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Why Hollywood Shouldn’t Risk Another Strike With Generative AI

Picketers no longer parade through Hollywood streets, but the aftereffects of 2023’s WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes weigh heavily on the entertainment industry’s unsung heroes.

I’m referring to thousands of “below the line” crew members who operate cameras, light sets, design costumes, art and props and staff production offices, who mostly work as freelancers in an increasingly disrupted industry.

Recent employment data present a sobering window into the state of post-strikes industry employment.

During last year’s walkouts, the industry lost over 45,000 jobs in total from May to September 2023, according to the jobs report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released in September. As of the February 2024 report, recovery remains relatively meager. In the U.S., the Motion Picture and Sound Recording industries added only about 3,200 jobs, even while losing another 1,800 in broadcasting and other content providers.

Across the pond, things are looking much worse. A recent report by Bectu, which surveyed 4,160 U.K. film and TV workers in February, found that 68% of respondents were not currently working, down only marginally from 74% in September 2023. Meanwhile, 30% said they have had no work in the prior three months, and 58% hadn’t seen any recovery in their employment since the end of the strikes in the U.S.

Whether last year’s strikes prove beneficial in the long run, they rocked the industry. As a freelance showrunner myself, I feel the aftershocks, as do industry colleagues I talk to every day. Each of us worry about how sustainable our careers in film and TV will be.

Hearing about IATSE’s current discontent and rumors of more strikes, I feel concerned. Although I’m not a union member, I fully support my industry’s labor interests. But more strikes aren’t inevitable: Many local guilds have reached draft contract agreements. Still, the possibility of another work stoppage remains.

I urge my union colleagues to weigh the industry impact of strike action. The last thing workers need is another round of suspended or canceled shows, lost months of income and studio job cuts.

As if the industry’s basic financials aren’t concerning enough, generative AI further shifts the dynamics. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman reportedly spent Oscars weekend showing off Sora, a new generative text-to-video AI system, to studio execs all over Hollywood.

In my recent TEDx talk, I described my concerns about what generative AI might do to our industry. While Sora and other generative AI tools aren’t close to making movies good enough to wipe out film and TV production, OpenAI’s timing is either dreadful or convenient, depending on which side of the picket line you stand.

SEE ALSO: Data Shows Industry AI Adoption Growing — Slowly

Will the siren song of AI tempt studios into risky and expensive bets to the detriment of IATSE’s 170,000 members? No one seems to know. But it’s another reason I say strikes aren’t the way to go.

Discontent among IATSE members is certainly starting to boil, and it’s entirely possible we’ll see picket lines crisscrossing Burbank yet again. But we’ll also see shows going dark and, in many cases, the bills of industry workers going unpaid.

I wholeheartedly support the union’s positions on the excruciating hours, lack of adequate work-life balance and capriciously unstable employment that plague our industry. But instead of strikes, I urge advocacy and negotiation. Let the process take its course. Stay on your jobs and continue proving how valuable and irreplaceable your technical skills and creative abilities really are.

In other words, keep your seat at the table — and continue demanding actionable safeguards for your jobs. If and when strikes become the only option, we’ll know it. But now is not the time.

Paul Epstein is an Emmy-nominated producer, writer and director known for his work across scripted, factual and news television with major TV networks and streamers, including Peacock, Discovery and MSNBC.

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