‘The Whole Thing Starts With Us’
The stories we love to binge don’t come from nowhere.
Early one morning in March, I was at the Holloway House in West Hollywood meeting a writer friend for breakfast. When I arrived the place was empty, but 90 minutes later, it was positively vibrating with anxious energy. Walking to the door on my way out I could hear them, at table after table: my fellow writers. Pitching ideas for TV shows and arcs for feature films to junior executives and studio executives and independent producers. To anyone who might listen and possibly have the power to buy a script. The writers were leaving it all on the dance floor, as if their life—or at least their livelihood—depended on it.
If you’ve ever watched an American feature film or scripted television show or laughed at a late-night comic’s jokes, you’ve encountered work from members of the Writers Guild of America, the collective that represents entertainment writers’ interests. On Monday, the guild’s contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers—the association that represents streaming platforms and television networks—is set to expire. Writers, who have watched their income erode during the “streaming wars,” are prepared to strike if they don’t get some of what they want at the bargaining table.
Hollywood is always a little manic, but that day at the Holloway House was excessively so. It was a pitch-a-palooza, speed dating for “content.” A strike means that no one in the guild can write, sell, or even negotiate scripts; the last strike, in 2007 and 2008, shut Hollywood down for 100 days. The studios, or so the rumors had it, were anxious to stockpile scripts. The writers were anxious to stockpile cash.
Screenwriting is a “cool job,” but making it as a full-time writer in show business has never been harder, particularly if you’re doing the day-to-day work on the television programs we all love to binge. Breaking into the business has always been tough, but for generations, once you were through the gate with that hard-fought big break, there was a pathway to a creative middle-class career. One job as a script assistant for a network show that ran for 22 episodes could lead to a spot as a writer and then another as a story editor. The sheer volume of episodes would keep you employed for the bulk of the year. If you got lucky, you could ride residuals from reruns through dry spells. Write for a megahit like Seinfeld or Friends or The Office, and you could be contemplating retirement plans. Streaming has upended all of this.
The pivot to streaming, and the subsequent corporate consolidation, resulted in seismic changes: fewer buyers for content, shorter season orders for television programs, fewer feature films, the removal of older content from platforms, more licensed content from overseas. Above all, shows are being developed in new ways that have reduced the number of available jobs for screenwriters and cut into their salaries. Residuals, guild members say, have become nearly nonexistent. A handful of creators are raking in big bucks, but nearly half of all guild writers for TV write “at scale”—the writers’ equivalent of minimum wage—up from a third a decade ago.
“This career is turning from something that you do all year round, something you could depend on, to a gig career,” Jordan Carlos, a WGA writer-actor-comedian-podcaster and a soon-to-be-published author, told me. “And that is really tough.” It means you have to “patch together, at minimum, two or three writing jobs a year.”
That’s why Carlos, like many other screenwriters (myself included), has become so multihyphenate. If a podcast or Substack that you love happens to be written by a writer from one of your favorite shows, well, it’s no coincidence. “Hey,” Carlos said, “you got to dance. You got to hustle, man.”
Last week, I, along with the overwhelming majority of guild members, voted to authorize a strike. The vote doesn’t immediately trigger a strike, but it gives union leadership the authority to do so at any point after our contract expires. In addition to raising the pay scale, the guild’s platform of demands intends to correct for the ways in which evolving business practices have reduced writers’ incomes, as well as install some protections against the looming threat of artificial intelligence.
“I don’t know a single person who wants a strike,” Chris Hazzard, a screenwriter, told me. Yet everyone that I spoke with saw this moment as an existential crisis in the profession, and recognized that a strike might be the only way to remind Hollywood that, as Hazzard put it, “the whole thing starts with us.”
In the beginning, there is an idea. Of a housewife married to a Cubano band leader. Of a Black couple who made a small fortune in dry cleaning and moved from Queens to the Upper East Side. Of a New Jersey mob boss with depression. Of a nurse addicted to Percocet. Of an awkward Black girl and her friends navigating life in Los Angeles. Of a high-school girls’ soccer team stranded in the Canadian wilderness. An idea, and a question: What would happen if … ?
Days, weeks, months later, the person with the idea emerges, bleary-eyed but invigorated, having answered that question over 30, 60, 120 pages of magic called a script. I don’t say “magic” to be hyperbolic. I write articles; I write books; I have written some bad poems. But a script is magic because it is the only form of writing that, if it is alive and vivid enough, can come to physical, three-dimensional life.
It is also a persuasive document. It needs to persuade nervous executives to fight to buy it or fight to make it or fight to get it more money. It needs to persuade actors to sign on, along with other talented artists: directors, set designers, costume designers, composers.
The script is a pragmatic document. It can be read and broken down and evaluated by the costs associated with scenes and shoot days. It is a road map for a budget and a shooting schedule and a location scout. It sets the preliminary shopping list for a costume designer and a prop master.
And it is a living document: If an actor has issues with a line, or a guest star is out because of COVID, or you’ve hit your budget and need to lose a scene, the story has to change. Screenwriters are the ones who make it work. The script is the beginning. The script is the source.
