Friday, May 5, 2023

The Writer's Guild of America is on Strike

This week, for the first time in 15 years, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) called a strike against the major Hollywood studios. Pencils down. Unlike 15 years ago, however, the "major Hollywood studios" now include names like Apple, Amazon, and Netflix.

A lot of the reporting I've seen this week has been...not great. Not biased or misleading, necessarily, but incomplete, lacking crucial context, and subject to the routine both-sides-ism of many mainstream news reports. So to the best of my ability, I'd like to walk readers who are interested through what this strike is about, how we got here, and why the Guild position that this is a strike about an existential threat to the profession of writing for film and television is in no way a hyperbole.

Full disclosure, while I do belong to a Union, I am not a WGA member. I recently participated in negotiations for my Union and helped achieve a pay raise for other film and video professionals represented by my bargaining unit, and I lived through the 2007-2008 WGA strike. In many ways, that strike cost me a burgeoning screenwriting career. I'll address that later, but the point is that writers are going into this work stoppage with eyes open, aware that there will be personal costs, and yet they go in — in service of the greater good of all writers, and future generations of writers. While I acknowledge the familiar trope of the "Hollywood elite" and the popular characterization of professional artists as entitled or ungrateful or what-have-you, I reject that. This work stoppage underscores why we have Unions at all — this is fundamental E pluribus unum shit.

Let's take a walk together.

This is not about “wages”

Much of the reporting I've seen around the WGA strike has said something along the lines of "Writers are asking for increased compensation." To my mind, this is a meaningless sentence. No Union I'm aware of has an agreement that ties employee compensation to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), so every Union, during every bargaining cycle, will ask for increased compensation to, at the very least, keep up with inflation. In my experience, even during economic downturns Unions will usually get an annual pay bump or contract bonus. This is basic, basic Union stuff. So while the WGA proposal does include a raise to writer minimums, this is not the issue.

There are two core issues behind this strike: 1) The studios have engaged in systematized practices of eliciting free/discounted work from writers while their own profits have ballooned, and 2) the advent and proliferation of streaming services has irrevocably changed the nature of filmed entertainment. This is crucial to understand. We are on a new planet, and while the studios may feel that, sure, the oxygen content is different but everybody who keels over can be replaced, the Union would like to acknowledge that yes, we are on a new planet, but no, writers are not interchangeable cogs to be worn out and tossed away. The difference is that stark, and almost that literal when it comes to the integration of AI.

For context, the last time the WGA contract expired was in 2020. Streaming had advanced out of its infancy, but because of the pandemic, all of the Hollywood guilds decided to punt on contract negotiations and mostly extend the previous contracts. This was entirely justified. Nobody wants to go public with demands for more money for prestigious jobs when millions of Americans are out of work and locked at home. But the reality was that the landscape had already, irrevocably changed from when the previous contract had been negotiated in 2017. So 2023 is a reckoning that has been brewing for essentially the entire lifetime of streaming television.

Free Work

In 2018, the WGA rolled out an initiative called "No Writing Left Behind." At issue was the practice of studios bringing in multiple writers or writing teams to pitch on "open writing assignments." This means the studio bought the rights to, say, Slinky, they want to make a Slinky movie, and they bring in 20 writers to give them detailed breakdowns of what the beginning, middle, and end of a Slinky movie might be, and who the characters are. Young writers would routinely spend 4-6 weeks preparing a detailed pitch and presentation, and after they gave it in person for a studio or producer, they would leave behind a written summary. In practice, many studios and producers would know in advance that they were never going to hire any of these writers. They would instead sift all of their pitches into their ideal Slinky movie, and then hire an A-list writer to write the actual movie, using the unpaid work of all of the job candidates as a backbone. Sounds insane, right? It was regular practice. This exchange from a 2018 episode of the Scriptnotes podcast highlights the issue.

Imagine working 4-6 weeks for free. And then a year later seeing the work you did show up in a movie that makes a billion dollars at the box office. Seriously.

Before the 2007-2008 strike, I was a young feature writer, and the spec market for original screenplays still kind of existed. But without representation, I didn’t have the ability to send a script out to the entire town. Instead, through word of mouth and relationships, I wound up with a number of screenplays in development with some serious production companies, including some with offices on studio lots, run by people who used to run studios. Including with people who went on to win Best Picture Oscars. But the deal was always the same for me: we love this script, it’s almost there, we’d love to bring it in and get it set up, but we’d like you to make a few changes first. For one company, I did 12 rewrites on a feature screenplay. That’s a lot of work for no pay.

