Open Letter to President Biden: It’s regulators, not workers, who should clean up AMPTP’s mess
Recently, representatives at several of the companies belonging to the Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers (AMPTP) told the press that they will hold out on a deal with writers and actors until they start “losing their apartments.” This escalation of bad-faith negotiations in the entertainment labor dispute reveals the dark underbelly of a failure of government regulation, and it’s time your administration stepped in on behalf of WGA and SAG-AFTRA members.
In 2020, the Paramount Consent Decrees of 1948 — the Supreme Court ruling that broke up studio monopolies — were quietly repealed, and we have been on a crash course with this historic moment in labor organizing since then. By that point, tech companies like Netflix, Amazon and Apple were already behaving like the Hollywood studios prior to the trust busting of 1948 — they were vertically integrated. Prior to the Paramount Consent Decrees, Hollywood studios owned the means of production, distribution and exhibition, and had so much control over every part of the supply chain they could fix ticket prices, and decided on the livelihoods of their workers. Even though the studios were technically competing with each other, the Supreme Court ruled to break up the monopolistic practice of vertical integration, segmenting production from distribution. Studios could no longer enforce binding contracts that controlled and underpaid talent and labor. Starting in 1948, the newfound artistic freedom of creators starting gave rise to New Wave Cinema, the Arthouse, and perhaps the most iconic generation of American cinema.
With the advent of subscription streaming, tech companies were celebrated for their vertical integration — they owned the means of production and collapsed the concepts of distribution and exhibition into one platform solution. Yet tech companies evaded being considered studios partially because the internet was not considered a cinema — neither by the studios themselves nor by our regulatory frameworks. Repealing the consent decrees simply gave studios the power to resume vertical integration and join forces with the likes of Netflix to defend that power — which we’re seeing expressed in joint media efforts to leak key bargaining tactics and scare workers into submission with threats of protracted negotiations.
The responsibility at this point lies squarely at the feet of regulators, not workers. We already know that when Hollywood is vertically integrated, workers face exploitation. And now it seems, members of the AMPTP are happy to say that out loud to the press. Your administration, who has made pronouncements about workers rights to gain votes, should be an active participant in regulating an industry that is openly leaning on monopolistic power to suppress wages.
Enter AI, with the potential to bring greater consolidation of power for institutions whose models already exhibit all of the qualities of monopolies. Studios and streamers have already quietly started placing into actors’ contracts the ability to use their voice and likeness in perpetuity. They have offered no assurances or transparency around the use of AI in the industry. But they have demonstrated that they will use their monopolistic power to depress wages and devastate the creative working class. And while some creators have deep pockets to withstand the studios’ worst tactics, the vast majority of these workers make less than $26,000 a year. Here in Georgia, where I am based, the majority of film workers do not have the financial flexibility to withstand even one month without work. (Thanks to Film Impact Georgia for surveying and supporting these creators.)
Art is supposed to be about sparking our imaginations, surprising us, connecting us to ideas in brand new ways. Monopoly regulation is about protecting innovation, creative entrepreneurship and the working class.
The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike is challenging something much larger than just the details of writers’ contracts. It is forcing a confrontation with regulatory frameworks that have not adapted to the incentive structures of the Big Technology age. Big Technology is interested in driving the price of inputs as close to zero as possible, even when those inputs are human time and human creativity. This is not only not sustainable for the entire economy, it fundamentally ignores the essential role that storytellers have always played in humanity: helping us understand the world both outside and inside us, helping us make sense of our past and imagine our future.
Unlike most other wealthy nations, the US spends disastrously little on supporting the arts. Instead, we rely on the entertainment industry to drive our country’s creative stories and ideas into the global spotlight. But now that industry has assumed such an anti-competitive position that we risk losing the creative part of our creative industries altogether. It’s time for the administration to step in with the full force of its regulatory bodies and stop placing the burden on the creators.
Founder and CEO, Seed&Spark
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