Two weeks into the Writers Guild of America strike, hopes for a quick resolution are low, but determination among picketing writers is high.
The WGA went on strike in 1960, 1981, 1988 and 2007. Yet as a sea of writers pound the pavement outside the studios, bearing signs like “pens down, knives out” and “here’s a wild pitch: pay us fair wages,” there is a distinct feeling that this time is different.
“Every other strike was about corporate greed, this is about extinction,” said screenwriter Billy Ray. “We are fighting against our extinction as a class of craftsmen.”
Writers allege that changes in industry practices are making the job financially untenable. This includes shorter seasons, smaller workplace rooms, shrinking residual payments from streaming services and the rising use of AI, or artificial intelligence.
“This is probably the most important strike I’ve participated in,” said veteran screenwriter Peter Hancock, who has picketed in every strike since 1981, as he marched outside Fox Studios in Cheviot Hills.
Peter Hankoff, a 45-year WGA member, joins fellow writers to walk the picket line at Fox Studios in Los Angeles on Monday, May 8, 2023.(Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents Hollywood’s studios, streamers and production companies, says it has already offered “generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals.”
WGA leaders say this offer doesn’t go far enough and does nothing to address their concerns regarding the use of AI.
Median weekly pay for writer-producers, adjusted for inflation, has dropped 23% in the last decade, according to statistics published by the WGA. And about 50% of all TV writers are now working for the minimum rate under the union’s contact, compared to 33% of TV writers paid the minimum rate in 2013-14.
Even writers at the pinnacle of success are coming out to the picket line, demanding change.
“I believe in my union. I love what I do for a living and I love that a lot people do what I do for a living, so I want to see them be treated fairly and paid fairly,” said Jason Sudeikis, writer, actor and producer, known for his roles on “Saturday Night Live” and “Ted Lasso,” as he picketed outside Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank.
Nearly impossible for young writers to make a living
In particular, young writers who lack the connections and experience of veteran writers are feeling the squeeze of shifting industry practices, and many have been pushed out of the profession altogether.
Jonathan Hurwitz is one of those.
He lived paycheck to paycheck as he hustled for years to break into a writers’ room, which is where writers work together to brainstorm episode plots and craft their scripts. Even when he became a writer’s assistant his take home weekly pay in 2016 was just $569.
Hurwitz did end up making it, for a moment, when he landed his dream job as a staff writer on the Disney Channel reboot of the TV comedy, “Lizzy McGuire.”
But that dream came crashing down in January of 2020, when the showrunner (the person leading the writers’ room) walked into the room and announced that Disney Channel had canceled the show before it finished shooting.
Soon after, the pandemic hit. Hurwitz lost his union health insurance because he didn’t clock enough hours in a writers room that year, had to move back home with his family and took a marketing job to make ends meet. He hasn’t been in a writers’ room since.
“I dreamed of being a writer in a writers’ room and I did it. I’ve been nominated for a Daytime Emmy and a WGA Award,” he said. “Now I’m interviewing to work in the marketing department at Tinder because I got laid off from my job of making TikToks for Walmart.”
Writer Jonathan Hurwitz picketing outside of Netflix. After his show was cancelled and he lost his health insurance, Hurwitz had to move back home and get a job in marketing to make ends meet. (Photo courtesy of Hurwitz)
Nesa Huda, an aspiring writer, had a similar experience working as a writers’ production assistant on HBO’s reboot of the teen drama “Degrassi,” which was canceled halfway through the writing process.
“That was pretty devastating and L.A. is a hard place to be unemployed, especially suddenly when you don’t have plans to back yourself up,” she said. “What was super frustrating about this experience was that people said, ‘Oh, this happens all the time’.”
Huda is now very uncertain about her future. As a Canadian citizen, she has applied for an artist visa to stay in the country and is unsure whether it will be approved. With the strike potentially poised to go on for months, she may have to pack up her dreams and return home.
For many young writers it feels as if, even if they break in, there is no promise they will be able to stay.
“You work sometimes for a decade for minimum wage (as an assistant) … and you do that because the promise of it is that, at the end of that once you break in as a writer, it’s a career that really pays off,” said James Oliver, a Harvard graduate and Studio City resident, who worked in the industry for ten years to get his first staff writer position.
“What’s happening now is the rug gets pulled out from everyone who works for a decade to get here,” he said.
