarding the widespread use of packaging fees, wherein agents get paid by studios or networks, rather than taking a standard 10 percent commission tied to writers’ earnings, and thus are able to make more money than the writers themselves. On Wednesday, the union ramped up its battle with the major talent agencies, announcing a lawsuit against the four agencies that dominate Hollywood: WME, CAA, UTA, and ICM. (My colleague Joy Press has a great rundown here.) With numerous writers going without agents, the W.G.A. has created a new online submission system designed to replace some of their functions.
The online tool is an imperfect fix, but one wonders if the W.G.A. spat is just the beginning of Silicon Valley hollowing out Hollywood in the same way that it has nearly every other creative industry in America. Right now, Hollywood is booming. There are now almost 500 original scripted TV series being produced a year, an astounding increase of over 100 from six years ago. But as a longtime technology journalist who has watched technology decimate journalism (or at least journalism’s profit margins), it’s not hard to see why Hollywood is next—and why the unions in Hollywood are in for a fight like no other. Part of the problem is that some of the big agencies, like CAA, want to go public in the not-too-distant future, and need to keep their revenue up in order to do so successfully. Packaging fees account for a big part of that equation. In addition, the consolidation of power by new streaming-video juggernauts, such as Disney+, WarnerMedia, Netflix, and Amazon, will mean the ability to make money on the backend from international sales (which happens when a show is hugely successful, like ER or CSI) is all but about to vanish.
The same inexorable forces (and, in some instances, the same companies) have remade the music industry, book publishing, retail, magazines, and photography, among other once-lucrative creative industries. So while the stakes of the Writers Guild of America lawsuit may seem small, this is actually just the first volley in a battle that is likely to consume Hollywood. The results of the packaging deal may not seem like they are that important, but for Hollywood writers, and eventually directors, actors, editors, and anyone who has anything to do with making television and films, they might be the biggest deal yet in the history of the industry. The same technologies that the unions view as an ally today could end up swallowing Hollywood tomorrow.
Earlier this week, as I was lying in bed, I felt our house rattle very briefly. I quickly Googled “earthquake Los Angeles,” and found myself reading an article that had just been written on the L.A. Times Web site, explaining that a tremor had occurred a few miles from my house, its level on the Richter scale, and a few other pertinent details. Yet, at the end of the article, instead of a byline, I learned that the piece had been written by an algorithm. As far as I could tell, no human intelligence had been involved. More and more, the same is true for stories about stocks, sports, and anything else that involves numbers and data that can be created by a computer rather than a person.
It won’t be long before machine learning begins to impact jobs in Hollywood, too. A few years ago, on a tour at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, professors explained to me how they were exploring A.I. that could be used to write screenplays and edit films. Now, algorithms are actually co-writing screenplays, including one starring Thomas Middleditch. Computer algorithms are the stars of our shows, too. (Recent Star Wars films have featured C.G.I. versions of actors and actresses who are dead.) On Twitter last week, people were in disbelief that a cat in the next Toy Story movie wasn’t actually a cat, but a computer-generated version of one. How long will it be before a film studio, after fighting with an actor about their pay for a sequel, simply animates them instead?
More frightening is a future in which our smart TVs can watch us back. Years ago, I saw a security demo for a program that could be used by spy agencies to track people’s eyes as they read words on a screen. The primary purpose was to ensure that only the intended recipient could read a decrypted message, but the software could also monitor pupil movement and dilation, facial movements, and heartbeat speed to determine if viewers were engaged, nervous, excited, and so on. Could that same technology be applied to an audience watching a TV show? Already, Netflix tracks which show icons you linger on, and adjusts how they are presented to maximize the likelihood that you will click. Now imagine a world in which Netflix and its ilk can literally see when you get bored, if a joke works or falls flat, if a scene isn’t exciting enough, and so on.
In some ways, that future is already here. Last year, after crunching the numbers on Arrested Development’s disastrous fourth installment, Netflix decided to recut the entire season, shortening the episodes and re-arranging scenes so that they were chronological rather than based around a single character. The remix wasn’t perfect, but it was comparatively well received. Perhaps more important, it served as a proof of concept for the idea that content doesn’t need to be fixed, but can evolve to suit an audience. In the case of Arrested Development, series creator Mitchell Hurwitz stepped in to recut the show. Soon, however, shows may be able to recut themselves. During a recent meeting at one of the big studios, I heard about a technology that is analyzing the way award-winning movies and TV shows are edited, and exploring if a computer can edit content with the same precision. You come home from work and say, “Hey, Alexa, make me a personalized comedy with a female lead set in New York that is 16 minutes long so I can watch it before dinner.” Then, like magic, that’s what you’re watching.
When you compare what is happening in Hollywood to what has happened in every other industry, maybe Hollywood unions have a chance to ensure that the people who make a living here don’t get screwed over like Uber drivers and journalists did. As one writer involved in the current labor dispute explained to me, “When guilds of any kind—whether it’s through licensing or regulation—have been disrupted, you see a complete degradation for the quality of work and pay for the people who work in those industries: they make less money, have no health insurance, and certainly have less power,” the writer explained. “Disruption has not been good for labor, even if it has been good for consumers.”
Most Americans think Hollywood has already been disrupted by technology. They look at Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the fact that they can stream Game of Thrones on their iPhone as a sign that Hollywood has gone through it’s inevitable technology changes already. But that quixotic thinking is akin to the newspaper unions of 1962 seeing the upcoming RCA 301 as the only disruption that would happen to newsrooms in our lifetime. In reality, that was nothing. The same is true with the streaming-video platforms today. All these companies have really done is change how we get our content; on the production side, creative work is frustratingly messy and entirely human. Hollywood, whether it believes it or not, is still ripe for disruption. The question is: will it be people who do the disrupting, or a computer somewhere in Silicon Valley?