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Over 9,000 writers in Hollywood have voted to authorize the Writers Guild of America to order a strike that would be the entertainment industry’s first in 16 years, showing a united front as they demand significant changes to how they are paid in the streaming era.
“Over the past decade, while our employers have increased their profits by tens of billions, they have embraced business practices that have slashed our compensation and residuals and undermined our working conditions,” the WGA said in a memo sent to members this week. “The survival of writing as a profession is at stake in this negotiation.”
Since negotiations between the WGA and the studios began a month ago, writers have shared stories about how they have struggled to keep up with the cost of living even as they have credits for successful TV shows and movies to their name.
So what exactly do Hollywood writers want changed in their industry and are willing to strike for? The list of demands is long and involves plenty of labor contract jargon, but here are some of the biggest issues at stake.
Streaming doesn’t pay
When it comes to getting paid as a television writer, the path to a comfortable income used to be pretty clear. A new writer would get started as an assistant on a 22-episode broadcast or cable series, building experience to eventually get a staff writer job.
That set number of episodes would offer low but decent pay as the writer built the experience to become a story editor, writer-producer and then maybe one day a showrunner pitching their own show ideas while getting residual checks for rerun broadcasts and syndication.
Streaming has changed all of that.
Many series are now 10 episodes or fewer, often released all at once for binge-watching instead of on a weekly basis. Fewer episodes mean fewer opportunities for writers to get jobs along with lower pay since shows now need less time to completely write out a season.
The WGA has also argued that the shift to streaming has led to a surge in the number of members who only receive scale pay, or the minimum level as defined in the bargaining agreement with studios. With fewer episodes in a production, even writers at higher-paid positions are getting paid the same as a writer would at scale for a 22-episode season, because the higher rates per episode don’t stretch as far over shorter seasons.
While it’s up to agents to negotiate writer pay above scale, WGA listed in its pattern of demands different ways that higher pay for writers can be baked into the next bargaining agreement. One proposal involves span protections, which guarantee pay above scale if a writer works above a certain length of time per episode. Span protections are currently only available for writer-producers and showrunners, but WGA believes that expanding them to all writers would reverse the decline in wages.
Rein in the “mini-rooms”
The pivot to streaming has also led to the rise of “mini-rooms,” which are writers rooms that are brought together before a series starts production, or sometimes before it’s even greenlit. The WGA wants to get this practice under control, claiming that it has been abused by studios. WGA West President Meredith Stiehm has said that mini-rooms are a way for studios to “skirt” past pay practices.
“Mini-rooms” have been used as a tool by studios to request more scripts for a potential project beyond the pilot episode to see if it’s worthy of being greenlit, especially if such a project would come with a high budget.
A showrunner may agree to mini-rooms if it means getting their projects picked up, but it can lead to situations where writers, many of whom have little experience, get drawn into these mini-rooms to either churn out several scripts in a short amount of time or get stuck in a mini-room that’s drawn out longer than promised, leaving them unable to accept other jobs.
And the biggest sting of all: Writers in these mini-rooms only get paid at contract minimum rates. For the WGA, this is the biggest abuse of all, as writers are doing the same work they would do in a traditional writers room but for less money, and sometimes without the guarantee that the scripts they’re writing will actually be produced.
In its pattern of demands, the WGA argued that the next studio contract should “ensure appropriate television series writing compensation throughout the entire process of pre-production, production and post-production,” to make sure that mini-rooms aren’t used as a way to pay writers less.
“A writers room is a writers room,” WGA chief negotiator Ellen Stutzman told TheWrap before talks began. “You can’t just say that the work writers do in a mini-room has less value than what they do in a regular writers room after the show is greenlit.”
Nipping AI in the bud
The threat of artificial intelligence taking over a writer’s job in Hollywood isn’t an immediate one, but ask any writer who was around during the 2007 writers’ strike and they will tell you about how the deal that ended the strike conceded higher pay and residuals on “new media” like streaming because it was an untested medium, only for streaming to quickly rise in popularity as shows like “House of Cards” led to the Netflix boom in the years thereafter.
So the WGA is looking to cut off any chance of a studio using ChatGPT or similar software to make a screenplay. In a series of tweets released shortly after talks began, the Writers Guild made its stance on AI very clear, saying that it has sent proposed contract rules preventing studios from using AI to create a script covered by their contract with the WGA or to use AI writing as source material.
“It is important to note that AI software does not create anything. It generates a regurgitation of what it’s fed,” the WGA said. “Plagiarism is a feature of the AI process.”
So… is a strike actually going to happen?
The WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the studio’s negotiating arm, still have two weeks to reach a deal. Through the strike authorization vote, the WGA members have made it clear that they are standing united in demanding a change to the status quo in Hollywood. The question now is whether the studios and the WGA will be able to reach a compromise and whether that compromise will satisfy the needs of the guild members.
Nearly two years ago, Hollywood’s below-the-line workers union IATSE was on the verge of ordering its first-ever strike before a tentative agreement was made. The compromises made in that agreement sharply divided IATSE members when it came time to vote on approving the proposed contract, and the vote only passed by the narrowest of margins.
It’s way too early to know whether such a debate would happen among writers for their deal, but IATSE serves as a reminder of how fed up many of Hollywood’s workers are with wages and working conditions and how high the hunger is for drastic change. What’s less clear is whether the studios, many of which are laying off employees and cutting costs, will come to terms that will satisfy writers or if the two sides will remain so far apart that the WGA will take to the picket lines.
If the latter happens, studios will lean on months’ worth of finished films and TV shows to fuel their streaming services, but productions that try to go on will be unable to turn to writers for consultation or a rewrite if it’s impossible for a scene to be shot as written. Consequently, most if not all productions in Hollywood will go dark, costing millions in pay for writers, crew members, and businesses that rely on Hollywood for their patronage.
It’s a tremendous cost, but writers’ overwhelming willingness to strike speaks to how strongly they feel this change is necessary.