Pop Culture
May 16, 2023, 06:29AM

Hollywood, the Last Bastion of Union Labor

The many knots and roadblocks in this year's ongoing WGA strike.

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There’s something very American that the country’s last bastion of union labor isn’t from one of its pioneering industries or vast, continent-spanning infrastructures but from entertainment. Despite the glitz and glamor, Hollywood, since its boom economy in the first half of the 20th century, has always been a hypermodern production line. Golden Age studios used to be arranged like Ford car factories, where craftsman of different guilds would piecemeal a film together along an assembly line, leading to a prolific number of credits every year for all involved (even if these numbers were still exponentially smaller in the sound era, almost any director would make as many Hollywood films in a year as Hong Sang-soo could with a consumer camera, not to mention the innumerable films a composer could “score”). This much hasn’t changed, although the industry has bubbled up, collapsed, and come back time and time again. Nor has the fundamental relationship at the heart of Hollywood changed: the money and those who produce it. Yet a labor theory of value doesn’t totally tell the picture.

A Hollywood factory is more complicated than any old Rust Belt construction churning out this year’s models, or even a bespoke manufacturer like Rolls Royce. Hollywood, and its many other national equivalents, is an industrial perversion on the art world, one not technologically possible before the turn of the century. It required the inputs of artistry through the means of mechanization to create an industrial, reproducible product. The medium specificity of, say, what an original camera negative is to a print made for distribution isn’t the same as that of an original, physical painting and a reproduction of it. And while there have always been DIYers, avant-gardists, and general renegades that’ve sought to turn filmmaking away from its factory-like home and more akin to an artist in a studio, the trend of film as a big-money game continues.

The massive manpower required for productions of certain scales isn’t necessarily artistically limiting. George Lucas, infamously, said that Soviet filmmakers had more freedom than he did in Hollywood because they weren’t beholden to a narrow commercialism (from the same Charlie Rose interview where he called Disney “white slavers”), a claim that no one is better than supporting than Andrei Konchalovsky, the Soviet filmmaker (and ex-writing partner to Tarkovsky) who defected to Hollywood in the 1980s and found his career beset with more censorship than ever—the censorship of money, in which, rather than having a film completed and thrown on a shelf not to be seen, the people in charge would never let the film get made in the first place, at least not the way the artist wants. In this way, film workers in the States, of all different unions and disciplines, get the short end of both sticks. They’re cheated out of money and artistic freedoms.

The real absurdity of the situation comes, too, from the game the strikers have to play. Paul Schrader drew attention for a scab-y remark saying he’s going to keep promoting his latest film Master Gardener even though that would technically cross the picket line. Schrader jabbed that all the writers who were “formerly unemployed” now get to be on strike. It’s easy to draw similarities to comments made by Aaron Sorkin and Todd Phillips during a writers roundtable by The Hollywood Reporter back in 2010, where Phillips called the WGA the “Whiners Guild” and Sorkin said he was a “union guy” although made the strange claim that “A union makes sense when people have more power as a group than they do as individuals. I have considerably more power as an individual than as a member of that group, and I am forced to be a member of that union in order to work.” This is ostensibly true, in that, as a big-name writer, Sorkin has much more bargaining power than any old nobody carrying a screenplay around Hollywood. However, he entirely misses the point of the labor movement, even the one he so proudly holds up his family as being a part of, in that the point to give power and protections to everyone because it is a right, not just to help advance the people who figured out how to navigate the system. If one truly believes in those rights, not just personal advancement, they should be using that power they built to further the cause.

Schrader’s view was taken to be part of his typically reactionary worldview that springs up in his repressed Calvinism. However, his real opinion is much more ambivalent. Schrader goes on to claim that if when the DGA and SAG/AFTRA’s contracts expire on June 30th and they want the same concessions on streaming residuals then the game is over, leaving all but the IATSE technicians on strike. But down in the weeds of the contracts is where things get messy, and where dissenters like to point out bargains that seem ridiculous from the writer’s side. But any of this comes as purely a reactive move, necessary in protecting workers trying to make a decent living in a cutthroat industry that likes to chew people up and spit them out not necessarily because of talent (if that was the case, then what the hell is the crap they’re producing?), but because it's cheaper that way.

Streaming has de-territorialized the revenues of 15 years ago, and while box office smashes still bring in cash, a whole world of venture capitalist promises and “view counts” has turned the movie industry into more of a speculative market than ever before, and one that gives an even bigger cut to rights-holders. They invented a new game, and the writers are taking their next big step in playing it. The real tragedy is that this vestige of the sweeping labor movement from a bygone era doesn’t seem able to break the game apart the same way the dozens of useless executive producers in any given boardroom can. Some concessions artist-side will probably be made, although I haven’t been too optimistic on Hollywood bargaining since the big dud of IATSE’s almost-strike in the very recent past. For now, the workers are playing a reactive game made by the bosses, but that order is at the end of the day an imagined one, not made up of any physical stuffs. A union, like a screenplay, or even a film, is something willed into existence by those who choose to say it’s real—there’s no reason all of the rest can’t be reordered by a similar magic trick.


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