Why You Should Pay Attention to the Hollywood Writers’ Strike
“For a week or two, it’s kind of annoying ... But after several months, it can be disastrous.”
The picketing has begun. After weeks of negotiations, Hollywood screenwriters have decided to strike. According to the Writers Guild of America, the union representing film and television writers, members are gathering in front of the offices of major studios in Los Angeles and New York starting this afternoon.
This isn’t the first time the minds behind popular films and TV shows have stepped away from their keyboards after failing to reach a deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents production companies’ interests. The WGA has gone on strike several times before, most recently in 2007 for a shutdown that lasted 100 days. But in the 15 years since that strike ended, monumental changes have occurred within the industry. The “streaming wars” began. Peak TV emerged. Movie-theater attendance declined, and film studios prioritized franchises. Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted, well, pretty much everything about production. As my colleague Xochitl Gonzalez, a member of the WGA, wrote last week, these shifts have led to “an existential crisis in the profession.”
This crisis has consequences beyond Hollywood itself. Strikes examine the potential consequences of major technological shifts—think the rise of artificial intelligence, and the possibility of chatbots learning to draft screenplays—and the writers’ strike in particular can inform how other industries approach labor disputes. That’s what Kate Fortmueller, an assistant professor of entertainment and media studies at the University of Georgia, told me when I called her last week. She and I last spoke in 2021, when the union representing the behind-the-scenes workers on Hollywood productions voted to authorize a strike.
Fortmueller sees the WGA’s call raising similar questions around how employees in general should be treated. “As audience members, we could be more reflective,” she said. “What are the conditions under which [a film or TV show] is being made? Who’s being rewarded for this work? Who should be rewarded for this work?” As the strike continues, below are four ways to think about these questions from the other side of the screen.
This strike isn’t just about pay; it’s also about creative potential.
If you subscribe to any of the seemingly countless streaming services available today, you’ve probably felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content. More TV, though, hasn’t always meant better opportunities for writers—or better TV, for that matter. According to the WGA, although there’s been a boom in demand for scripts, the median weekly pay for TV writer-producers, adjusted for inflation, declined by 23 percent over the past decade. Julian Hoxter, a professor of cinema at San Francisco State University and co-author of Off the Page: Screenwriting in the Era of Media Convergence, told me that inconsistency among productions and cost-cutting moves have led to writers being treated as expendable resources. Streaming shows can range in season length but typically run for fewer episodes than network shows, leading to less pay for writers per series. Plus, such programming—usually released for bingeing—tends to make use of “mini rooms,” gathering a handful of writers to crank out scripts before filming begins instead of establishing a writers’ room that meets regularly, often preventing younger writers from developing the experience they need to grow. Streaming residuals, meanwhile, have not proved to be a steady source of income.
And that’s just on the TV side. Many movie writers also feel that they’re not being paid fairly, according to Hoxter. He told me that as film studios have become more risk-averse and sought more IP-based, franchise-friendly material, they’ve come to frequently pursue “one-step deals.” This tactic involves paying a screenwriter for only their first draft of a script and then deciding afterward whether to retain them for future drafts. The result, he explained, “places pressure on the writer to deliver what she thinks the studio wants the first time around,” which “fundamentally disincentivizes creative risk-taking.” To stay competitive, studios and streamers need more content, but the more they produce, the more strain they put on writers. And the more strain they put on writers, the less writers can develop and polish material. Think of this process as a domino effect, with the writers as the pieces that fall first and the viewers as the last ones in line, likely not noticing shifts in quality until years down the line.
“When you are stressed about your ability to make a living, it’s very hard to be creative and operate at the top of your game,” Eric Haywood, a writer for Law & Order: Organized Crime and a member of the WGA’s negotiating committee, told me. “A lot of people have been placed in this position where they pretty much have to do whatever it takes to land the job and then to keep the job. That makes it a lot harder to push back and exert your creative authority.”
How you watch films and TV shows matters more than you may think.
The WGA has consistently gone on strike when “new developments in distribution and exhibition technologies” have emerged, Hoxter explained. The 1988 strike involved negotiations over residuals from syndication and home video. In 2007–08, discussions about the internet’s role in distribution dominated much of the discussions. This year’s strike is over similar issues, focusing on streaming platforms and their continued impact on writers’ assignments and livelihoods.
But because platforms vary wildly in content, popularity, and ad revenue, figuring out how viewers will engage with what Hollywood releases is a guessing game, Fortmueller said: “Everyone’s trying to predict the future and do research as far as costs and potential profits. You do your best, but no one really knows.”
Still, Haywood pointed out, the WGA tries its best to anticipate the debates to come, such as the way the internet would operate as a distributor. “If we hadn’t done [that] in 2007 and 2008, and streaming had become what it is today, it would have just been a disaster,” he said. “It would have wiped out an entire middle class of screenwriters.” How are people watching what they’re watching, and how might that inform their viewing habits years down the line? Will people be willing to watch, let alone become fans of, AI-generated screenplays? Could cable make a comeback after years of cord-cutting? Such questions have to be discussed in advance, Haywood said: “We look down the road and say, ‘Well, what are the things that may not be pressing right this minute?’”
Don’t expect TV to change as much during this strike as it did in the 2000s.
Back in 2007, the timing of the strike coincided with TV’s mid-season schedule, which led to network shows cutting seasons short and relying on unscripted programming to fill their lineups. Today, the streaming model is better prepared for a shutdown. Platforms have libraries of content for audiences to watch, and shows come back when the streamers are ready for them to come back.
That said, if you watch late-night shows and series such as Saturday Night Live—programs for which writers often put together scripts up until the episode airs—you’re going to need to seek other entertainment, as several are shutting down and airing reruns instead. Plus, delays will become more noticeable the longer the strike lasts. “For a week or two, it’s kind of annoying,” Hoxter said. “It’s an inconvenience; it’s a difficult time. But after several months, it can be disastrous”—not just for TV schedules, but for anyone involved in production in Hollywood, forced to wait for work to resume.
What happens in Hollywood matters for any industry reeling from how the pandemic has affected daily life.
Hollywood screenwriting can seem like a glamorous job, but writers are struggling with issues that can resonate beyond the confines of studio backlots. Take the debates over returning to offices after COVID forced people to work remotely: Haywood told me the WGA hopes to keep some of the measures the industry introduced during the pandemic, but to find a way toward “a new normal.” That would include maintaining, he said, “a ladder to success that so many people were able to enjoy for so long, that brought stability to their lives.”
Stability, after all, is the goal. The strike is a last resort; no one wants to have to depend on their savings, to not know when they can get back to work. But after years of uncertainty, writers, no matter how well known, share “this almost universal sense that the ability to make a living is slowly being stripped away,” Haywood said. The record percentage of votes authorizing the strike last month, combined with the support from other unions, demonstrates how crucial the issues that the WGA and the AMPTP are bargaining over have become—perhaps for any industry dealing with intimidating questions over the very nature of their business. “People are beginning to recognize how all of these things are linked, and how workers are being treated in a variety of fields,” Haywood said. “People are ready for workers to get their due.”