This kind of thing happens even with represented writers whose scripts have been acquired by studios, under the guise of what’s called a “producer’s pass.” A studio contract to write a feature film will have one or more “steps” in it, and each step has a definition and a dollar amount attached. Many deals are a “one-step” deal, which means you turn in the first draft of a script, and that’s it. The studio can offer you more to do a re-write, but once the script is turned in, that’s the end of the contractual obligation. So you write your script, hand it to the producer (who isn’t the studio — they are different entities), and the producer says it’s great, change this-this-and-this, and we’ll hand it in. That second pass the writer does through the script is a producer’s pass. You want to hand in the best possible script, the script that’s most likely to get you the opportunity to do the re-write, the one that’s most likely to get the studio’s greenlight, so you polish it up. Or fully rewrite it, you know, depending on the producer’s notes. Or do that 12 times before the producer is willing to turn in that “first draft” to the studio.

At one point, I was doing that on four different original scripts with four different production companies. I was writing full-time, even had a borrowed office that I went to, and I wasn’t getting paid. I was not alone. With the recent shift of original feature films largely to streaming platforms, I’m not sure how prevalent this remains today, but it happens, and at the time it was common practice.

Writing Teams

The other practice that I don't see mentioned anywhere, but was a big problem for a long time, is the idea of "paper teams." Under WGA agreements, a writing team was treated like an individual. So if you and Sharon, who you grew up with, dreaming of making movies or TV shows together, decided to work together as writers, you would count as a single writer. If the WGA minimum for a 60-minute episode of TV was $40,000, you and Sharon would both get $20,000 instead of the $40,000 you'd get if you worked individually.

Fine. That's not tyrannical. It sucks, but you opted to work together, etc. It's not the best, but you buy the ticket, you take the ride. It's important to note here that you two don't actually get that $40,000. You will have an agent (who got you into the room to even be considered for the job), who gets 10%. You will have a lawyer (who made sure your contract wasn't full of termites), who gets 5%. These days, you'll probably also have a manager, who isn't regulated by any governmental agency, and will take maybe 5% or maybe 10%. So from the jump, the two of you are making at best 80% of that writing fee. And then you pay taxes, which we'll peg at maybe 35%. 

You are now at $20,800. For the two of you, that's $10,400 each, for however long you worked on that project. You sold a script. It's going to be on television. You are living the dream!

And if that's all you sell this year, you are living below the Federal poverty level.

But it's cool. You get hired onto the show as a Staff Writer, and you get a weekly rate in addition to your episode fee. So that's a little better. But now imagine that there's no Sharon. It's just you, and you've been busting your ass for years to get your first TV job. Everything goes well, and a producer for a successful TV show tells you, "Look, we love your writing. We think you're perfect for the show. We want to bring you in. But there's another writer we love just as much. Are you cool if we say you two are a team? That way both of you get hired, you're both on the successful show, and you both have an on-ramp to the TV career you've always dreamt of?" If you say "yes," you are now working for half of the industry minimum scale rate. But you're on a hit show??

Many writers had to settle for this. They were a team with another writer on paper only, and got paid half of the WGA minimums for episodes, rates, and residuals. (Writers get residuals when their episodes are re-aired, and if the show is sold into syndication. So if TBS buys the rights to re-air the Slinky TV Hour, which was originally produced by Warner Bros. TV, those writers would also get a residual based on the licensing fee.)

So with broadcast and cable television, writers are paid for 1) writing the episode, 2) being staffed on the show, 3) a residual for every time the episode re-airs, and 4) a residual based on the license fee when the show is sold to syndicated TV. You could have a good run with Slinky — work on it for a few years, about 40 weeks a year, with the ability to develop projects of your own during the 12 weeks or so of hiatus, waiting for the next season. As a writer you generally go to set to shepherd the episodes you’ve written through production. You learn how to talk to the crew, to directors, and to get the thing you saw in your head, and wrote on paper, up onto the screen through production and post-production. It's not trivial — it is a difficult skill to master, and it generally takes a number of tries.

