Our Long National Nightmare Is Over. Or Is It?

This coming weekend, America will be celebrating war heroes and their families for Veterans’ Day.  But as any student of history should know, the day, for years exclusively celebrated on November 11th, was originally known as Armistice Day, in honor of the cessation of World War I conflict.   Dictionary.com defines armistice as follows:

An armistice is a formal agreement of warring parties to stop fighting. It is not necessarily the end of a war, as it may constitute only a cessation of hostilities.

How appropriate that on the eve of this year’s commemoration, we finally saw an end to the labor wars that have essentially defined and shape Hollywood 2023.  As Christi Carras of the Left Angeles TIMES reported it:

Performers union SAG-AFTRA and the alliance representing the major Hollywood studios reached a tentative deal Wednesday to end the historic, 118-day actors’ strike.

“It was a team effort, and all negotiations — to be successful — require deep communication, both within your own side and also with the other side of the table,” said SAG-AFTRA national executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland. 

“It’s certainly not perfect for anybody. Any good negotiation, both parties come out of it feeling like they didn’t get everything they wanted. But I think we did get everything we needed and then some. And I think that is going to be the legacy of this negotiation.”

Actors have been on the picket lines since July 14, demanding higher minimum pay, increased residual payments for streaming shows and improved health benefits, as well as protections related to self-taped auditions and the use of artificial intelligence in filmmaking.

Huzzah.  And indeed, at least the nuclear option that was being threatened by both sides was avoided.  And let’s just say that last weekend’s theatrical box office, or lack thereof, and the anemic ratings that the patchwork lineups of broadcast and cable networks generated during what was historically the first week of the once-crucial November sweeps period may have played a role in finally bringing these sides to an armistice.

So at least the barriers to actually pursuing work have been removed.  But how much work they are actually chasing, not to mention the potential of any of it succeeding to the extent that people aspire, are barriers that still remain.  And perhaps knowing full well that results like the ones that were released by Warner Brothers Discovery and Disney in their respective quarterly earnings calls yesterday were imminent just might have been the catalyst that actually produced that truce.

Our buddies at Warner Discovery had a particularly lousy morning, as DEADLINE’s Jill Goldsmith reported:

Investors bid down shares of Warner Bros. Discovery today as its chief financial officer described a U.S. ad market “that has continued to be weaker than we had hoped” and a recovery that’s hard to predict “with any conviction.”

The shares are down more that 16% at about $9.77 in midday trading after quarterly earnings and commentary.  “It is becoming increasingly clear now that, much like 2023, 2024 will have its share of complexity, particularly as it relates to the possibility of continued sluggish advertising trends,” CFO Gunnar Weidenfels told a conference call with Wall Streeters after the numbers. International markets “remain more stable” in comparison to the U.S., he said, and streaming advertising is solid.

And this, as CNN’s Chris Isidore noted, was in spite of Warner Brothers pursuing, curating and successfully marketing one of the few truly bright spots of 2023:

Blockbuster hit “Barbie” brought in a record $1.5 billion for Warner Bros. Discovery, but the company still reported a $417 million loss for the quarter that was bigger than Wall Street’s forecasts.

BARBIE has been lauded as one of the few big reaches for a new creative take on known IP, a truly unique value proposition that managed to appeal to the holy grail of all four quadrants, doing so with vision and execution and marketing that broke conventional norms.  Wholly unlike what has been going on Disney, for example.  And while Disney’s Wall Street news was slightly less dour, thanks in part to the spin that chairman Bob Iger tried to put on it that cited the success and potential of business units largely apart from filmed entertainment, they’ve got a particularly stressful weekend of their own ahead, as THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s James Hibberd outlined:

Will The Marvels reverse Marvel’s recent run of meh?

Not according to the early critic reviews. The latest Marvel Cinematic Universe title is getting rather mediocre notices with a just-out-of-the-gate Rotten Tomatoes score in the mid-50s, which would make it one of the weakest MCU titles ever.

But what’s interesting is that many reactions to The Marvels are also intensely polarized — with some insisting the film is delightful fun while others are calling the movie “abject misery,” “turgidly mindless,” and “a new low” for Marvel. In general, the more traditional news outlets tend to skew against the film (Hollywood Reporter‘s review excluded) while some of the more fan-focused entertainment sites are much more positive. Overall, it seems like the more one has invested in watching all the previous MCU movies and TV shows, the more likely they are to dig The Marvels — and understand it.

