The Writers Guild has officially authorized a strike, with 97.9% of members voting in favor. In ongoing negotiations that might yet avert a work stoppage, they’re demanding a change in business practices in Hollywood to allow for more fair and equitable compensation and more supportive working conditions.
The conflict between writers and studios is an opportunity for creators to retool their entire relationship with audiences. There are technologies that can connect fans directly to writers and creators, enabling a more equitable revenue share between them. Marketplace examples like Patreon have shown that just by creating a direct connection, a handful of creators can make six or seven figures and many more can earn a steady flow of income.
Technology can also solve pay disputes endemic to Hollywood. You might hear about a lawsuit over money owed stars like Tom Cruise or Sandra Bullock, but it happens to writers who make far less all the time. Newer financial technologies built on the blockchain aren’t just good for creating speculative crypto assets. They can also create what’s known as a smart contract that automatically — and irrevocably — pays union workers, guilds, agents and so forth. This technological solution wouldn’t only create efficiency gains, saving money for studios, but it would also ensure that the film and TV professionals creating content are immediately paid their fair share.
In 2008, the WGA tried to negotiate fair terms around what back then we were calling “new media” and what today is just referred to as streaming. As a screenwriter myself, I voted in favor of this new strike. Like every other writer in Hollywood, I’ve experienced industry accounting firsthand. I’ve been cut out of months of pay on a union shoot, been separated from IP that I created, seen the pay squeezed out of writers in writers’ rooms, and have watched friends who have created billions of dollars in value struggle to get by.
I’m not saying this because I want you to feel sorry for me or my friends. This happens to every writer, and that’s the problem.
The WGA is striking again because the current system treats storytellers like they are an optional, unessential part of the creative process, not the foundation. A famous example is writer Hwang Dong-hyuk, whose idea for his show “Squid Game” was born from his own personal experience when his family in South Korea felt the impact of the 2008 economic crisis. “Squid Game” went on to become Netflix’s most-watched show, and yet despite documents obtained by Bloomberg showing Netflix estimating the show could make around $900 million, Dong-hyuk has said he didn’t make much money off of the project. “It’s not like Netflix is paying me a bonus. Netflix paid me according to the original contract,” he said.
Just like when iTunes replaced the CD for musicians and ebooks disrupted the traditional book release for authors, when streaming replaced the theatrical release model, the value of the marketplace changed and writers in Hollywood got left behind. The current model means writers like Dong-hyuk are paid a set amount up front and intentionally removed from future profits. It doesn’t matter if their movie or show becomes the top streamer or nets a studio millions, or billions, of dollars: The contracts are set up so that only the studios benefit from success, not the creator, whose personal experience and life story is often the basis for the film or TV series.
When it comes to equitable compensation, even if all of the current WGA demands were met, it would only mean that writers have won the battle, not the war. We need to look further into the future, beyond the current negotiation, to solve the inequitable compensation issues that exist in this industry. Corporate policies, culture and technologies are rapidly evolving, and in order to survive, writers need to adapt just as fast.
Part of the reason writers and creators are so easily abused is because they are virtually unknown. Only a handful of writers are household names today, people like Aaron Sorkin, Shonda Rhimes, Vince Gilligan, David Simon, Matthew Weiner, David Benioff, Ryan Murphy and Taylor Sheridan. Readers of TheWrap might be intimately familiar with these names, but outside the industry, even the most die-hard fans might be hard-pressed to know what shows these names are connected to. However, if we can find ways to help creatives capitalize on their fan base and create tools that bring the audience not to the studios but to the creators, they could better leverage their power.
We forget when we’re watching amazing films or television that what makes great art is a reflection of someone’s personal journey. Storytelling is a vulnerable expression of experience. We need to remember these are real people putting it all on the page and shouldn’t treat them as though they don’t matter. Writers are the backbone of the industry, and I do believe there’s a future where fans, artists and technologists can come together to create a more equitable and fair Hollywood — one where all filmmakers can share in the success of the content they create.