Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman blasted Hollywood studio bosses this week at the Sarajevo Film Festival, calling out their pay packages and insisting that cost-cutting executives are willing to sacrifice the art of moviemaking for the sake of profit.
“It’s disgusting, because they don’t do anything,” Kaufman told Variety. “No, they do damage is what they do. They do damage to the art form. And by doing that, they do damage to humanity. And if everything is about the bottom line for them and saving money, then there’s nothing left to the art form.”
The Academy Award-winning “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” writer and three-time Oscar nominee is in Sarajevo this week to receive a lifetime achievement award. Throughout the week, he’s been spotted on the streets of the Bosnian capital wearing a gray T-shirt reading “Writers Guild on Strike.” During an interview with Variety, Kaufman peeled off one layer to reveal a second WGA-branded T-shirt beneath it.
At a Sarajevo masterclass on Monday, Kaufman insisted that the difference between art and “conventional Hollywood fare” is “the difference between truth and bullshit.”
“Studios are going to continue to exist and people are going to continue to make garbage because garbage at this point … makes a fortune,” he said.
Speaking one-on-one with Variety, Kaufman didn’t hold back. “[Studio heads] are not ushering in any kind of beautiful work by their presence. They’re kind of doing the opposite of that. And I think it’s evidenced in what Hollywood produces, and how the more expensive a movie is, the less value it has to the culture,” he said.
The “Being John Malkovich” scribe was asked about recent comments made by Disney CEO Bob Iger, who said last month that striking writers and actors are not being “realistic” in their demands. “I’m wondering if his salary is realistic,” Kaufman said. “I think saying something like that, from the position he’s in, is cynical. Or dishonest.”
Representatives for Iger at Disney did not immediately respond to Variety‘s request for comment.
As for whether studio bosses are too out of touch with the rank-and-file to grasp what’s at stake in the labor talks, he added: “I think they grasp it. I think they know that their money comes from other people not getting money.”
On Thursday, the Writers Guild of America met again with studio representatives, looking for a resolution to the 109-day writers strike. As Variety previously reported, the CEOs of the major studios — including Ted Sarandos of Netflix and David Zaslav of Warner Bros. Discovery — are expected to hold a joint call on Friday to discuss the next move in the talks, with Donna Langley of NBCUniversal and Dana Walden and Alan Bergman of Disney also expected to participate.
Kaufman told Variety he was “hopeful” that the latest round of negotiations would yield an end to the stalemate, though he added: “I don’t think they’re good-faith organizations, historically, but I’m hoping it is a different sort of attitude than I anticipate.”
He also expressed support for a proposal put forth in a WGA report issued on Thursday, calling for antitrust regulators to prevent consolidation in the streaming marketplace. Creatives, he insisted, would be “[better] served by more places that aren’t under the control” of a handful of studio giants.
The use of artificial intelligence has increasingly become a key sticking point in talks between the writers and actors guilds and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Kaufman believes AI poses the greatest existential threat to creators like him.
“I think it’s an extraordinarily dangerous slippery slope. Once it’s gone down, there’s no return,” he said. “It’s the end of creativity for human beings, is what it’s going to lead to. It’s handing it over to a non-sentient, non-feeling, non-rebellious entity.”
Kaufman, who was feted with the top honorary film award at the Writers Guild Awards in March, insisted that even his distinctly idiosyncratic style could eventually be aped by artificial intelligence — perhaps even sooner than we think.
But he’s convinced that even sophisticated AI software would only be able to imitate human emotion and experience, and that using art to portray the full range of that experience is an essential part of what makes us human.
“If we stop creating ourselves, then we’re giving up something…that’s primal, that’s essential, that’s been part of human experience — and necessary to human experience — as long as there have been humans. Since there have been cave paintings. It’s an urge, a desire to express the experience of being alive,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s a lesser urge than eating or sex or anything. I think it’s primal. If we don’t understand that it’s primal, and if we’re taught that it’s not, then I’m afraid for us.”
Tara Karajica and Jessica Kiang contributed reporting to this story.