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What the New Transformers Movie Can Tell Us About the Hollywood Strikes

What the New Transformers Movie Can Tell Us About the Hollywood Strikes

How the summer’s most superfluous blockbuster highlights the fundamental problems on both sides of the picket line.

I could have gone my entire life without hearing a robot voiced by Pete Davidson making a sex joke. For 90 minutes, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts tries to distinguish itself from every other tentpole on the release calendar as well as the previous six entries in the franchise. And it does for that fleeting moment when Davidson’s smarmy bot Mirage responds incredulously to his human companion Noah (Anthony Ramos): “Work friend? But you've been inside me!”

He’s a Porsche. That transforms into a robo-alien of ambiguous sexuality. Davidson’s riff is clever. So edgy, in fact, that Paramount wanted it cut. That moment may have been the one artistic hill that Davidson and director Steven Caple Jr. wanted to die on in this made-by-committee cash grab. But it also brings up a question even the most dedicated film fan has been asking of late: Who exactly does Hollywood make movies for? 

Four months ago, 2023 looked like a return to the summer blockbuster seasons of yesteryear. But until Barbienheimer stopped the hemorrhage, each Monday morning brought nothing but hand wringing. Fast X made $30 million less than its previous installment did in 2021 when most theaters had yet to return to business as usual. The Flash is on track to lose $200 million for Warner Brothers. Disney faces a $900 million loss thanks to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Pixar’s Elemental leaving audiences cold and The Little Mermaid floundering overseas because apparently Asian people are racist. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 may have evaded superhero fatigue. However, it still didn’t reach the heights of its last entry even as it partially compensated for Disney’s streak of other recent failures like Eternals, Lightyear, Strange World, and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Even box-office savior Tom Cruise fell short of expectations with Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning - Part I despite receiving the best reviews of his career.

While the latest Transformers performed shockingly well and offset the franchise’s diminishing returns, it still grossed less than half of its first three predecessors unadjusted for inflation back in their heyday when the series was a wrongfully critically reviled diversion from the Great Recession years helmed by action visionary Michael Bay. 

Given Hollywood’s precarious state, a reboot of the franchise seems downright bizarre. Transformers has never had the multigenerational appeal of Star Wars, Batman, or Top Gun. It never built a following based on an out-of-nowhere iconic performance like Robert Downey Jr.’s turn as Iron Man because the story necessitates the humans take a backseat to robot carnage. It’s not a film that appeals to multiple demographics like Barbie through witty double entendres (“You’ve been inside me” is certainly no “Beach off”). 

But it does address three immediate needs: 

  1. Appealing to overseas markets that fuel 75% of most films’ grosses with unrelenting action that warrants few subtitles where Transformers: Rise of the Beasts goosed its box office from $160 million to nearly $500 million so far.
  2. Serving as high-profile fodder to prop up faltering streaming services like Paramount+.
  3. Selling a motherlode of consumer products, including bedding, fruit snacks, action figure collections, and $200 Lego sets.

A film like Rise of the Beasts was always designed to be a loss leader. The alignment of singular talent and public interest that drove the Barbie and Oppenheimer phenomenon to instant profitability is an all-too-rare exception. But the problem isn’t entirely the fault of greedy studio heads or their multinational corporate overlords. It’s Hollywood’s reliance on unionized labor to make the dream factory hum along that’s most responsible for the industry’s impending decline. 

When the Writers Guild of America strike began on May 2, it was the first time the union found itself at an impasse with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers since 2007. The guild claimed to have successfully addressed streaming revenues and residuals when it reached an agreement after 100 days. At the time, the deal was, of course, “historic.” But now the union finds itself relitigating many of the same points it claimed to have fixed years ago. 

At a glance, the WGA’s demands seem a rather reasonable response to the industry’s pandemic upheaval:

  • Raise the minimum compensation rates.
  • Equalize compensation rates for feature films released theatrically and direct to streaming.
  • Close the disparity between streaming and broadcast residuals. 
  • Apply the same Minimum Basic Agreement used in broadcasting to sketch shows made for “new media.” 
  • Ensure screenwriters are paid for all rewrites on a script either weekly or in two steps if compensation falls below a specific threshold.
  • Create stringent guidelines for the use of A.I. technology. 
  • Regulate the use of “mini-rooms” (a small group of writers called in to work temporarily on a few scripts rather than for a full time, season-long gig with a staff of 7-8).

