Iron While the Strike is Hot!* or Is It Too Late to Unshred Hollywood?

by Fayr Barkley, PhD

*Guest Blog from Fayr Barkley, writer, producer/director, ethically trained journalist, and on-air personality who moved back to her native Mississippi after 33 years in Hollywood.

Having been in this industry since age 21 and wearing many hats, including working on the business and creative sides, I moved home to the Gulf Coast, but still maintain my contacts and insights in Hollywood.

I am watching how the current WGA, SGA/AFTRA, etc., strike is affecting my friends and colleagues, so thought I would offer a possible scenario here based upon a trajectory suggested by current events and a decreasing and disturbingly growing lack of reliance by Hollywood on humans and an increasing availability of fast evolving technology that may soon redefine film making and TV production as we now know it. 

It is certainly diminishing the leverage writers and actors, and the unions involved once had.

Here are my thoughts and questions to ponder. The answers, results remain to be seen. If you’re in the industry, are you concerned your future is on shaky ground? Can AI, CGI ultimately partially or completely replace your efforts? Keep an open mind as you read. I am a pragmatist, so my thoughts are based upon worst case scenario.  Ask yourselves as you read: What if the worst were to come to pass? If we all get canned, do we have any rights or redress if the industry can survive or even be far more profitable without us?

If this strike bombs, what is my plan B to earn a living?


Do writers and actors have real leverage against Hollywood?

They used to, mainly because there was no production without them. 

Enter AI.

Now Hollywood can scrape, within minutes, books, scripts, musical scores, treatments, actors’ images and voices off the Internet and with AI and a CGI technician/editor, put an entire movie or TV show in the can, hire marketing to promote, tweak it with feedback from the public from screenings, and rake in a lot more money than they make now.

Profits are King. It’s a current corporate edict workers’ noses get rubbed in every workday. “Whatever we can get away with: working people long hours with marginal pay, cutting costs at the risk of safety on set, eliminating whiners who may try to rebel-rouse a strike against us—we’ll do what it takes to increase the corporate coffers and continue stuffing our silk-lined pockets with more money. Blood money you say? Not so! Our hands are clean! Just look at our accounting! We don’t hold a gun to anyone’s head and force them to take the job for the pay we offer.” Or just as bad, “Here at XYZ Studios, we’re like family and want team members like you to join us!” Corporate gaslighting, shaming, guilt-tripping, threats that lead to job insecurity are all part and parcel of the “dysfunctional family” culture you sign up for—without realizing how bad it is until you figure out the game.

Whatever they can get away with to minimize or eliminate paying someone, they will do. Hence, the infamous Hollywood accounting method that has pretty much done well by them thus far. 

In terms of running the entertainment machine from a strictly business perspective, which is their model, with AI and CGI they may soon no longer have to hire, pay, put up with, profit share with actors, writers or hire transactional attorneys,  below the line people: teamsters, background, extras, craft services, production staff, lighting, sound, avert studio costs, location costs, set building, etc. 

It’s a very long list and if you ever sit all the way through the credits, as I do out of respect for the below the line workers, you’ll be amazed how many hundreds of moving parts there are to “put on a show” to entertain you for a couple hours, on average.

If the feedback from the screening audiences indicates a change is needed, the CGI tech can handle it quickly. No need for musicians to create an original score. Let AI do it. Loop the actors’ voices with their own scraped off the Internet. An A-list actor can work without aging (unless the part calls for it) in perpetuity without seeing a dime. Extras and background won’t need to be hired, fed, transported to set. And they won’t have to be paid unemployment between gigs, so studios will save on that insurance, workers comp, liability, hazard pay, etc. 

No more headaches. No more union strikes. AI can even conceive of and create the next A-list actor based upon surveys of what audiences tell them their ideal leading man/woman looks and sounds like, what kind of ending they most want to see in a future drama or rom com and not pay a real person to write, act or participate in any way whatsoever in the production.

Hollywood will take to Facebook and other social media venues to pepper us with questions and then spit out a carefully crafted movie or TV series based on the most popular answers that will translate to increased profits.

Give the audience what it wants to see to maximize ticket sales. What could be better for us, right? And what could be more profitable for Hollywood.  Pragmatically, it just makes sense.

Get rid of the people who work on movies, use AI and CGI to produce the widget. Cut out the fat; make more money. Good business, right?