As Hazzard said, it starts with us. That should be worth something, right? “If we write a script for a movie and that movie becomes successful, then that movie could turn into a theme-park ride and into a whole line of merchandise and kids’ toys and all these other things that writers see zero” profits from, Hazzard added. “People watch Shark Tank. They understand that if you write something and it becomes wildly successful, you should have a piece of that.”
“If I came out now trying to be a television writer,” Dailyn Rodriguez, a screenwriter and showrunner on shows such as The Lincoln Lawyer, told me, “I think I would pack up my shit and move back to New York. That’s how much the business has changed.”
Rodriguez got her start back in the early aughts after doing a fellowship funded by Disney. Her first job was in a writers’ room for The George Lopez Show; it was the first time she could pay her bills and afford her own apartment. She remembers that, during the 2007 strike, most people thought it was just a bunch of whiny writers on the picket line: “You rich little snots. What are you complaining about?”
They were complaining about the rise of the internet, and asking that they be compensated for work sold or streamed online—a nascent practice at the time that the writers saw as a bellwether. The strike worked. After 2010, when Netflix transitioned to streaming, and later began producing its own content, it was obliged to hire and pay guild minimums and residuals. “If we hadn’t gone on strike,” Rodriguez told me, “we wouldn’t have gotten jurisdiction over the internet.”
The guild’s history of reminding large, profitable studio systems that their products depend on the skilled craft of a network of writers is very much on the minds of WGA members now.
The list of demands is complex, but top priorities include provisions to protect writers’ work against AI, addressing the abuses of “mini-rooms,” and a better model for writers to share in the long-term profits generated from their creative labor.
Feature writers hired to create films for theatrical release, for example, are paid fees pegged to things like the delivery of the script to the studio and the theatrical release. A nervous development team that wants to perfect a script can force writers to spend weeks or even months revising while waiting to get paid. A last-minute decision to send the film straight to streaming could result in lower income for the same work. “Traditionally when you made a feature, it would come out in theaters and then it would go to pay-cable and planes, and then it would just get sold off to various different distributors,” Hazzard said. “And largely now with streamers, that just doesn’t exist. So when you make a movie for a streamer, in large part, you’re making whatever your up-front pay is, and then that’s kind of it.”
On the TV side, the big issue is the controversial use of mini-rooms. When a studio or streamer is excited about an idea but not totally sure it will work, rather than order a pilot—which could cost millions of dollars to produce—it will offer the creator a chance to put together a mini-room: a group of writers that will produce some scripts to “see where the series is going.” Because the show doesn’t necessarily exist yet, most writers are paid the minimum rate. If the show never goes anywhere, the writers walk away without a writing credit. If the show is green-lit, the studio has a season’s worth of usable scripts delivered at a fraction of what they would have cost for a show in production. The writers never see the difference.
These changes have been particularly devastating for writers of color, who made up about a quarter of TV writers in 2019. Almost all of the established screenwriters of color I know got their start through an entry-level “diversity spot” that the studios funded to encourage predominantly white showrunners to diversify their staff.
If you performed well, as Rodriguez did, you would go from script assistant to writer to story editor and so on. The rise of the mini-room has made this harder. It not only doesn’t have a diversity seat, but it is also more likely to be staffed quickly, with the showrunner or creator throwing together a group of writers they are already familiar with—often their friends. This reliance on social networks often puts writers of color—many of whom are in an earlier stage of their career—at a disadvantage.
Rodriguez understands why studios see the mini-room as an expedient tool, but thinks it will cost them down the line. “Because of the way that these mini-rooms have divorced themselves from production, you have an entire generation of writers that are not getting experience on the set.” They are not “being trained to be the next generation of showrunners. And so that’s bad.”
My path to screenwriting was anomalous. When I was selling the rights to my debut novel—about a Nuyorican wedding planner from working-class South Brooklyn—I wanted to write the adaptation myself. I was advised that this might make it harder to sell, because I had no experience in screenwriting, but I wanted to take my chances. I felt fairly certain that it would be hard to find another screenwriter who understood the hyperspecific world of the book. Eventually the rights and my script were green-lit to pilot, which isn’t a guarantee that the show will get made, but it did secure my membership in the WGA. Suddenly I was a TV writer.
I got to see my script, which I had painstakingly worked on with the project’s director and co-producer, transformed into a budget, a schedule, paint colors for set pieces, shoes and handbags and watches for actors, water towers to create a “rainy day”—real-life, tangible things. Things that cost money. I learned quickly that my script needed to be flexible. Rewriting a daytime scene as a nighttime scene kept the shooting schedule on track; reusing a location saved an outrageous sum of money. On set I realized that screenwriting was not just an art, but a skilled craft with commercial implications.
And this aspect of the craft is in part what is being dismantled by the studios and what the WGA is trying to preserve—both for the writers as well as for the studios and audiences.
No one wants a strike. No one wants L.A.’s economy to suffer or hardworking actors and crew members to take a hit. But stories don’t come from nowhere. This past March, Charlie Kaufman—who wrote films such as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—was honored at the WGA Awards. He used his moment in the spotlight as a rallying cry. “They’ve tricked us into thinking we can’t do it without them,” Kaufman said. “The truth is they can’t do anything of value without us.”