“I never had any doubt that we were going to do it,” Adam Conover told TheWrap. The writer behind “Adam Ruins Everything” and “The G Word” has become an unofficial leader, or at least a public face on social media, during the long WGA strike. Now that the guild and the studios have reached a brokered peace, Conover took some time to speak about his feelings after a long and bruising battle.
“I understood how the power dynamics worked every step of the way, even though the CEOs didn’t,” he declared.
Conover admitted to feeling something approximating relief when the AMPTP began to aggressively negotiate in the final stretch of a nearly five-month-long strike. “When they finally started to negotiate, my first thought was, ‘My God, fucking finally, they get it. They get what they have to do.’”
As far as the final deal which (tentatively) ended the labor stoppage, he admitted that “You always miss a couple of things” during a negotiation.
“We tend to focus on ‘I wish we had been able to improve the residuals for comedy-variety in streaming.’” He explained. “We have the worst residual in the entire book and we weren’t able to improve it. And I focused on that for a little bit. I was bummed out about it.”
However, the writer noted that the final agreement included “dozens of things that they said they would never give to us.” He emphasized that “We won through member power.” He had members reach out and say, ‘This is going to change my life.’”
“It’s meaningful to me, I can’t express how emotional it is,” he said. Speaking about being on stage at tonight’s WGA meeting at the Palladium on Wednesday, Conover stated, “We’re going to see a couple of thousand Writers Guild members thinking about this deal and thinking about the last year of our lives altogether. I expect it to be a pretty emotional event.”
Conover went on to discuss how the guild broke down the contract and fighting for the continuation of the writer’s room. Watch the interview and read the full transcript below.
When we spoke on the very first day of the strike, you told me the writers room is under attack. Do you feel like this is going to secure the future for writers?
We didn’t win every single proposal that we had on the table, but we won significant protections for every single type of writer working in Hollywood. Every writer in our industry is protected by the terms in this contract. And as far as the existential concerns — the concern that the companies were eliminating the writers room, that they were going to try to use AI to reduce our wages and working conditions, that they were going to mire screenwriters in free work, that they were going to try to erode the working conditions of comedy/variety writers like me by refusing to pay us the same minimums in streaming, as in television — those are the existential issues and I’m on those issues.
We made massive progress. We put in place, for the first time, a minimum number of writers [who] must be hired for writers rooms, so when a show is greenlit, or even before the greenlight, when it’s in the mini-room pre-greenlight stage, a minimum number of writers must be hired. We got two-step deals for screenwriters. We got a guarantee for comedy/variety writers in streaming. And we got, for the first time, success-based residuals. So now when a massive number of people watch the shows and movies we create, we participate in that success and receive an extra bonus payment from the studios. That’s just where it starts. We’re going to improve that in future negotiating cycles.
Oh, and I almost left out, extremely strong AI protections that specifically prevent companies from using AI to write scripts, revise scripts or erode our credits. These are all provisions that they refused to even discuss with us and we forced them to give to us by using the massive power that our membership gave us. If you’re going by dollars, [this is] three times the size of the last contract. We won three times the size of the offer that they gave us on May 1. It’s nothing short of a massive victory that we won with the power of our members and other workers standing at our side.
What did it mean to see that first counterproposal when it came down to you guys last Wednesday compared to what you were being shown just a month ago?
My reaction was I wish they had done it five months sooner. They finally engaged on nearly all of our points. They finally engaged on a minimum number of writers in the writers room. They finally made a proposal for a success-based streaming model, success based residual and streaming that is. They finally offered a 13-week guarantee for comedy/variety, just the basic protections that we had been asking for previously. Their initial response to those was refuse to make a counter. [They] rejected the proposal [and] refused to make a counter. That mid-August thing, that one that you referred to, was more like, “here’s something that’s not quite what you asked for but it’s our version. It’s a bad version of what you want.”
Something that was a sop to our requests without actually providing any protections whatsoever. Once they saw that that was not sufficient for our membership, they finally got around to actually countering, and once they did that we were in business and we got the whole thing wrapped up in four or five days, which is how long it should take if they had not wasted their time by refusing to engage with us thinking they could starve us out, trying to whisper to the press or through the agents to try to break our solidarity; none of which was ever going to work. If they had seen reality earlier, they could have saved everybody all this stress. I was very gratified that they did finally see reason, and come to the table and make the reasonable deal that writers were asking for.
Tell us a little bit more about how you guys settled on that performance bonus structure.
