Filmmaker Tom Burstyn should be in Vancouver right now, working on the third season of the Apple TV alien sci-fi series Invasion.

Instead, he’s at home in Hawkes Bay, writing a book and screenplay about the extraordinary lives of his parents.

Filming of Invasion is held up by the Hollywood writers’ strike, now in its third month – with no sign of a resolution.

Burstyn says the dispute reflects the rapid changes in the industry, which are affecting not just the writers, but other facets, including his own work as a cinematographer.

“The executives are all lawyers and accountants now. They used to be people who knew about the process of making film and television, but now they’re people who know about the process of making a deal,” says Burstyn, who has worked on a number of big international and local projects, including the award winning documentary This Way of Life.

The strike, involving more than 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America, has led to cancellations and delays to film and TV productions around the world, including New Zealand, and shut down the daily TV talk shows.

“Without a script there is no show,” says the Film Commission’s head of international screen attraction, Philippa Mossman.

With international productions worth up to $900 million a year to New Zealand, the strike is hitting hard.

“It’s definitely big business with a lot of value for New Zealand that’s on pause,” she says.

None of the overseas-funded projects have cancelled so far, but several have not been able to get the green light.

“We still hope in many cases that they will. Certainly the productions are using this time that they have as best they can,” says Mossman. 

“They’re still working on their budgets and doing their location scouting, figuring out the key creative personnel they work with, connecting with New Zealand companies.” 

She tells The Detail that international productions are a fast economic hit, often using local cast and crew, spending money on accommodation, food, vehicles, set builders and costume makers. They’re also valuable for showcasing the country to overseas tourists, through the filming on location or the foreign crew who rave about their experience to their Instagram followers.

Three substantial TV series and at least four feature films are in stasis, Mossman says “they are getting to the point of concluding that New Zealand is the place for them, but are not able to press go”, because of the strike. 

The writers are calling for better pay and conditions, and safeguards against the growing of artificial intelligence, which Burstyn says is “infiltrating” the industry.

He describes how the model of using a team of writers, who work together in a writers’ room on a range of stories, is under attack.

“The head writer delegates either episodes, or characters, or some aspect of that screenplay to each individual, and they compare notes. It’s a very collaborative process and it’s also expensive because a writers’ room can have 10 or 12 people there.”

Executives want to reduce the team of writers and create a “mini writers’ room”; they want to cut the time writers spend on set; and they want to introduce artificial intelligence into the writing process.

“That is scary for everybody,” says Burstyn.

Find out more about the infiltration of AI into filmmaking in the full podcast episode.

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Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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