All writers struggle with small rooms, shrinking residuals
Oliver is scared for the future of the industry. He and his wife Sharla are writing partners so they don’t have a stable income to fall back on when they aren’t working on a show. And they are bringing their toddler, who they must provide for, to the picket line every day.
James Oliver and his wife Sharla Oliver are writing partners and parents who depend on their writing income to provide for their young daughter (Photo by Clara Harter, Daily News/SCNG)
Oliver and Sharla are both accomplished writers with many seasons of experience behind them. And yet, for two years during the pandemic they weren’t able to get a job.
During lean times in the past, writers have relied on residual checks from episodes of rebroadcasted shows they worked on. However, residuals from streaming services are considerably less than that paid by cable networks.
“Residuals are a big part of how we make our money as writers,” said showrunner Julia Cohen. “I’ve seen with the rise of streaming, residuals have simply fallen off of a cliff. They are down to a trickle, if not nothing at all.”
Cohen has also felt a shift in the size of writers’ rooms and the length of time they are given to complete a season.
“We’re being asked to work less weeks overall, with less people and do the same amount of work,” she said. “Our quality of life and our bank accounts are getting squeezed, even as the studio’s profits are going up and up.”
Writer Julia Cohen and fellow WGA members walk the picket line at Fox Studios in Los Angeles on Monday, May 8, 2023.(Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)
The WGA is asking for an end to so-called “mini rooms” a recent phenomenon in the industry in which studios enlist two to three writers and a showrunner to craft episodes — in place of a typical room with six or more writers. The union is demanding that studios and streamers commit to a minimum of six writers in a room and ten weeks on the job. So far, AMPTP has rejected both proposals.
Writers see AI as a very real threat
AMPTP has also rejected the WGA’s demand that studios and streamers commit to not using AI to write or rewrite stories, instead offering to host an annual meeting to discuss advances in technology.
Amidst the rise of ChatGPT and other sophisticated AI software, writers are afraid that executives will utilize the technology to hire less writers in the name of efficient spending.
“If I sell a TV show and the streamer says to me ‘We’re gonna put you in a room with AI and AI is going to generate crappy scripts and then you’re going to rewrite them’ — that is maximum efficiency,” said Billy Ray. “It will kill the Guild. It will ensure that no young writers learn how to become showrunners themselves.”
Writer Billy Ray and fellow WGA members walk the picket line at Fox Studios in Los Angeles on Monday, May 8, 2023.(Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)
The creators of South Park recently used ChatGPT to craft part of an episode about AI titled “Deep Learning.” In addition to writing some of the text, ChatGPT was used to produce the voice of the AI character in the episode through its text-to-voice generator tool.
While AI technology cannot currently craft unique and powerful scripts, it is capable of producing impressive first drafts that can be elevated by human editing.
“I think AI is probably going to be able to do a lot in the next few years and is going to improve a ton,” said writer Chase Baxter, picketing outside of Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank. “I think we are are going to see a lot of creative workers pushed out and the ones that remain are the people who are going to learn how to do more with AI using less people.”
“I think we as writers are some of the few people who are in a union that can fight to stop that happening,” he added.
AI is a rising threat to all kinds of creative jobs: directing, producing, songwriting and even journalism. An AI- generated Drake and the Weeknd song recently went viral, and as did an attack ad about President Joe Biden, released by the Republican National Convention that utilized AI generated images of the president.
Writers’ battle could be a long one
Members of the WGA are waiting to see if the use of AI becomes a touchstone issue in negotiations between AMPTP and the Directors Guild of America, which began on May 10 — as well as in negotiations between AMPTP and the Screen Actors Guild which will begin on June 8.
Writers are looking closely at these negotiations to see how they will impact their own strength and leverage as a bargaining unit.
“If those negotiations all go the way of a strike, this (strike) might end really fast, but if both the unions are able to find an agreement that they can be happy with and sign onto, then this is probably going to go a long time,” said writer and Burbank resident George Kitson.
Showrunner Julia Cohen said she was nervous that it was gearing up to be a long strike. She said studios may use the strike as an opportunity to cut costs by suspending deals that they has signed with writers prior to the strike. And, she noted, streamers may also benefit from a long strike if it hastens the demise of cable TV networks, which will be hit harder by the shutdown of show development because cable needs fresh content to fill all airtime slots.
The last WGA strike took place from 2007 to 2008 and went 100 days, while the longest strike on record was the 1988 strike, which lasted153 days. Writers are 13 days in on this strike, which began May 2. If history is to repeat itself, then there are indeed many miles left to march on the picket line.