USA: trouble in Hollywood – Writers Guild on strike

Hollywood is known as a “dream factory,” but for film and television writers it’s become simply a factory like any other, with all the drudgery and exploitation that entails. Sea changes in the industry brought about by streaming and artificial intelligence (AI) technology have made writing all but untenable as a career. To confront what it calls an “existential crisis”, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) presented the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) with a list of demands including major changes to how writers are paid, staffing guarantees, and safeguards against being replaced by AI. After six weeks of negotiations, the AMPTP refused to even counter many of the key demands, so with a historic 97.85 per cent authorization vote the WGA declared a strike. 

Originally published 12 May by

“The companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce,” the WGA said in an official statement. “From their refusal to guarantee any level of weekly employment in episodic television, to the creation of a ‘day rate’ in comedy variety, to their stonewalling on free work for screenwriters and on AI for all writers, they have closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession.”

Despite the stereotype of the out-of-touch Hollywood elite, very few writers are actually making bank. Most are dealing with inflation and stagnating wages like any other workers. According to the WGA, “In real dollar terms, median weekly writer-producer pay has declined 4% over the last decade. Adjusting for inflation, the decline is 23%.”

Even landing a gig on a hit show doesn’t help. Alex O’Keefe was a writer for the much-watched and much-acclaimed comedy The Bear. He worked in a Zoom writers’ room from a tiny, unheated Brooklyn apartment. According to an interview with The New Yorker, “his space heater would blow the power out, and he’d bring his laptop to a public library.” And after paying reps’ fees and taxes, his take-home pay didn’t add up to the jackpot you’d expect. Having grown up poor himself, he described writing as “a very regular-degular, working-class existence.”

With the proliferation of seasons between eight to 10 episodes on streaming platforms, as opposed to the classic 22-episode seasons on broadcast TV, writers are making less money per contract, and are always on the lookout for their next job. For a while, these worsening conditions were offset by the sheer number of new and interesting shows being produced. Studios were throwing money at streaming to win the battle for subscribers. But lately they’ve slammed the brakes on the streaming spending spree, and precarity is haunting the industry more than ever. 

“People are just desperate,” one writer and showrunner told Vanity Fair. “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and I’ve never been in a situation where people are like, ‘Oh, no one’s buying anything right now.’ We just can’t sell.” 

Another writer, Laura Jacqmin, painted a grim picture for The New Yorker:

“It feels like the studios have gone through our contracts and figured out how to Frankenstein every loophole into every deal, which means that, at the very best, you can keep your head above water… I’m on Twitter every other day, and I’m seeing writers who are, like, ‘Please Venmo me some grocery money. I am desperate, and I have not worked in three months. Help!’”

When reflecting on working conditions in the industry Jacqmin says, “It’s become a grind at every level.” O’Keefe calls writing “like an assembly line now.” 

The degradation of conditions and pay in writing isn’t so dissimilar from the process of proletarianization described by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. The middle classes, craftsmen, etc. “sink gradually into the proletariat… partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.”

Writers fighting an ‘existential’ struggle 

The WGA is fighting against the same problems that are dogging the rest of the working class: low pay, heightened exploitation, and precarious employment. 

To combat the combination of streaming’s lower paycheque and the soaring cost of living in LA and New York, the WGA’s demands include a number of proposals for compensation adjustments that would amount to an estimated total increase of $429 million per year across the entire workforce. AMPTP’s counter-offer is approximately just $86 million per year. But the struggle is not only about wages. 

Residuals are one potential way writers can be assured an income when work runs dry. Similar to royalty payments for music, writers get paid a small amount when their shows are rerun. Broadcast residuals can range anywhere from a few cents to a steady income, depending on the success of the show. When streaming came on the scene, this new medium threw a wrench into the residual formula. What does a rerun even mean in streaming? 

Originally, streaming residuals were zero. Today they at least exist, but are still much lower than residuals from broadcast television. Right now if a writer helps make a hit for broadcast they get a proportional paycheque, but if they strike gold for Netflix and bring in lots of subscribers they don’t. The WGA is asking for a higher residual base, and also a viewership-based streaming residual. The obstacle is that studios don’t want to share their viewership data. They prefer to keep their failures secret from one another, and not give their creatives any insight into how much they’re bringing to the platform. 

Another threat to the viability of writing as a career in the age of streaming is the rise of the “miniroom.” Essentially it’s a condensed writers’ room—two or three writers as opposed to the usual seven or eight—used to break a story in the pre-greenlight stage, and then let go. Once the show is picked up the room is gone and all the episodes are given to one writer. “The miniroom is one of the most harmful things that has happened to writers,” one showrunner told Vanity Fair. “It’s like every 10 weeks you’re trying to get a new job.” 

The miniroom generally pays less than a regular writers’ room, and all writers are paid the same, regardless of experience. Studios naturally want to get the biggest bang for their buck and hire only seasoned writers. Not only does this make it harder for new writers to break into the industry, it also eliminates a vital part of their education. The different levels of experience found in traditional writers’ rooms created mentorship experiences, training the next generation. Furthermore, since minirooms are only around for pre-production, most writers are missing out on valuable on-set experience that would help them move up the production ladder. Minirooms are an attack on writers’ pay, working conditions, and futures. To fight back the WGA is demanding staffing and contract minimums. It’s one of the proposals the AMPTP is rejecting outright. 

