Can the Writers’ Strike Fix Hollywood?

Here’s my attempt to summarize the context of the Hollywood writers’ strike in three sentences. First, the entertainment business, floated on easy money and encouraged by the unusual conditions of the Covid era, committed itself to an unsustainable expansion — the great streaming experiment, in which every major brand would have a Netflix of its own.

Then, as the unsustainability of this growth became apparent, the studios and streamers began wringing more and more out of their writers, at longer and less-predictable hours and with fewer long-term rewards, even as the corporate suits looked hopefully to A.I. to render certain writerly duties obsolete.

This context makes the writers’ demands appear reasonable and just, but it also means that the striking scribes could lose while winning — wringing concessions around pay and working hours as a prelude to a larger contraction, a collapse in the number of scripted shows that Hollywood puts out.

The question for those of us who watch and write about TV shows and movies, rather than creating them, is what this conflict means for the art that justifies all of this commercial wrangling.

One narrative sees an opportunity in the strike to reconsider the larger way that Hollywood has evolved, especially the Marvel-era fixation on franchises, reboots and “presold” storytelling, which is variously attributed to a profit-mad venture-capital mind-set taking hold in Hollywood or the effects of consolidation in the film business. Against this backdrop, the monopoly critic Matt Stoller argues that the goal of the strikers should be finding allies in the cause of big, structural change — breaking up the vertically integrated corporate behemoths, separating production and distribution once again and thereby making the alchemy of the midbudget movie more competitive with the superhero sweatshop.

A somewhat more pessimistic analysis, offered by writers like Sonny Bunch and Jessa Crispin, emphasizes that the superhero-sweatshop corporate strategy evolved because it’s giving audiences what they want. The people are buying tickets for comic book movies and “Super Mario,” Bunch points out, not “Air” or “The Last Duel.” The fan culture that sustains these projects, Crispin argues, often seems to prefer its writers to be replaceable cogs in a content machine. And so even if the strike is an opportunity for reconsiderations, it’s probably not a lever that can change the system as a whole.

Personally I would like to see the strike lever a different Hollywood system into being. But I would settle for a return to the entertainment landscape that existed around 10 years ago, before the streaming takeoff — when the downsides of the special-effects franchise era in cinema were partly compensated for by the emergence of richer, deeper, more ambitious television.

My viewer’s impression of what’s happened since then is that the streaming expansion first delivered a welcome surfeit of small-screen ambition but then increasingly felt as if it was spreading creative talent too thin, working it too hard or both.

Sometimes the shows of the peak-TV era start out brilliantly but then struggle to sustain their dynamism even in a second season. (HBO’s “Westworld,” for instance, or lately Showtime’s “Yellowjackets.”) Sometimes they play like thin imitations of the previous decade’s antihero dramas. (Netflix’s “Ozark,” say.) Or they take on the character of the theatrical experience but somewhat worse — with too-big-to-fail franchises that nobody really enjoys. (“Obi-Wan Kenobi,” say, or “Rings of Power.”) Or they ask too much of a talented showrunner, who’s paid more and more to deliver a spread of content rather than concentrating on a single story. (The evolution of Taylor Sheridan’s “Yellowstone” and its disappointing spinoffs fills this bill.)

In theory, the strike-and-aftermath scenario I sketched above — where the writers win better working conditions and higher pay but then the overall number of shows contracts as streaming platforms fold or merge — could bring some kind of resolution to this spread-too-thin problem. It could yield a world where writers’ room talent is better compensated and more concentrated, where showrunners don’t have as many empire-building opportunities but the shows they make are better for it. Obviously this isn’t the outcome the union is hoping for, because it would mean fewer writing jobs. But for the viewer, a world with somewhat fewer shows might also be a world with better ones.

The darker scenario, though, is that any streaming contraction could combine with an intensified television imitation of the big-screen franchise model. In that case, we could get more and more blockbuster television as a safe-seeming but uncreative bet while losing some of peak TV’s serendipitous experiments — like the happy accident of “The White Lotus,” whose resort drama came into being as a way to film in isolation during Covid, or the brilliance of “Andor,” a “Star Wars” show without a brand name or a Baby Yoda.

If you care about originality, that’s the real lose-while-winning scenario for this strike: Writers end up with a fairer share of an industry pivoting further from creativity.

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