Despite the urgent need to address these issues, the WGA has developed a reputation as a union more dedicated to punishing its most successful members in the interest of fairness than protecting writers from bad studio deals. Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and Oscar-winner for The Social Network has remained critical of the organization his entire career, leading to a viral moment in 2010 in which he and Joker and The Hangover director Todd Phillips went scorched Earth on the “Whiners’ Guild” during a roundtable hosted by The Hollywood Reporter. Both lament the arcane and bureaucratic way it adjudicates contested writing credits. They also take issue with how the 2007 strike was a “career step up” for underemployed members with questionable chops. Likewise, Quentin Tarantino has famously refused to join the WGA after a disagreement with how it arbitrated his writing credit on Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

As a quick scan of the picket lines indicate, the WGA’s support among star talent has not improved over the past decade. One of the more contentious moves the Guild has made in negotiations during this strike is the mandate that all television series must hire a minimum number of writers regardless of the showrunner’s wishes. Such is anathema to the creative process for those like Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan who told The Hollywood Reporter

“If they tell me, ‘You’re going to have to write a check for $540,000 to four people to sit in a room that you never have to meet,’ then that’s between the studio and the guild. But if I have to check in creatively with others for a story I’ve wholly built in my brain, that would probably be the end of me telling TV stories.”

Theoretically, a writer of Sheridan or Sorkin’s caliber can negotiate their own contracts, rewrite and A.I. clauses included. But, since California is not a right-to-work state, they are required to remain dues-paying members of the WGA and comply with its strike authorizations if they want to work for any of the major studios or the independent producers because all are signatories of the union. 

The studios also have a cap on how many non-WGA films they can purchase and distribute each year. This makes getting around the WGA’s grip nearly impossible (how Tarantino has crafted the dream career for every budding writer is the industry’s best-kept secret). Studio heads responded to proposed minimum hire requirements by saying they were “incompatible” with creativity. When the Man speaks the same language as the medium’s most accomplished talent, something must be amiss.

On July 14th, SAG-AFTRA (the actor’s union) joined writers on the picket lines. Like the WGA, its primary demands relate to steaming residuals and protections from A.I.–a legitimate concern for performers since studios could scan them once and use their likeness repeatedly without additional compensation. However, SAG-AFTRA’s argumentative line is way more hip to the times. It also wants promised raises to “recover from record inflation”; guarantees that background extras will receive consultations with hair/make-up artists who can “effectively style a variety of hair textures/styles and skin tones,” and relocation reimbursement for productions that shoot outside Los Angeles, which has been the vast majority of scripted content since the early 2010s. 

Even without the long arm of California labor law protecting them, the WGA and SAG/AFTRA would remain forces to be reckoned with because they have long branded themselves as the official symbol that one has made it in the industry. A month into the strike, Moviemaker magazine–a vital outlet for independent filmmakers–ran a lengthy interview with WGA East secretary-treasurer Christopher Kyle (writer of classics like Alexander, K19: The Widowmaker, and nothing of note for the past two decades), subtitled, “How to keep your film career moving forward – without being a scab.” Kyle provides clarity for aspirants’ burning questions. Should non-union filmmakers stop making films in “solidarity?” (Sounds great!).  Is it OK for non-members to show self-financed films at festivals? (I guess.) Is it permissible for non-WGA writers to meet with studios right now who may want to buy their  work? (Our interns will slaughter you in your sleep). 

The message was clear: every non-WGA member is prohibited from advancing their career with a known production entity, or the union will make good on the old cliche that they will never work in this town again. In a self-styled story about the peasant class standing up to the Empire, the WGA comes off looking a lot more like Darth Vader to anyone not actively gunning for a membership card. 

While most independent filmmakers are years away from forced WGA membership if they get there at all, those who haven’t willingly swallowed the party line can attest that one of the greatest hurdles to making the type of regional films that get festival attention and ignite careers is SAG-AFTRA. Actors who are perennials at the local film fest’s hometowner night proudly pose with their SAG cards on social media. The instructors at their local acting schools instill the notion that their students’ self-worth is tied to their membership. Those aspiring to join the union in places far from production hubs have even discovered that if they make a few movies with friends in their apartments and sign on as a SAG-AFTRA production, they can earn enough screentime to qualify for membership and owe their annual dues without ever getting a single paid acting job.