They no longer have to deal with a diva ego with a drug or alcohol problem or mental disorder. No more expensive locations or sets to build. No per diems to pay. No traveling to exotic places. 

CGI is seamless. I used to produce product on a 14 x 24-foot green screen mini studio. I could make that small space look like the American Idol set and CGI in a huge, applauding audience for pennies on the dollar compared to having to build a set, bring in an actual audience, suffer countless retakes. This was 15 years ago.  We could create outstanding, high production value visuals out of thin air with just a computer, produce for any budget, and no matter where the talent moved on set or where we moved the camera, the perspective was intact. In fact, the camera and computer even produced shadows when people moved. Real Hollywood magic.

As a writer, creator, producer, director who has also crossed the line into being a profit maker–this new technology is a game changer.  But as a human who cares about people losing their livelihoods over a lifetime of gig-work-hopping and leaving families for months at a time, pouring their hearts and souls into projects for the sake of creating art they are proud of and barely feeding their families, its use can be devastating. 

It will render many thousands of people irrelevant and unemployed. Many will have no other skill set to fall back on, because the dream of working in Hollywood, being part of something BIG is all they have ever done, and they paid their dues to earn their way up that very rickety and unstable job ladder. 

Does Hollywood really need actors and writers? 

So, what if Hollywood gets sued for scraping scripts, books, etc. off the Internet to mash up into a new blockbuster film? So, what if it’s copyright protected? I have had my work stolen and copyrighted by a co-writer my agent asked me to take on. To this day the agent claims the work wasn’t copyrighted, but my attorney found it online and sent me the documents, and I have all the emails and notes proving it’s my work and I should have at least been told about the copyright and included on it. That hammer will drop when I’m ready.

But let’s get back to the lawsuit issue.

I was friends with a Disney Sr. VP who was also an attorney.  He said, “We don’t care if we get sued. We will outlive them and outspend them.” He was a hatchet man for the studio who told me that eventually all hatchet men get the axe. Sure enough…he got his.

I have personally known several people crushed by the Hollywood machine-4 of them come to mind right now. Standing up to the machine is very risky. Everyone I know who did is still unemployed today. 

Being sued is part of the cost of doing business. Those losses are factored into overhead. If the machine has to pay out, they can afford to do so without feeling the sting, because they brought in far in excess in profits.

But the co-writer who ripped me off can lose everything. That’s the difference.

With Hollywood’s accounting practices (where even $300 million or more is made) they can still show zero profit. 

You can’t get blood out of a turnip.

So, even though “it all starts with the written word” Hollywood may no longer feel or even actually need human writers to churn out words. Or human actors on set possibly wasting time/money blowing a line 35 takes before the director decides the line isn’t essential, strikes set and moves on to the next scene. Or any of the hundreds of people historically necessarily to put a film up on a 70-foot diagonal screen. 

They now have the technology to animate the whole thing, and the animation will look, sound, and feel human. 

It’s progress. 

But is it ethical? The short answer is: Do you really think the machine cares? It’s business, baby. That’s how it’s done. And the more technology advances, the less leverage people on the picket line have. 

Is it legal? (See above response.)

Is it faster? Less costly? Less of a headache to create realistic human-like product without the tsuris? Is it better for them to super maximize profits by eliminating costly overhead (people who depend on this work for a living)? 

After all, isn’t lowering overhead to maximize profit “the American way” and the right of every business owner to do?

If push comes to shove, Hollywood is in or almost in a position to tell everyone on the strike line to go take a permanent hike…and be the richer for it.

Audiences will still pay for entertainment…regardless of whether it contains real humans or animated facsimiles. Either can spike our dopamine, adrenaline, tug at our heart strings, make us laugh, cause us to think, make us cry, cheer, root for the underdog, post about it on social media so ticket sales and profits go higher. 

People have always been disposable to the industry; even more so now. 

And I have always said, “People who don’t understand the business side of this industry are destined to be buried by it.” 

It will be interesting to see how the strike shakes out. And maybe they will get what they want for now, until Hollywood decides once and for all people aren’t really essential to the process anymore.

Indicators are pointing that way. And if an extra nickel can be made, rest assured–the machine will know how to squeeze it out. 

I’m Fayr Barkley and I reserve my rights over this original content in part and in entirety, which in today’s AI climate isn’t worth a hill of beans.