Between the open writing assignment pitches and the paper teams, the studios had exhausted a ton of credibility over the last few years, with the WGA stepping in with efforts like No Writing Left Behind and negotiating for the end of paper teams. Then came mini-rooms.


With a few exceptions, TV shows are written by a bunch of folks in a writer’s room. Standard network TV orders were generally somewhere around 22 episodes. It’s just way too much for a single person to write, or even five people. So the writers would work under the direction of the showrunner, who’s also usually credited as the Executive Producer, and that person’s the last say before something would go to the network. In film, since the emergence of the auteur theory in the 1950s, the director is seen as the top creative on a project. In TV, it’s the showrunner, who is also a writer.

These 22 episodes would keep the writing staff busy for about 40 weeks a year, as I’ve mentioned, because the show is still being written even while it’s in production. The writer’s room will assemble, they’ll break major beats of the season, a bunch of story ideas, character arcs, all that, and get some scripts written before cameras roll on the first episode, but from that point on, both operations will run simultaneously. Writers traditionally cycle out of the room to guide their episode on set and through post-production, and then cycle back into the room.

Shows for streaming platforms, as we are all aware, have much smaller orders. Somewhere between six and 13 episodes now constitute a full season or limited series. So when you work in streaming, you no longer have 40 weeks of employment for the year, if you get staffed. And to be clear, just because you work one season on a show, even if it gets renewed, there’s not a guarantee you’ll be asked back for the next season. So even with the network model, there’s a ton of uncertainty and turnover. But writers would often be placed on exclusivity agreements while the future of their show was decided by the network, so they couldn’t take another job, and would just have to wait to see if they were offered the next season.

In previous WGA negotiations in 2014, the terms of those unpaid holds were re-evaluated for the streaming era, because you might have a writer who works twelve weeks on a Netflix show, which premieres a year or more later because the room and the set aren’t running in tandem — the whole show is written before cameras roll — but the writers would be on a hold pending a decision on the series’ renewal, and can’t go find more work. There were writers who found themselves in situations where they wrote for a show that was becoming a huge hit, but were prohibited from going out and finding more work for months and months. In 2020, the WGA negotiated limits to those exclusivity provisions, and established that writers employed in mini-rooms of less than 8 weeks duration cannot be subject to holds of this kind.

Not many people can make ends meet by working eight weeks and then being forced to sit at home for the next few months. And even with the protections now in place, having to go out an try to score your next gig while working your current gig is tough. When I started my video production business twenty-some years ago, I was spending half of my time doing work, and half of my time looking for the next work. It’s not the kind of situation you would expect card-carrying Union members to find themselves in, let alone many members, all the time. But an acquaintance of mine, who is one of the workingest TV writers in town, started out on a network show, and I remember when that series ended, they wound up working on three different shows for two different networks the following year. And they were lucky (and good…very, very good and in-demand).

But the companies are not only totally fine with this arrangement, they want to make it more prevalent. Two common practices today: mini-rooms of low-level writers doing the heavy lifting on breaking seasons and episodes, before a streamer has decided if they are going to move forward with the show, and streamers wrapping the room and sending all the writers, except the showrunner, home before physical production starts.

In the first scenario, the studios get to read what a show will be, how the season will go, and have a good idea about the entire arc of it thanks to the work of junior writers who got paid for just a few weeks. But they didn’t write episodes, so they won’t get any episode fees or residuals if the show does get picked up, nor are they guaranteed a spot in any eventual writer’s room if the network decides to move forward with the show. It’s like the open writing assignments issue all over again, with only a nominal fee paid upfront. So as a young writer, you’re being forced to bounce from show, to show, to show with no kind of stability and no ability to plan, which affects every life decision from where you live to if you will try to start a family. This is not a sustainable model.

And that leads to the second scenario, where only the showrunner is left for the actual production. The showrunner’s job is massive. There are reasons individual writers would take the helm on individual episodes. There are very, very few people in this business who can shoulder all of the responsibilities of a showrunner on a show in production without any additional creative support. It is a recipe for creative and professional burnout, or even worse outcomes. And the industry forecloses its own training ground for the next generation of creators and showrunners. A common refrain I have heard from writers over the last few weeks is that it’s not uncommon for a writer to have been on staff on three shows, and have never been to set, let alone through post-production. Again, this is not a sustainable model. You will have an entire generation of show creators and showrunners who have no experience beyond the writer’s room, and the quality of programming will suffer, subscriber bases will erode, and the pursuit of profits today, as we see in so many other areas, will close the door to long-term success.

