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A Ticking Time Bomb: Oppenheimer and the SAG and WGA Strike

Even if you have been living under a rock, you know July was a massive month for movies. The hype for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has been astronomical. The term “Barbenheimer” has been coined by fans who plan to head to theaters on July 21 for the unofficial double feature. One of the biggest weeks in film – in recent memory – becomes while the studios are making record profits, both the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) are on strike at the same time for the first time since the 1960s.

In May, the WGA, representing over 11,000 screenwriters, went on strike (97.85% voting yes) after unsettled labor disputes with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). It is no surprise that streaming and the convenience of short-form content has changed not only the way media is consumed but how it compensates the writers and actors. Before streaming, residuals would be large enough to sustain writers and actors while in between jobs. Between the shorter seasons and pennies paid in residuals from streaming services, the lack of job security in the industry has only heightened for creatives.

Photo by Lucas Manfredi for TheWrap

While SAG-AFTRA has been marching with WGA in solidarity from the beginning, as of July 14 the union is now on strike as well. Hollywood is now at a complete standstill with production. The strike is a protest against income inequality and the lack of job security in the film and television industries. Both unions hope to come to an agreement that can withstand the streaming age and beyond, with artificial intelligence also being a prominent topic of discussion. AI is slowly receiving a starring role in many different industries and businesses. It was a matter of time before it got a part in the film industry. An industry that constantly warns us about the potential risks of robots if we give them too much power – making blockbusters out of movies like Megan and Ex Machina. Despite the irony, writers are calling for a ban on the use of AI in the writing room.

There is no sure way of telling when the strike will end, but audiences are already starting to feel the effects. Many movies and television series have had to halt productions, pushing back popular titles like HBOs Europhia and the musical adaptation of Wicked, starring Ariana Grande. As studios continue to release projects, press tours and premieres have been canceled. The pink festivities of the Barbie movie were cut short due to the strike. At Oppenhiemer’s London premiere actors walked out of the screening once the SAG strike was officially sanctioned.

Photo from The Hollywood Reporter

The red carpet at the NYC premiere of Oppenheimer on July 17 was also canceled. The cast would not be in attendance at the screening either. Universal Pictures stated in an official statement, “In support of the ongoing SAG strike, the filmmakers of Oppenheimer will not be proceeding with the NY premiere as originally planned, and will instead screen the movie to celebrate the crew and craftspeople who contributed to making this landmark film.” The choice to proceed with the screening in honor of those who contributed to such a masterful film was undoubtedly well received. Christopher Nolan attend the premiere along with his wife, Emma Thomas, but the absents of the cast was noted and felt.

After seeing the film, it occurred to me that many parallels can be made to the current strike. Oppenheimer centers around the creation and aftermath of nuclear bombs used in World War II. Robert J. Oppenheimer’s hubris and curiosity change the course of history and human life as we know it. As the movie progresses, the humanity of Oppenheimer is displayed as he steps back and finally takes a look at the enormity that he has created. The tension in the theater could be felt heading up to the scene in which the bomb is being tested for the first time.

Oppenheimer and the audience witness the explosion and the damage that will soon be relinquished to the world. In that moment we understand that something has been done that can never be reversed – it is truly one of the most impactful scenes in the film. It makes me think about the current state of the world and all of our ticking time bombs, drawing back to the strike, artificial intelligence. Oppenheimer's inquisitiveness created the ultimate weapon. Today scientists' interests are focused on the next great defense. AI is rapidly growing so what are the implications, where does its power end once it has been created? There are so many questions yet it seems that history always has a way of repeating itself – not necessarily in the same circumstance but with similar ramifications.

Writers fear that AI will take over if the wrong people are in control of its functions. In the end, Oppenheimer feared what would happen if the wrong people obtained the weapon. The movie truly could not have come at a better time – for the film industry and a better understanding of the world as we know it. There is a line from the movie that stood out to me when I watch it for the first time, “Do people need a reason to do the right thing”? I hope that studios come to a suitable agreement with actors and writers on how to help bring critical stories like Oppenheimer to life. To capture where history has failed us and where the future can fulfill us.

Written by Olivia Vella

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