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Barbenheimer, the Hollywood strikes, and AI: Is film at a cultural turning point?

Cover image for Barbenheimer, the Hollywood strikes, and AI: Is film at a cultural turning point?

Photo: Santiago Avila Caro

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

After an exciting boom period in film and TV productions made for digital-first streaming platforms, the downsides seem to be catching up. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) has been on strike since May 2nd (2023), signalling the biggest disruption to TV and film production since Covid-19. As of July 14th, this also coincides with a SAG-AFTRA strike as part of wider Hollywood labour disputes.

The strikers specifically cite streaming as meaningfully impacting writers' average incomes, with the union claiming that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) has increased its share of streaming residuals at their expense. They also express concerns about AI, with the writers wanting the likes of ChatGPT to be regulated and used only as a tool in the broader creative arsenal, rather than as a substitute for human labour.

Both are real issues being felt across entertainment: creator remuneration is declining, content saturation is increasing (thus devaluing the content itself), and generative AI threatens creative jobs, skill values, and incomes.

However, film in particular is at a sort of cultural turning point – and this is exhibited no more clearly than by the #Barbenheimer contest.

With the strikes seemingly set to drag out until the fall, we are likely to see a slowdown in productions over the coming months. This is in stark contrast to the outpouring we have seen up until now, with audiences so accustomed to new shows every other week on their various streaming services that binge watching and background viewing are now the norm. It makes sense, then, that the marketing teams behind Barbie and Oppenheimer are pulling out all the stops, manufacturing a ‘contest’ between the two films to portray their simultaneous release as the iconic cultural moment of the summer.

These two films being pushed so prominently accomplishes a number of things, but most importantly it offers a ‘reset’. Film and TV have lost their ability to host cultural moments through their ubiquity on streaming. Offering perhaps the most fundamentally compelling subjects possible, the nostalgia of childhood Barbie and the creation of the nuclear bomb, in much-hyped cinema premiers with a dearth of other content competing for attention to follow, could reel the video industry back to a place of curated scarcity.

This could be a well-calculated Hollywood move. However, it may also be considered by some as a ‘scraping of the barrel’, in terms of IP. Take Marvel for instance: the franchise now rapidly generates so many new productions, they scarcely generate so much as a cultural ripple anymore (same with Star Wars). On the other hand are offbeat Netflix shows that achieve temporary viral status before dying down – and there is not much in between. Arguably, everything has been ‘done to death’: Mattel is already planning to follow the Barbie movie up with a laundry list of films based on its IP, including one about Polly Pocket. Similarly, while Oppenheimer may be dark and hard-hitting, it is of the same ilk as the acclaimed Chernobyl or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Nearly everything hitting cinemas is a franchise, a remake, a sequel, or a meme (willingly or no) – where are the ingredients here for something new and culturally impactful?

Is it even in Hollywood’s best interest to produce something of this nature, or are the associated risks too great given the current cost of financing such a project? Many production studios are looking to cut costs anywhere they can. Look no further than Warner Bros. Discovery’s CEO, David Zaslav, who historically turned Discovery into a reality show channel; anything that requires fewer cameras, less actors paid by the hour, ‘canned’ music – that cuts costs, and increases returns. In short, video seems keen to pursue the music streaming model, with a vast majority output of low-cost productions destined for the background, and a few major hits to maintain cultural relevance. Yet, with the music industry now calling for change from the now-unsustainable model, the logic of this move is questionable.

This is where AI (inevitably) comes into the picture. AI music has the potential to disrupt background tracks in syncs, or background listening for passive audiences. Similarly, a large amount of video viewing happens in the background, a behaviour that has increased with the quantity available on streaming platforms. AI generation of scripts, animation, and most of the in-between can easily become relied upon by studios to churn out cheaper productions that feed this background consumption, especially as writers and actors remain on strike (look no further than the new Showrunner AI, which can generate South Park-esque episodes featuring the user). Background actors have been asked to sign over the rights to their images when going in for a shoot, meaning that for a one-off payment the studio can use their likeness without paying them for the hours of filming formerly required; this is a large element of focus for the SAG-AFTRA strike. With no humans to do the work, perhaps, exactly as they fear, AI will experience a boom and the business can carry on as normal (ish). If this were already on the roadmap, it would go a long way towards explaining the nonchalance with which executives appear to be reacting to the strikes.

Film is at a cultural inflection point; what has gone up for so long must now come down, one way or another. Executives and strategists must carefully consider the road down which they are preparing to go – and they should pay close attention to what happens in the music industry, which is already two steps ahead on the same journey.

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"Kill the creator" is the dominating business model now. I see it working with all the young artists I know. Oh well...