What was important to us was the principle. That when a show does really well we participate in its success. The specifics of the formula are things that are going to change over time. This is us cracking the safe open. This is the first crack. We inserted the crowbar, we hit with the hammer and we crack the safe open using that hammer of member power, to extend the metaphor a little too far. Three years from now we’re going to go back and we’re going to widen that opening. And six years from now we’re going to go in and widen that opening. It’s the same thing that happened when residuals were first invented in the 1960s and when we first got coverage of the internet in 2008.
It starts small, but the first thing is to get the jurisdiction and then widen it in the subsequent years. That is what they were never going to give us until we went on strike. That was the version of a success-based residual that they were willing to do. We had a different proposal that involves number of views, etc. The issue is not the details on this one, the issue is the overall framework. The principle that we are going to participate when the show does well and that is what we achieved. We’re going to spend the next couple decades and [expanding] that every single cycle so that writers are earning more and more of what they deserve.
Tell us a little bit more about having to iron out this language regarding AI.
We can’t protect against every possible imagined hypothetical use of this technology, especially because, much like crypto, this is a technology that is powered by hype and speculation about how it’ll be used in the future that is completely divorced from the actual technology or any understanding of how the industry works. It’s very difficult to cover every single possible use. So what we have in the contract is the reserved right to assert, either via copyright law or the NBA, to object to any particular uses that might come from the training. This was something we had to go back and forth with the company’s lawyers on. They did not all agree on their side.
Every deal has that one point that the lawyers keep arguing about long after everybody else wishes it was wrapped up, because they can’t get that one little term. That was this point. But we are very happy with where we ended up, which is that the companies do not have a blanket right to train. We reserve the right to assert our rights to the material under the NBA. A union is an active organization. We don’t expect one contract to solve every problem in perpetuity. We know that exploitive uses are going to arise and when they do we will fight them. That is what a union does. It’s not something blanket like the DGA, a director cannot be replaced with AI, this sort of loosey goosey language.
This is specific about the terms in our contract that cannot be performed by artificial intelligence, that cannot have artificial intelligence included in them. It has specific disclosure requirements that when the companies do use artificial intelligence they have to disclose it to us. It ensures that our credits cannot be reduced because of AI and we reserve the right to examine future uses and object to those as well in future rounds of bargaining or through arbitration or other enforcement means.
This is as strong as we could possibly get in this contract and the reason it is is because the company’s inflamed our membership by refusing to bargain on this six months ago. If they had bargained on it, then it wouldn’t have been such a powerful issue, but because they raised the importance of the issue among our membership we were able to tell them, “Look, if you don’t give us strong terms here, we’re not gonna be able to get this deal ratified because our membership is obsessed with this topic and will not accept less than total protection.”
Talk about the process of codifying the writers room and what was in the contract that you feel can help secure that pipeline, from staff writer to writer/producer to showrunner?
We guaranteed the existence of the writers room in the contract for the first time. Prior to this it would have been completely legal, under the NBA, for the companies to hire one showrunner and then have that person farm out scripts to freelancers. If we had allowed that model to take root it would have resulted in the utter destruction of writing as a middle-class career. It would turn into something where you hope you get a freelance script or two so you can make five grand as a writer that year in between your shifts at Starbucks. That was something we were not going to allow.
So what we have in the contract for the first time is a guarantee that when a television show is made, whether it’s written in a mini room or a regular room, that there must be a writers room of some kind and that it employs a certain minimum number of writers depending on whether it’s a mini room or a regular room, and how many episodes have been ordered. And that means that the writers room will continue to exist. So in the same way that when a director is hired there also has to be an AC, and a second AC, and a DP and all those terms that all the other unions have, we now have for the writers room as well.
We also now have a requirement that writers have to be brought to production. There has to be writers on set during production and one of the reasons we have that term is because writing happens in production. A television show cannot, in fact, be made without some amount of writing happening on set, whether it’s tweaking a line for an actor or realizing that a prop change needs to be made because it doesn’t match the writing. So we now have a guarantee that there will be writers in production as well. The one thing we did not win was a guaranteed writers minimum in post. Writers are almost always required to be in post, but the companies in the past couple of years have often stopped paying writers on a Writers Guild line to be in post. They’ll pay them a smaller production fee. This happened to me on both of my shows. I was only paid my producers fee in post. As a result I missed pension and health coverage that I otherwise would have had because I was not being paid my Writers Guild rate.
