Hollywood unions battle tech threat

David MoonBlog

I don’t fault union officials for doing everything possible to save the jobs of their members, but I have bad news for the writers and actors unions currently on strike: if technology can effectively and efficiently replace a human, it will.

In May, 11,500 movie and television writers went on strike, followed by the 160,000 Screen Actors Guild (SAG) members on July 14.  (Disclosure: I am a former SAG member.) In addition to a renegotiation of residuals from streaming media, the unions are seeking guaranteed minimum employment protection from artificial intelligence and computer generated/enhanced on-screen background extras.

As an industry changes, it has to evolve new systems to accommodate the core changes in the relationships between the members of the system. This often happens so slowly that it is unnoticeable in real-time. But when any system is disrupted, it usually results in chaos until a new normal is established.  (See March 2020 for the ultimate example.) The distribution of video entertainment has significantly changed in just the past couple of years, with 55.1 million people having “cut the cord” from cable service. Major cable providers collectively lost 6 million subscribers each year from 2019 to 2022. Just as the shift from FM radio and CDs to streaming changed the monetary model for singers and songwriters, so does the shift away from cable/satellite. The residuals sharing from television, movies and streaming will change, and the current strike is part of the correction process in that industry.

But if writers and bit-actors want protection from being replaced with computers, they better figure out how to do something a computer can’t replicate. One of the current union objections is that a producer shouldn’t be able to pay a movie extra $200 for a day’s work, then use that person’s likeness in perpetuity to create computer-generated background extras in future films. SAG president Fran Drescher explained that these background/extras roles are required entry points for actors to work their way into the industry.

I don’t know if $200 is a reasonable amount to get for having your likeness on Law and Order sidewalk scenes for the next 20 years, but Fran Drescher should really worry that producers use computer-generated background actors for all scene extras, without ever hiring a real person – even once for $200.

If technology can replace a person, eventually it will. The same is true in my business. Most Wall Street firms have made significant investments in robo-advisor offerings that replace humans with an algorithm. If these systems eventually prove better or cheaper than me, I will lose my job, as will my coworkers. Only a better, differentiated service can stop that, not negotiation.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.