What results is a situation in which a microbudget film cannot hire a large swath of performers in a regional talent pool without becoming a SAG-AFTRA signatory, a process that consumes precious time and funds. It’s not uncommon for film students hoping to complete a thesis in a 15-week semester to spend a quarter of their time navigating the process. More often than not, the talent disparity between SAG-AFTRA and non-union actors in a given region is negligible, making avoiding working with the organization the appealing alternative, an outcome about which Acting Magazine has warned budding performers. Out here in flyover country, that fancy SAG card more often than not costs the union’s members paying gigs. 

In truth, both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are much more concerned about preserving their status quo than protecting their members as they milk the industry for all they can before Silicon Valley’s disruption alters it forever. In 2022, Hollywood studios released 599 English-language scripted series as streamers built up their arsenal of catalog titles to catch up with years of Netflix dominance. When COVID waned, the studio heads realized that starting streaming services with multi-billion dollar budgets was not the wave of the future, leading outlets like Universal’s Peacock to routinely post quarterly losses in the hundreds of millions.

Unfortunately, in that time, studios cannibalized event movies like Dune, The Boss Baby: Family Business, and Halloween Ends by releasing them simultaneously on streaming and in multiplexes or through a shortened theatrical run, acclimating viewers to avoiding the box office with minimal FOMO and eroding a major stream of revenue. The result is a burst bubble that leaves corporations like Comcast and Sony, which count media content as but a small portion of their portfolio, to figure out how to reach profitability again in that sector. 

The obvious answer for why writers and actors are struggling to make a living is that consumers never demanded this much content (was anyone really clamoring for two multi-million-dollar Watergate series in a 12-month period even if they respectively starred Julia Roberts and Woody Harrelson?). This current climate notwithstanding, audiences still crave the latest from a Taylor Sheridan or Tarantino. Over the past decade, Hollywood took on far more writers than its ecosystem could sustain, most of whom would have likely never made it in the pre-Netflix era as the dimwittedness of their protest signs proves

These writers developed a sense of entitlement–hence the minimum hiring requirement. Worse, they were allowed to rest on their laurels in isolation away from the plebeians paying their bills, left to sneak as many Trump jokes or DEI statements into adaptations of obscure graphic novels as they wanted to because no one was watching anyway. Until movies like Top Gun: Maverick and Oppenheimer came along. It wasn’t that the audiences had left; it was that they could no longer relate to most of what was going on and tuned out as they bided their time for the next one by Christopher Nolan. The studios let them release some steam since their explosion-driven sagas meant such quips either wouldn’t translate or be cut outright overseas. This leaves the industry with creative teams who think it’s subversive to insert random sex jokes into kids’ movies about robots with $100+ million budgets for the cheap laughs. 

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is the ideal project for this moment of crisis, a movie that could have greatly improved its quality by making use of A.I. generation during every facet of its production.Two of its three writers graduated to the big screen from little-seen series. The other co-wrote The Flash. Its plot is as simplistic as its narrative world is convoluted: the Maximals, Predacons, and Terrorcons join the Autobots and a rebellious anti-hero human ally in the quest for a glowing stick that could destroy the world, universe, and all the multiverses the franchise will surely explore in future iterations. 

The entire affair cribs from The Avengers films to such an extent its story beats are exact replicas and it wholesale reuses Marvel dialogue. An amateur Brooklyn car thief quips about late capitalism. An utterly tacked-on strong female lead (Dominque Fishback) is smarter than millennia-old alien robots and everyone else around her. We know this because her intro scene shows her humiliation by a bumbling white boss whose ineptness is so unbelievable even structural racism wouldn’t land this lady an executive gig at a natural history museum on–wait for it–Ellis Island. Noah’s little brother has lupus. His family struggles to pay the bills. The doctor refuses to see the child in need until they settle up. Didn’t Bill Clinton solve all these problems by 1994 when this thing is set or did Noah’s family just go over budget on all that Power Rangers memorabilia that ensures we know what year it is?

After regurgitating every iconic moment during the last ten years of summer blockbusters, the film ends on a tease for the next installment: Noah proved himself such a badass while broing out with the Autobots that a shady government stooge offers him a job with this superserect program called G.I. Joe (whose leader also conveniently offers to pay off all the family’s medical debt). Not only do we get an eighth Transformers as soon as the strikes end, but a brand new crossover Hasbro IP universe!