This is in many ways par for the course for the new breed of studio: Apple, Amazon, Netflix, etc. I recognize that no matter what sector they may operate in, every public corporation in America is actually in the same business — paying dividends to shareholders. But these companies in the streaming space bring with them a number of particular, specific worries.

Tech Companies and AI

First of all, the tech sector is famously Union-averse. So they’d rather the WGA just go ahead and fuck all they way off. They are also not in the TV business, they are in the technology money business. So they will find ways to pay writers less, and they will engineer structural systems to ensure that they can continue driving down the cost of using people to generate content. They will cry poverty as their rationale. The WGA estimates that their entire package of demands will cost the studios somewhere around $450 million. To put that in perspective, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, David Zaslav, made nearly $250 million in 2021 through salary, stock, and other compensation. Apple is the most valuable company in the world, with somewhere between $50 billion and $900 billion in cash-on-hand alone and a total market cap of almost $3 trillion. Amazon is worth over $1 trillion, as well (and for what it's worth, Amazon's initial foray into entertainment creation was to ask aspiring writers to send in scripts for a "contest," and the grand prize would be -- not money, no -- Amazon would produce your script and monetize it for themselves). We’ve probably all heard that Netflix has been losing subscribers and value, but they also have earned a reputation for throwing tons of money at stupid projects. They have also earned a reputation for hiding their metrics.

You now have a situation where the residual rate for streaming is a fraction of the rates for traditional broadcast and cable television, no way to verify how many people are actually watching anything (I guess we just have to take their words for it…), vertically integrated employers who both produce and distribute the content, so no more licensing fees and residuals, business practices designed to employ the fewest number of people for the shortest period of time, like Uber drivers for “streaming content,” no more pipeline for professional development, and employers who also happen to be developing AI tools designed to write things. This all adds up to an environment, just like the WGA has said publicly, that aims to make the profession of writing for film and television a gig economy.

If you don’t think the studios will try replacing a mini-room with ChatGPT, and then giving whatever it spits out and the executives sift through for their preferred iteration to a small team to actually produce the scripts, or even just to a showrunner to lead it through production, then I think you haven’t been paying attention. Remember famous tech start-up Napster? Their entire business model was facilitating the transfer of art they didn't pay for, millions of times a day. This is tech's jam. I mean, check out the companies' response to the Guild’s proposal on AI:

An annual briefing on how they're going to be eliminating more writing responsibilities? Nah.

So be wary when you hear the kind of “one side says this, the other side says this” reporting like in this NPR excerpt:

And be wary when you see phrases like “the Guild also complained…” where the verb choice is doing a lot of work, none of it benefitting the writers:

Consider, instead, this LA Times roundtable quote from Liz Tigelaar, showrunner of Little Fires Everywhere:

"Every single writer." This is, in fact, an existential crisis for the future of professional writing in filmed entertainment. Media framing that suggests otherwise is misleading at best. And…might be worse than that.

For my own story, what happened to me after the 2007-2008 strike? I had bad luck. I had gotten a manager right before the strike at a boutique management company, and it went under during the strike. My new manager was also out of work. Three projects of mine were at companies that also went under, or downsized the executives I was working with during the strike, so those projects no longer had homes. The fourth project was at a big company that was no longer seen as a solid investment for its corporate parent, and was shuttered a few months later. I tried to get some of the projects set up again, but in the end, I just ran out of time. When the strike was called, my first child was about nine months old. I had a family, rent was going up, and we ran out of runway. I had to pivot back to the kind of production work I was doing before I moved to LA, and that was kind of that for screenwriting.

That’s the future the Guild and its members are trying to fend off for everybody. A future where the only people who can write, the only voices that make it to our screens, are those of people who can afford to not work, who won’t run out of runway, or people that don’t have families and can commit to working 16-20 hour days as the showrunner on a limited series with no other support.

That’s a future none of us should want.

Posted by Vance K — Emmy-winning producer and Hugo Award-winning co-founder of nerds of a feather, flock together. Union member.