Hollywood strike showcases a local horror story

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      By Jamila Pomeroy

      Back in the good old days, when you could still rent a movie from Blockbuster, the film industry was honed in on the art of movie-making. It was, at that time, led by the creatives and the studios that breathed life into the industry. With that, the art of filmmaking remained central to every decision. But things are unrecognizably different now.

      Aside from the obvious (read: that movie-renting doesn’t happen at video stores anymore), the film industry is now also largely run by tech companies. Though the goal may still be to make films and shows that connect to people in a visceral way, so much of the process has changed.

      Particularly in the television space, a growing concern for many writers is that more people are working at minimums regardless of experience; in addition, the duration of the writers’ room (the groupthink that results in storylines, sub-plots, character development, and actual dialogue) is often shorter. This means less-frequent work and money for writers, while showrunners are left without writing staff to complete their seasons.

      From shortened “mini” writers’ rooms to no residuals (i.e. the long-term earnings someone gets over time for a show or film’s reruns following release, which are barely existent in the streaming era), corporate buyouts, and limited (sometimes zero) intellectual property ownership of their own work, screenwriters are witnessing their once fruitful and stable careers slip away. Even worse, the threat of what AI might do to the industry, and the sheer amount of careers it could wipe out, is tragically, terrifyingly real.

      On April 17, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) announced that its members had voted to authorize a strike—with an overwhelming 97.85 per cent voting in favour. The goal? Revisiting guild and union labor laws, and examining the discrepancies between traditional filmmaking and streaming. Though many of the WGA asks, like not letting AI take work away from writers, seem totally rational, the debate of what filmmaking looks like in 2023 and beyond continues. On July 17, the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) also went on strike, echoing WGA’s fair labour requests and concerns surrounding AI.

      It marks the first time that both the WGA and SAG have been on strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) since 1960. This momentous strike isn’t just setting a precedent for the future of filmmaking; it’s an active battle between traditional filmmakers and tech giants.

      The streaming-dominant industry has left those of us in film production stranded in uncharted waters, grasping for stability. And with so many people making less money as inflation continues to rise, we’re white-knuckled at the thought that filmmaking might go from sustainable career to side-hustle (I recognize that most people in the industry don’t make A-list-level millions, but a healthy, stable-ish career remained very much possible). If the lengthy battle has made anything certain, it’s that while new technology has generated advancements in filmmaking, the shift to tech and internet dominance has also created a whole new onslaught of issues.

      Though WGA and SAG-AFTRA are American organizations, these problems don’t just stop at the border. In fact, in many ways, the ongoing strike has been just as cumbersome for Canadians. We may not be on strike, but with such enmeshed industries, our Canadian counterparts—the Writers Guild of Canada (WGC), and the Screen Actors Guild–Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (SAG-ACTRA)—have voiced solidarity, resulting in the ceasing of all American unionized work in Canada.

      In Vancouver, where some 65,000 people are employed by the film industry, there are no cameras rolling in the union world. In fact, three larger projects (Tron, Final Destination, The Recruit) that were scheduled to shoot right now have halted due to the strike. It’s a stark difference from this time last year, when dozens of productions were in town—and too soon of a financial burden for so many who had only just begun to recover from the effects of the pandemic.

      It should also be noted that WGC and SAG-ACTRA are standing in solidarity with WGA and SAG-AFTRA, even though Canadian writers and actors won’t directly reap any strike benefits once an agreement is finally made. It’s a situation that cements many of the issues Canadians face surrounding our cross-pollinated industries. Canada is merely seen as a service production country, and Vancouver as a jumping-off point to Hollywood. The strike also demonstrates just how much Canada’s film industry relies on projects from the States.

      The majority of the financial influx of film and television in Vancouver currently comes from the US and American-owned intellectual property; however, this will hopefully change with Bill C-11, which passed earlier this year. Called the Online Streaming Act and aimed to amend the Broadcasting Act, the bill is predicted to create an $86-million surge in Canadian content. It will also impact the retention of Canadian intellectual property, helping more Canadian creators and producers retain rights and participate differently in profit-sharing scenarios. It’s a big win for Canadians, and means there’s opportunity for more collaboration and greater profits for all. Until then, though, without strike pay and some now without benefits, many Canadian writers and actors are being forced to seek work outside of the industry. It’s not by choice—it’s survival.

      Jamila Pomeroy is a writer, producer, and the founder of RUCKUS Machine Pictures.