The Great Replacement Theory, Rewritten

For a brief moment this weekend, there was a glimmer of hope when I saw that the Directors’ Guild of America had reached a tentative deal with the AMPTP.  Naively,  I thought that the upbeat language of the release that DEADLINE’s David Robb reported early yesterday was perhaps a signal that maybe, just maybe,the monolith that is the tech-driven sector of the studios might be somewhat less demonic than the WGA has painted them.  I mean, look what they were able to get:

“We have concluded a truly historic deal,” said Jon Avnet, chair of the DGA’s Negotiations Committee tonight. “It provides significant improvements for every Director, Assistant Director, Unit Production Manager, Associate Director and Stage Manager in our Guild. In these negotiations we made advances on wages, streaming residuals, safety, creative rights and diversity, as well as securing essential protections for our members on new key issues like artificial intelligence – ensuring DGA members will not be replaced by technological advances”.

And then I saw a recent interview that the chairman of Microsoft, Brad Smith, conducted with Margaret Brennan on CBS’ FACE THE NATION, which, after a prelude of light banter that compared the evolution of AI to both the Gutenberg printing press and a Roomba, this telling exchange occurred, per the transcript:

MARGARET BRENNAN: –comfort level. But on the- on the concerning side of the ledger, I mean, rapid automation has replaced human jobs, replaced American workers with machines on so many fronts, right? Goldman Sachs predicted AI’s ascendance will disrupt 300 million jobs here in the U.S. and in Europe. How fast is this going to happen?

SMITH: I think we’ll see it unfold over years, not months. But it will be years, not decades, although things will progress over decades as well. There will be some new jobs that will be created. There are jobs that exist today that didn’t exist a year ago in this field. And there will be some jobs that are displaced. There always are. 

Years, not months.  Years, not decades.  So as far I can tell, that essentially is putting the entire industry on notice.

And then a particularly insightful writer, Sal Calleros (full disclosure: he began his career in research on my staff before becoming one the most sought-after young drama scribes, with credits including THE GOOD DOCTOR and SNOWFALL), brought to the attention of his social media followers this little gem which Tubi–the ad-supported streaming service now run by the same person who effectively shut down the Fleet Street printing unions in London–just acquired :

Written, performed, edited and illustrated with artificial intelligence.  Not directed.


So I guess in hindsight the followup response from the WGA, with the ensuing support of SAG, shouldn’t have been a surprise, as DEADLINE’s holy trinity of Dominic PattenErik Pedersen and Nellie Andreeva reported later yesterday:

Striking writers express some disappointment in their sister union while showing resolve in their own fight for a fair deal with the studios. “I wasn’t around in ’08, but this feels like that from what I’ve heard,” a writer working on streaming series told Deadline Sunday. “The WGA takes a stand, the DGA reaps the rewards.”

Because, at least for now, AI can’t quite do what a director can.  At least, well enough for a studio or a service to have enough faith in it.

And it’s not like studios are even giving writers and actors both the opportunity and the priority to showcase what they can do even now.  The top movies so far this summer are critically panned franchise extensions of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS.   With some different writers than previous installments had, but held on an exceptionally regimented creative leash by top-down insistence that the familiar is favored.  An animated SPIDER-MAN film, equally as mediocre according to many reviewers, just topped nine figures on a non-holiday weekend.  The highest-rated scripted series are predominantly parts of multi-show “verses”, not just on broadcast but on streamers like Paramount+ (ugg) SHOWTIME, which is heavily propped up by the mind and whims of Taylor Sheridan.

The WGA strategy so far has been to picket and give lots of interviews and press conferences, giving DEADLINE and other sites a whole lot of fodder at a time when no new productions are commencing.  They picketed the upfronts in New York, David Zaslav’s commencement speech at his Boston University alma mater and, today, they play to hand out leaflets at Apple stores, on a day when Apple will be announcing new software initiatives, in the pious hope of getting Tim Cook embarassed enough to perhaps be more understanding.

Have we heard a word from Zaslav other than his observation in Cannes that there seem to be fewer yachts this time of year?  Does anyone who knows anyone who has actually worked at Apple think Cook gives more weight to whether TED LASSO wins Emmys versus how many new model IPhones and Apple watches he’ll be selling to well-heeled students and tech junkies soon?  And if the same number of people wind uo watching BIGFOOT, MOTHMAN and THE CHUPACABRA as, say, Tubi’s forgettable entree into original production from two years ago, THE FREAK BROTHERS, do we think they will be any more eager to pony up to writers and actors than they are today–which is clearly not all that eager?

I’m on the side of writers and actors.  I want to see them get their 2% of the 1%.  But as a strategist, I have to remind them that their current approach may be producing some nice reunions of past shows’ creatives, and is probably resulting in some pant and dress sizes dropping.  But I’m really not sure anyone making $400M a year is really listening.

Here’s a suggestion.  Borrow a page from the pandemic playbook.  No dount there are passion projects of yours laying around that have yet to be sold to a studio.  Clearly, actors are in sympatico with you.  Why not stage a few table readings–perhaps as a community event with a live audience, perhaps in your backyard?  Stream it.  Ask for donations to be contributed to a strike fund.  The public is clearly willing to pay for and watch nearly anything, as the box office takes so far this summer indicate.  Use the power of social media and publicity that you’ve been effective in getting your concerns on the issues out and advertise what you’re doing.  Do a whole lot of them.  We operate in a highly splintered environment anyway.

You’d accomplish two things if you did this.  You’d remind people exactly jow uniquely talented you are when you are given the chance to be creative.  And you’d give people a viable alternative to library and rerun product, let alone generative AI content, which they seem to be banking on.

Should you realistically expect to be as impactful with an online project as, say, Pat McAfee’s interviews have been? And perhaps initially there’s enough in reserve for the networks and platforms to have something new to offer viewers for a while.   But again, let the pandemic be a learning tool.  As time wears on and patience wears thin, people will be searching for SOMETHING.  And if you can reinforce they really do want something different rather than a franchise that could indeed be created by a non-human given what those in charge seem to want, you might be able to get more public opinion and, yes, cut into those estimates that are being negotiated over time.

And who knows?  This could be as much as an audition and development process.  You might actually put out something that people would want to see more of.  It’s how singers and musicians do it these days.  Get an online following, then get someone to take notice.  Your best work shouldn’t be saved for picket signs.

Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt you to get a little objective feedback from those who do watch to back up with facts that people do actually like what you’re doing.  Someone like moi can do for that you.  In at least my case, cheap.  We’re being replaced quickly these days, you know.

Sure, continue your protests.  Strikes may indeed work yet.  But the more your creativity can be expanded, the harder it will be for you to be replaced entirely.  Studios know that about directors.  They need to be reminded that the rest of us are as worthy.

If indeed this .is more an existential crisis than a wage gap concern, this would be one way to keep yourself sharp and relevant.  And I’d love to come along for the ride.

But if you are going to do something, do it soon.  Because the way I read it, if we’re to take Brad Smith at face value, by 2032, we’re all at risk.  And he’s far more likely to be hanging with Zaslav and Cook that any of us are.

Until next time…




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