Artificial intelligence is another sticking point. It’s not controversial to point out that Hollywood TV and movies can be formulaic—from there it’s not a stretch to imagine AI being used to generate plot ideas or even entire scripts for procedural dramas or the latest sequel of the month. Screenwriting would be downgraded to rewriting machine-made scripts. This is an existential threat to writers. The WGA has proposed regulating the use of AI, banning its use to write or rewrite scripts and guaranteeing that material from writers can’t be used to train AI. The studios are more than a little reluctant to renounce such money-saving potential, and countered by offering only “annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.” 

These are just a few of the WGA’s demands getting stonewalled. “The AMPTP basically told us to piss off with no counter of their own on SO MANY important issues,” Bryan Cogman, an Emmy-winning writer for Game of Thrones, told Variety. 

Streaming runs dry

Now that it’s come to a strike, studios are still unlikely to budge easily. As mentioned earlier, not too long ago a “gold-rush” atmosphere prevailed in streaming, with studios throwing money at new and interesting shows in a frantic bid to get curious eyes and subscribers onto their platforms. But since Netflix started losing subscribers last year, the purse strings have been tightening. 

Sign Image Writers Guild of America WestCapitalism’s relentless drive to maximize profits means a relentless drive to exploit workers / Image: Writers Guild of America West, Twitter

A veteran showrunner pointed out to Vanity Fair that “Wall Street changed the rules of the game.” Instead of pursuing growth, streamers are now chasing profitability. The article continued, “Like Uber, they changed culture and only then realized their business model was unsustainable. Now they’re aggressively cutting back on deals with talent, the number of original scripted shows they’re making, and the budgets attached to remaining projects.”

Not only Netflix, but also Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, and others have laid off thousands of staffers, and vowed caution over creativity. In 2022 HBO Max infamously not only pulled the plug on a whole slate of shows in production, but also scrubbed scores of existing shows from its platform (the most notable being the sci-fi hit Westworld), in a drastic cost-cutting move. 

That doesn’t mean there isn’t money in entertainment—just that it’s going to shareholders instead of workers. According to the WGA, industry profits jumped from $5 billion in 2000 to $28-$30 billion from 2017-2021, and spending on original streaming content went from $5 billion in 2019 to $19 billion in 2023. 

What’s clear is that while streaming and AI technology have provided the opportunity for intensified exploitation, they are not the cause. The cause is capitalism. What’s happening to Hollywood writers today is the same process described by Marx and Engels 175 years ago: “Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman.” Capitalism’s relentless drive to maximize profits means a relentless drive to exploit workers. Workers can and should fight back against these methods, but it’s capitalism itself that ultimately needs to be overthrown so we can all enjoy a secure and rewarding life. 

Capitalism cripples creativity

The writers’ fight is also a fight for better art and entertainment in general. Streamers scrap popular TV shows when they hit their third season just to avoid paying higher wages. Writers aren’t able to devote themselves fully to a show when they’re always looking for their next gig. With the elimination of writers’ rooms in favour of the miniroom and remote work, there’s no mentorship to train the next generation of writers. 

As Brittani Nichols, a writer-producer on Abbott Elementarysaid, “What they’re doing is going to create an erosion of the quality of the product.”

Another writer complained, “What the streamers want most right now is ‘second-screen content,’ where you can be on your phone while it’s on. Or you can write an original script everyone loves, and then it’s, like, ‘Ooh, we can’t make this, but please take your pick of our upcoming Batman projects!’”

Capitalism is an enormous weight on the creative potential of humanity. With the streaming boom we caught a glimpse of what is possible when writers are freed from the constraints of broadcast television. However, even then they were still limited by new conventions of “bingeable” content. Not until the profit motive is eliminated altogether and artists are in full control of their art—not until we have socialism—-will we see the full potential of on-screen storytelling. 

Victory to the writers!

Last time there was a writers’ strike, in 2007-2008, it lasted 100 days and cost $2.1 billion to California’s economy alone. There was an infamous boom in reality TV to fill the gap, but Survivor and The Bachelor couldn’t really take the place of scripted shows. 

Today the studios are in a much better position. According to Variety, they’ve been preparing for years for just this scenario, with stockpiles of scripts ready to go. Not to mention, a dearth of new programming is much less noticeable on streaming services than on cable line-ups. 

Unfortunately, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) have been reminding their members to honour their contracts. For them, solidarity so far has been limited to statements, and individuals visiting picket lines. This is even more egregious given that actors and directors share many of the same concerns as the writers about streaming, data, and monetization. Actors also share the writers’ burgeoning fear of AI. These unions must show their solidarity in more than just words. This is all the more important because the DGA and SAG-AFTRA contracts are up for renegotiation at the end of June. The AMPTP has already rejected the DGA’s “pre-negotiation” offer. With shared interests and a shared enemy, the stage could be set for a Hollywood “mega-strike” this summer. Unity with the writers now will only strengthen the position of actors and directors when their turn comes  

On the other hand, in a good example to the rest of the labour movement, the Writers Guild of Canada, Writers Guild of Great Britain, and the Animation Guild have instructed their members not to cross a picket line by writing for struck projects. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents crew members, has reminded its members of their right to honour a picket line. Teamsters Local 399 has gone further by “repeatedly” telling members, “Teamsters do not cross picket lines.” At a solidarity rally on May 3, Lindsay Dougherty, the head of Teamsters Local 399 exclaimed, “The only way we’re gonna beat these mother f—kers is if we do it together.”

This solidarity is a reflection of the fact that the writers’ struggle is the same as that of workers across the industry. The crisis of capitalism means there is no job free from the grinding oppression of the profit motive. What used to be a dream is now a nightmare. A victory for the WGA would be a victory for the entire working class against the capitalists.

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