In Vanity Fair’s June story about the end of “Peak TV,” television writer Liz Hsiao Lan Alper laments the obvious result of the industry’s realignment: “In the WGA, most of our diversity is found amongst our lower and middle tiers.” While one would think a writer would be able to pick up on her own subtext, the Chicago Fire and Hawaii 5-0 reboot alum reveals the unspeakable fact for which the studios’ outlandish spending has long served as cover: forced diversity is not popular with any demographic–except for Hollywood writers. Creators of canceled shows like The Gordita Chronicles can blame Hollywood’s “diversity problem,” but projects made simply to fill quotas were always nonstarters, worth more in empty accolades than viewership.

In the before times, such stories would have made for solid Sundance movies that, if failing to become modest indie hits built on word of mouth, at least served as stepping stones. Such is the trajectory that Caple followed to Transformers with a layover directing Creed II after his streets-of-Cleveland skateboarding drama The Land played the festival in 2016 before a quick premium VOD run. But social pressures have created unrealistic expectations that niche stories will connect with mass audiences, leaving many diverse creators not as fortunate as Caple in writer jail instead of as emerging Independent Spirit Award winners ready for that first studio assignment—another example of good intentions run amuck. 

The unfortunate consequence of such thinking for actors is that the industry has forced accomplished performers like Transformers’s Ramos as well as Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjani, Ezra Miller, and Simu Liu who hit the right boxes on the diversity checklist into movie stardom before they are ready at a time when the latest Denzel Washington or Tom Cruise hit proves how green they actually are at holding down a franchise–all but damning them to a future of supporting roles and minor television appearances to which they were supposed to serve as the new evolution (See Rae as President Barbie and Liu as antagonist Ken, but not much else since their last pictures—except for a little-watched reboot of the HBO reality show Peoject Greenlight cohosted by Rae and Nanjani and dubbed A New Generation…). 

Carefully disguised behind all of this diversity rhetoric is the reality that the WGA and SAG-AFTRA have brought the global film industry to a standstill. Crew members in far less glamorous positions have rekindled their COVID era assistance or taken on temp jobs at Costco. The situation has become so dire that Georgia’s Secretary of Labor, Bruce Thompson, published an editorial in The Wall Street Journal decrying the lily-white-collar unions’ effects on the local deplorables who are the backbone of every film set. 

With Atlanta now the world’s film production hub and blockbusters shooting in multiple locations to chase tax incentives (this Transformers boasts Canada, New York, and Peru as production locales with minimal time in Los Angeles), both unions know that right-to-work is the greatest existential threat they have ever faced—even more so than Silicon Valley. Actors who live in the South can work on as many Hollywood projects as they want without joining SAG-AFTRA as long as they never set foot in Los Angeles. In fact, Hollywood productions routinely hire them to fill out all the entry-level roles that start long careers because they can avoid paying for flights or those pesky relocation expenses. Writers don’t have these luxuries thanks to the studios’ zip codes.

All it would take is a disrupter of the Elon Musk kind to lure Hollywood’s established and most promising talent down South to Austin or Nashville with a non-union deal promising a steady income and creative freedom for the whole apparatus to come crashing down. There’s a reason why SAG-AFTRA is pushing so hard for relocation expenses and raises to combat California’s high cost of living. An address in the Golden State is the ultimate status symbol even for performers who spend 10 months a year in Buckhead or Vancouver. If Sydney Sweeney can’t afford L.A., what hope is there for the rest of us who aren’t labor leaders flush with union dues?

But status is a powerful motivator. It’s why most WGA and SAG-AFTRA members are so hellbent on voting against their interests to prop up a system that hasn’t worked in years so they can squeak by in a city that has become a hellscape. It’s why a talented director like Caple took the Transformers job in the first place. It’s also why every social media rant from a riled-up writer whose last credit was an episode of Ugly Betty in ‘07 is a distraction from the fact that Warner Bros. Discovery has saved $100 million since the strike authorization began–that much closer to cutting the necessary costs. Hollywood’s minor players think they are taking a stand that will set up the industry’s third act. But the rest of us have finally come to terms with the fact that it's probably best if the robots write their own stories from here on out.