Now, part of that was ignorance on my part. I didn’t know I should have been asking for it. I didn’t know that was something the company had just started taking away from us in the last 10 years. We did not win that. However, that’s something that we’re going to be enforcing through arbitration and also through member education to make members [aware] that this is something that they need to demand. Even though we did not win every single term that we wanted, because that’s compromised, that’s the nature of a negotiation. We got these terms in place for the first time that will protect the existence of the writers room for generations of writers to come.
The response that the studios gave back when the strike started was that having those minimum staffing requirements would make things too inflexible.
The fact is this argument was always a distraction for the main issue because the number of writers who truly write on their own is vanishingly small. Most of the examples people use of writers who supposedly write by themselves actually have writers rooms or use writers in some capacity, including “The Last of Us.” The number of writers who truly write all by themselves, I’m talking about Mike White, for example, for “The White Lotus.” I love that show but people start listing writers who work that way and they can’t make their way up to five. It is a vanishingly small number of writers who work that way.
So what we did in order to get to get this deal done was, in order to do some justice to this very small minority, if a writer is contracted at the very beginning to write every single episode of their show, all by themselves, then the minimum staffing requirements do not apply. They still can’t hire writers, but the minimum staffing requirements don’t apply. This is going to affect a very small number of shows because almost no writer wants to work that way and almost no writers can work that way. Executives still need to see rewrites. You still need a lot of people to write television. But in order to allow this to happen a couple times a year that was worth it in order to protect the 99.5% of writers who don’t want to work alone, and who have been telling us we need the writers room protected because they are trying to take it away from us and we are pulling our hair out because we no longer have the help that we need.
That language was there to prevent any sort of loophole through through the rules.
Some people, who are a little bit ignorant about how writing works, would say something like, “Why don’t they just make it the showrunners choice?” Like the showrunner can opt out of the staffing requirements and that’s a loosey goosier version. The reason that’s bad is because showrunners do not have as much power as people think. The show runners who you might do a roundtable with on your website, the really big show runners who are celebrity names, maybe they have that amount of power. But your average showrunner does not. So if we left it up to the showrunner, companies would say, “Hey, we’d love to pick up your show. We’re just going to need you to use that opt-out because the show’s too expensive for us.” Otherwise they would just say that to everybody and they would cause that term to completely disappear from the contract.
We’re not allowing the company to put that much pressure on the writer. The showrunner must, if they want to opt out, be contracted to write every single episode of the show and very few writers are going to be interested in or even capable of doing that. You’ll limit the scope of the exception quite a bit and preserve the writers room for everybody else who needs it. If that term ends up being abused, that is why we’re an active fighting union and that is why we’ll go back in three years and put new protections in place if they need to be put there. But we think this is a really strong protection that five months ago, the companies told us was anathema to them. That’s me quoting Carol Lombardini. She said it was anathema. They would never do it. And guess what? They realize that they need us. And without us, when we’re on the biggest line, they can’t make another dollar on scripted entertainment and they eventually had no choice but to accept our demands on this issue.
Break down for people who may not understand how important it is for Appendix A writers to have these things in the contract? How does it change how to get paid and hopefully give them more financial security?
For decades, Appendix A writers, comedy/variety writers specifically, have had protections in our contracts. A minimum weekly salary at a minimum weekly guaranteed, meaning 13-week contract cycles and a residual based on a concept called the aggregate, which basically means every time you add a writer the residual base goes up. The reason for that is we don’t write individual scripts. We all work on every script. So if you add more writers you don’t want to dilute the residual. You want to make sure each writer is getting a residual that reflects their participation in the script.
We had none of those terms in streaming. You hire a comedy/variety writer in streaming you could do whatever. When I did my last show for Netflix I was sitting in the room with a line producer when they said because we’re a comedy/variety show on Netflix we can do whatever we want with writers; we have no minimums of any kind. My heart sunk because I was like, “This is how you get screwed if they can do that to you.” What we have now, for the first time in streaming, is a guaranteed weekly rate for comedy variety writers. And, by the way, for game show and other nondramatic as well. Daytime talk is in there, documentary, a bunch of things like that. They all get a minimum weekly rate and comedy/variety writers get a 13-week guarantee where, when they’re hired, they have to be brought on in 13-week semesters.
This is dependent on the budget of the show. Below a certain budget threshold this doesn’t apply. We’ll have to see how those budget thresholds work out because the fact is, this is a burgeoning part of streaming. there are not yet you know, hit late night shows or game shows on streaming. But there will be in the next few years now that advertising is coming back into the market which lends itself towards a different sort of content than the premium, prestige TV model of the last couple of years. So we’ll have to see what happens and adjust accordingly. But this is a basic protection that they did not want to give us.
