Mike Farah has been working for the comedy production company Funny Or Die almost since its beginning in 2007. He was the company’s first producer, and rose through the ranks to become first President of Production and then, in 2016, Chief Executive Officer.
As the head of one of Hollywood’s premier production companies, one of the many that works intimately with writers and actors, Farah has unique perspective on the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and SAG-AFTRA strikes against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). We spoke by phone last week.
It’s been over 100 days that the writers have been on strike and over a month since the SAG-AFTRA began their own action. What have these months where work has pretty much ground to a halt been like for you all at Funny Or Die?
Funny Or Die is not a struck-against company; we’re not in the AMPTP. But in solidarity with the unions, we chose to stop any work on struck-against projects, whether they were set up at a platform that was a part of the AMPTP or was just something we were developing. We chose to do this because we take our relationship with the unions and their members very, very seriously.
Since May it’s been challenging for Funny Or Die. But the challenges we face pale in comparison to those challenges that the writers and the actors face. Funny Or Die happens to be across the street from the headquarters of Netflix, so we are literally 100 feet from the epicenter of all the strikes. To hear the chants and the honking and to see the hundreds of people every day picketing, it just creates a connection to it that is a valuable reminder of what people are doing and why people are striking.
I really think of us all as a community of people that are in this together. This is a moment that’s been challenging for the entire industry and community.
I think it can be hard for some people outside the industry to appreciate the sense of community that you’re talking about in the industry. Could you say some more about that?
LA is a city driven by entertainment and the business of entertainment. When you’re in a community like that, you realize quickly how everyone is connected to each other, how everyone and everything is feeding off each other, for better or worse. A work stoppage affects literally everyone—obviously the writers, the actors, the producers, but also the people who work on props, the craft services, the transportation companies that get people where they need to go. It’s just such a massive industry and undertaking. There’s so much infrastructure.
I think it can be easy for folks outside of Hollywood to think of everyone in Hollywood as rich and famous. And like in any industry, there are certainly some people that have been fortunate to have a lot of success, and some economic security comes with that success. But the vast majority of people who work in entertainment are working class like anyone else in most other industries. When the work stops, it very quickly becomes a flood of issues for everyone that relies on the work to make their rents, mortgages, etc. and to live their lives.
Obviously we’re not through the strike yet, although as we’re talking the AMPTP is finally starting to negotiate with the writers. But at this point what would you say might be the lessons to learn from this strike?
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the unions stronger. They’re facing existential questions about the industry as we’ve known it, so I think there’s real solidarity there. And that’s very inspiring. The WGA is well past day 100, but I sense a real commitment to see this through, which is great.
It’s interesting, the AMPTP works in the word “producers,” but their use of that word is inaccurate semantically. The guilds are not striking against the individual working producers like Funny Or Die, they’re striking against platforms and studios. And I think the most direct thing that has led to this strike is the overwhelming influence of technology in Hollywood. Entertainment is an industry that has always been changed by technology. And there are always challenges when disruptive technology comes into place. My hope is that the people running the companies and the technology that has led to all this disruption learn just how valuable the creative community is, and that there is need to protect this creative community. There is no entertainment, there is no storytelling, no movies, TV shows, you name it without the creative class—the writers, the actors, the director and the producers who make it all happen.
And—this is just my own personal feeling—the AMPTP seems to talk about wanting to make a fair deal, but I think this could have avoided if they really were just a little more focused on the big picture and long-term thinking about the health of the community and the industry, and not just on their balance sheets right now. The platforms are not immune to the challenges, they’re having a tough time, too, ironically because of the very disruption that technology has introduced to Hollywood. But I think in the whole scheme of things, what this strike has cost people versus what it would have cost them to get a deal agreed to sooner, I definitely think is a missed opportunity.
One thing I hear a lot from non-industry people is that you’ll never stop the advance of technology. It’s like fighting the ocean, it’s going to keep coming. The argument seems to be that artists may need to find some other way to do the things they love, because humans will never win out over new tech like so-called “AI.” What do you think of that?
The first thing I’d say is, when I talk about technology, I think AI is a part of it but what I was really speaking to was streaming. The technology of streaming and the ability to basically access everything that has ever been made for the last 100 years for a nominal monthly fee, that is not sustainable.
About AI, there is still a lot we don’t know. I think AI is here to stay and I think it will continue to evolve. I don’t think anything will ever replace the human creative process, but I do think that it’s likely that AI will facilitate some of the creative process. It will require a lot of human discipline and thinking about the big picture of the community and how AI technology could be used, while still maintaining the creatives’ role. Humankind has a checkered track record when it comes to policing itself [on these kinds of things], which only underlines how much we need to commit ourselves to that work.
I hope the value of the creative community and how united we are is a lesson learned going forward. And hopefully there’s collaboration to figure out the appropriate ways to use technology.
I remain optimistic that the creative process is going to be protected in some way that keeps it vibrant.
In the way you talk it sounds like there’s actually a unique opportunity in all of this, one that you don’t see people in the past often having taken, to prioritize community over technological advancement or efficiency. But that’s a choice.
Yes, absolutely, all of these things are choices. No one’s forced to do anything.
It’s really hard to think of the greater community and the greater good. It’s much easier to think about what do I need as an individual, what does my company need, what does my family need. That is the human condition. That’s what we’re all up against.
But I do think the more people make the macro decisions and have less reliance on the micro, it doesn’t take much for that to start its own momentum and for people to see the value in it.
Look at Wall Street and the economics side: Everything is focused on quarter-to-quarter growth. It’s like growth at all costs. The irony is, with streaming for a long time Wall Street really valued subscriber growth against everything else. Then it took one bad quarter from Netflix about a year and a half ago to change everyone’s mind, and now everyone’s totally focused on profitability.
In order to choose community you have to be proactive, but most people live a very reactive existence. That’s the challenge.
I know it’s hard to say with any certainty at this point, but what do you think the possible future of the streamers are?
I don’t know if anyone knows the mechanics of what will happen, I just know that at a fundamental level, it will require a lot of conversation and a lot of collaboration, and it will require people to prioritize those two things over short term profits. That’s a very hard thing to do.
I also think the government will probably have to get involved at some point. There is history in entertainment of the government kind of leveling the playing field in certain ways. I’m sure people were miserable when the government said studios couldn’t own movie theaters any more. But guess what, they were able to coexist as two separate businesses, a studio and a movie theater.
All of this just requires a level of trust that I think systematically is not a part of our culture right now. That’s the biggest moment we have to get through. Somehow we have to find as a people some baseline level of trust so that the conversations and the collaboration can happen and all of these groups can work together to secure the creative process and figure out an equitable way to distribute everything. Because right now there’s just not enough value put on 100 years’ worth of entertainment.
I really appreciate the way you’re talking about these things.
I think a lot of people think about things in these ways, but it’s easy to be weighed down by all the various pressures that they’re feeling in the moment. It becomes harder to widen their aperture when they’re just trying to get through the day.