Which kinda makes the victory lap that Iger attempted to take via DEADLINE’s Rosy Cordero and Dominic Patten all the more disingeneous:

It was time,” he said of the tentative agreement, which still must be approved by the SAG-AFTRA board and ratified by eligible members of the 160,000-strong guild. “I’m really happy that we were able to reach an agreement with SAG after such a long period of time for the actors and that’ll be it,” Iger noted at the El Capitan Theatre, where he attended the premiere for Disney’s latest animated musical comedy.

Time for what??  Well, according to Iger, he’s got some plans, but notice few of them involve ABC or the vast array of Disney production entities.  Per Robbie Whelan of the WALL STREET JOURNAL:

Iger told investors in a fourth-quarter earnings call that Disney will focus on four “building blocks” that provide the foundation for future growth: streaming, theme parks and cruises, studios and the ESPN sports network.  Disney said Wednesday it would slash $2 billion more in costs than previously planned as the company sharply narrowed losses in its streaming business.

So it sure sounds like fewer shows are going to be made at all.  And given the fact that the twin strikes all but destroyed any real production since May, the majority of even the few shows that were ordered for 2023-24 are being pushed back into 2024-25, as are the release dates for quite a number of tentpole movies.  Which will mean that consumers will be faced with an imminent desert of concepts as innovative as was BARBIE to draw their attention, and give them that much more opportunity to splinter into factions where their entertainment catnip can come from a dizzying array of options.  Including second windows of streaming originals, newly discovered library content (see SUITS) and sports, assuming anyone can figure out an economic model to afford key rights.

So yes, actors and, now, writers can celebrate the fact that they achieved many goals for existential issues they considered to be crucial to these negotiations.  But now the hard part.  How to cut through the rhetoric and still-simmering polarizations and find a way for good people and good ideas to actually get a chance to find an audience.

Our friend Rick Ellis at TOO MUCH TV provided these sobering observations in his newsletter last night:

Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav has a similar “better quality” statement this morning and it’s a similar refrain to the one that was used by Netflix head of original films in an interview earlier this week.

“We are going to make fewer films, but they will be of better quality.” Which sounds great in theory, I suppose. But it assumes there is some connection between quality and the number of projects. And if that were true, the most successful studios would only make one great project per year.

What they are really saying is that they realize that some of their previous things sucked. And they want people to believe that somehow making fewer projects will automatically make the remaining productions less sucky.

And he also points out that although armistice was achieved, there were credible reports that there is still dissention amongst the troops:

Much has rightfully been made of comments made by various streaming and studio execs about striking workers. But I don’t know that any of them were as brutal as the quotes from an unnamed actor about some of their fellow actors in today’s profile of SAG-AFTRA head Fran Drescher in The Hollywood Reporter:

And let’s not forget, as has been noted previously in this space, there’s still an awful lot of people who never had a union to help them out that aren’t exactly thrilled:

So maybe it might be time for actors to perhaps delve into some history of their own–ironically, which originally dates back to the exact year when the World War I armistice was reached–to perhaps chart a course to give them a fighting chance at survival.  Remember there was once an independent company called United Artists.  As Wikipedia reminds, it was some existential issues of that time that drove talent to become businesspeople:

In 1918, Charlie Chaplin could not get his parent company First National Pictures to increase his production budget despite being one of their top producers. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks had their own contracts, with First National and Famous Players–Lasky respectively, but these were due to run out with no clear offers forthcoming. Sydney Chaplin, brother and business manager for Charlie, deduced something was going wrong, and contacted Pickford and Fairbanks. Together they hired a private detective, who discovered a plan to merge all production companies and to lock in “exhibition companies” to a series of five-year contracts.[8]

Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith incorporated United Artists as a joint venture company on February 5, 1919.  They were spurred on by established Hollywood producers and distributors who were tightening their control over actor salaries and creative decisions.

When you’ve got the likes of Iger and Zaslav and their cronies holding the keys and controlling the steering wheel, it might be high time for the likes of George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and yes, even Drescher, to reach out to brains and strategists they have come to know through these negotiations and their non-acting successes and perhaps redirecting the kind of money they offered to throw at striking actors which the union respectfully rejected and perhaps consider launching a new iteration of UA to curate talent and consider ideas that the current studio (and streamer) system doesn’t seem inclined to consider?

No, not every idea will be as successful as BARBIE.  But they can’t be much worse than yet another iteration of the MCU, the DCU, or a series set in an ICU.

Enjoy the armistice.  But don’t think the war is close to being over.

Until next time…


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