The company’s best offer when we went on strike was that they could hire and fire us at a day rate. And if we allowed that to happen comedy writing would have gone from being a career into being a gig job. It would be something that you get to do if you’re lucky on a Thursday and Friday before you have to go do stand-up comedy at the club on the weekends. Currently, comedy/variety writing for television is one of the few jobs that a comic like me can get that’s stable so it was vitally important that we win that and I’m just so gratified that we did.
For screenwriters, the two-step deals are something that we have been fighting for for a long time. I’m not a screenwriter so I hope I represent the issue well. What I’ve heard from feature writers for years is these one-step deals, they’re a plague. They lead to endless free work because you only get paid for one draft but they always want more. A two-step deal you get paid for the second draft as well and this is a baseline thing that feature writers had for decades until the company started refusing to put it in contracts. So we had to go in and put it in our contract.
Now it applies to feature writers who are working for less than 200% minimum, which means the writers who need it the most, the writers who are on the lower end of our pay scale, are the ones who receive this. It’s such an important protection for both screenwriters and Appendix A writers. We wanted more. We deserved more. We fought really hard. Everyone on the negotiating committee fought for the needs of all writers. we were able to deliver these really important protections that are going to make life better for a lot of writers.
Talk about organizing this trust between the negotiating committee and this rank and file that kept coming out for five months.
Two-step deals for screenwriters is not the only thing in the contract that people said we could never get. We also got proper pension and health contributions for teams. Where members of writing teams used to, for the entire length of the contract, only got half of the pension and health contributions of everybody else, they now get full pension and health contributions. We also won script fees for staff writers, which was another thing that they said they would never give us that helps our most vulnerable lower-level members. So we’re incredibly proud of all of those protections.
As far as what built the trust, it’s because we are our members. Every single member of the Writers Guild has a captain who they are assigned to, who they can go to whenever they have a problem. That captain is always equipped to connect them to a board member if they need to talk to them. Our phone lines are always open. We conduct member meetings. Right after this I’m at the Palladium where we’re talking about the deal with a membership for the first time, with 1000s of members there. We hold these meetings all the time. Any member who wanted to talk to David Goodman or Chris Keyser on the phone was able to. Any member who wants to talk to me on the phone was able to. We communicate with our members constantly and it’s a two-way communication. That is the way that you build the trust.
People don’t believe it just because “Oh, I got an email that says it.” They believe it and trust it because they’re like, “I know Adam. I know David. I know Chris. I know Angelina Burnett. I know Liz Alper. I know Eric Haywood. I know Rob Chavez. We are known to our community and that is the most important thing because we look them in the eyes and we say we are fighting as hard as we can. The other thing that we would impress upon each other is we are fighting for everybody. We’re not leaving anybody behind. Sometimes you say that and it feels like wishful thinking because you know that some groups have more power than others. Narrative Television writers, there’s more of them. Their work makes more money for the studios on average than comedy/variety. Often people think, “Well, how is comedy/variety ever going to win anything?” Well, guess what? We did it because we said to each other, we’re not leaving anybody behind.
That was true in the last day of negotiations when we were down to the last couple moves and everybody realized that we weren’t going to win everything. The narrative television writers were like “Oh, my God, we’re not going to get writers in post.” You know what they said? “With our last bit of our leverage, we need to go make gains for screenwriters and Appendix A writers. That is our first priority right now.” And our negotiating committee, our negotiating team, our co-chairs, and Ellen Stutzman went in and did it. That is what actually happened in the room and I’m so proud of that. We’re all in there fighting for ourselves and our part of the union, but we’re also fighting for each other and that is the most important thing.
Talk a little bit about how how much sag AFTRA helped you guys.
When we went on strike actors joined us on the picket line, immediately. Day one we had actors there from background actors, principal actors, and they never left. That’s part of what caused that union to go on strike because they saw what was happening on the picket lines. They saw that our members were joining our fight and saying, “We want to do the same thing.” But then when they actually did go on strike that massively increased our leverage. The more workers who are standing together, the more power workers have. So the fact that we had two unions on strike for view-based residuals, or success-based residuals of some kind; we had different proposals, but it was the same principle.
So the companies knew “Hold on a second, we can’t get out of this strike without making an offer that’s the only way the strike is going to end.” That is part of why we won that residual. It bolstered our picket lines. It kept the energy up in the press. It added so much power. The real thing that we didn’t anticipate when we started this, I knew that we would win. I knew that we would hold out until we got what we needed because I knew our membership. But I didn’t know the membership of the other unions. What I didn’t anticipate was that every union in town would turn out for us: the Teamsters and IATSE would respect our picket lines on a massive scale and shut down production.
I can say we shut down those productions. Within the first month of the strike we had shut down production in LA County and most of the rest of the country. It wasn’t us. It was us putting up the picket lines and it was IATSE and the Teamsters respecting the picket lines. We did it together because they stood by us in our fight. That was such a huge boost to our power that we are going to be standing by them in their next fight because they have some big ones on the horizon and we’re gonna be there with them.
Tell us a little bit about what you think can and will be done by your guild, amongst other guilds, to ensure that the momentum and the solidarity that you guys have built throughout this industry can continue into 2024 and into the next round of negotiating in 2026?Everything that we can. The first rule of how one union helps another union is when the union taking the fight asks, you answer. You don’t decide what you should do to help them. You say, “What do you need?” And they tell you and you do that thing. Whatever IATSE, Teamsters, any other union that goes on strike in town asked of us. Do they want us to march? Do they want us to to help raise funds? What do they want? The second thing is we, every single Writers Guild member, knows what sacrifices IATSE members, Teamsters member, SAG-AFTRA folks did to help us and we are going to be doing the same.
I personally am a SAG-AFTRA member. I’m going to still be out there picketing and I would never cross a SAG-AFTRA picket line to go pitch a show for Netflix. But I have a really hard time imagining that any Writers Guild member who is not a member of SAG-AFTRA would ever be willing to cross the picket line because they know, we know, what they did for us. That’s what solidarity is. It’s not, “Oh, what a labor law say you can do.” It’s “These fellow workers stood up for me, of course I’m going to stand up for them.”
The thing that the Writers Guild has wanted more than than anything else is friends. We have wanted other unions who are willing to take on strong fights in this town and we have been, for a long time, the only fighting union in this town that took strike authorization votes, that picketed and that took it to the mattresses and now you’re starting to see other unions in town step up and do the same thing because their members are getting so beaten down. We welcome them, and we are so excited to stand in solidarity with them. So whatever they need, we will be there.
How do you feel about union power moving forward?
Maybe I’m feeling my oats today, but what we’re living through is a realignment of the relationship between Hollywood labor and management. The AMPTP was founded in 1980 and that was the Reagan era. They designed a strategy whereby it’s basically a cartel by which the company is bargained together in order to press the power of labor. That’s the only reason it exists, to push our wages down, and they do that by pitting writers against each other, pitting unions against each other, negotiating with the weakest union first and then patterning that deal onto every other union in town. That strategy has served them well for 40 years until this year when it utterly failed. And they know it utterly failed.
The AMPTP structure not just caused the strike, it prolonged the strike and the strategy that they used actually inflamed the strike so that we got more than if they had just played along with us at the beginning. Every other union in town saw that. They saw that being strong, mobilizing member power and going on strike works. They saw the value in standing with their fellow workers. Now they can look at the deal that we won and they can see “Holy shit, the Writers Guild just tripled the company’s initial offer, tripled the size of any other deal they’ve ever won in the past, won things that all of us will benefit from, won things the company said they would never give us, and they did all of that by using member power and going on strike.”
I think that lesson has not been lost on any other union member or union leader in this town. As a result of that it’s a new day for labor in Hollywood. From now on you’re going to see the unions being much stronger, working together far more and being less willing to accept the bullshit that the capitalists have been trying to shove down our throat for the past 40 years. That day is over and that’s not to say we’re going to win every battle in the future, but I think that things have changed.
What we have seen is the fundamental landscape of labor in this town shift massively for the better, and that is going to be a lasting change. It’s the honor and pinnacle of my career to even be part of it. It’s just been such a privilege to be involved in this fight. I’m so grateful to all the members who made it happen. I’m so grateful to every union member who stood with us. I’m thankful to all the non-union members who stood with us.
I cannot count for you how many non-union Hollywood workers came to our picket lines and said, “Look at us. We’re the music supervisors. We’re the post-production workers. We’re the PAs. We’re the VFX workers. We’re starting a union too.” And I said to them, “Fucking hell yeah.” I gave them my email address. You show me where to show up and that’s where I’ll be. And that is what is going to be the future. That’s gonna be the next 40 years of this town is workers standing up for our common interest and winning.