Why The Writers Strike Has Huge Stakes For TV And Film — And Beyond

Film and TV writers going on strike has major implications that go way further than, say, whether your favorite shows will be available.

NEW YORK — As of Tuesday, film and TV writers across the country are on strike for the first time in 15 years, picketing in front of the offices of major entertainment companies in Los Angeles and New York.

Some of the strike’s effects became apparent as soon as Tuesday night: The network TV late-night shows went into reruns. But unlike during the 2007-08 strike, when most shows went off the air for months, this strike likely won’t have a palpable effect on what we watch (at least in the immediate future). That’s because there are hundreds of more TV shows now compared with the pre-streaming era.

That volume of content is also at the heart of why the 11,500 film and TV members of the Writers Guild of America, West and East, are on strike. The structural inequities exacerbated by the shift to streaming are a large part of why the strike matters — way beyond the short-term effects of, say, if your favorite shows will be available.

“It’s fundamentally about fairness, about getting our fair share,” said “Empire” and “Dopesick” creator Danny Strong, among the many film and TV writers on the picket line in New York on Tuesday afternoon. “You know, writers who create the content that everyone else has profited off of need to get the appropriate share that they’ve always been getting over the years. Our salaries should be increasing, not decreasing.”

Members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) East hold signs Wednesday as they walk for the second day on a picket line outside Netflix's New York City office.
Members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) East hold signs Wednesday as they walk for the second day on a picket line outside Netflix's New York City office.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

By Wednesday, the picket line had moved to the Manhattan office of Netflix, a fitting nod to how central streaming is to the strike. Many writers’ signs contained Netflix-related jokes: “Without writers, it’s just ‘... and chill.’” “Noflix until a fair deal.” “This feels like an episode of ‘Russian Doll.’” “We have BEEF with Netflix.”

There were also a lot of topical jokes, such as a series of “Succession” references: “Pay your writers, or we’ll spoil ‘Succession,’” “Logan Roy is dead. Long live writers.” and “Logan Roy didn’t die on his own. A writer killed him off! (Spoiler Alert.)”

In other words, don’t mess with writers, because they will write funny strike signs.

But the stakes of the strike are no laughing matter. As film and TV writers have warned over the years, and as the two unions said in a statement early Tuesday morning announcing the strike, it’s an existential crisis. Media and entertainment companies and the rich CEOs at their helm have massively profited from the glut of shows and movies. Meanwhile, the people who make them are fighting to get paid equitably for their work.

This affects who gets to make a living as a writer — and in turn, what kinds of stories get told, how they get told and who gets to be represented on screen.

“There was an L.A. Times Opinion piece that said something like, ‘I don’t think it’s a coincidence that just as the industry started to get more diverse — finally after decades — they try to pull this on us. They try to take away our living wage,’” said TV writer Sasha Stewart, a member of the WGAE’s council. “And I agree. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as soon as writers of color, as soon as women, as soon as queer people, as soon as disabled writers like me finally break through, they try to take this away.”

HuffPost’s unionized employees are also represented by the WGAE. Many of the existential issues facing film and TV writers are also existential issues in the media industry: corporations and rich CEOs putting profits over the people who make the work they profit from, the effects those economic conditions have on who gets to work and be represented in these industries, and the risks AI presents in ensuring the integrity of creative work.

“It’s pretty endemic,” said “Saturday Night Live” star and writer Bowen Yang, who joined the picket line Wednesday along with several other performers and writers on the show, which has gone dark because of the strike. “As the CEOs get more money from their boards that are rewarded by Wall Street, it never quite trickles down the way they say it will. It’s sort of a terrible grift right now, the way that it’s all structured.”

By going on strike, it gives writers the chance “to leverage some power here to make sure that we all survive,” he said.

"Saturday Night Live" writer and cast member Bowen Yang pickets Wednesday with members of the Writers Guild of America outside Netflix headquarters in Manhattan.
"Saturday Night Live" writer and cast member Bowen Yang pickets Wednesday with members of the Writers Guild of America outside Netflix headquarters in Manhattan.
Stefan Jeremiah/Associated Press

The strike follows six weeks of negotiations between the writers and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP, which represents major studios and corporations like Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Warner Bros., Discovery, NBC Universal, Paramount and Sony.

In a statement, the AMPTP said its proposals “included generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals. The AMPTP also indicated to the WGA that it is prepared to improve that offer, but was unwilling to do so because of the magnitude of other proposals still on the table that the Guild continues to insist upon.”

In response, the writers said that “the studios’ responses to our proposals have been wholly insufficient, given the existential crisis writers are facing.”

According to a document from the writers on where things stand, the two sides are far apart on many fundamental issues. On a number of topics, the studios “rejected our proposal. Refused to make a counter,” the writers said. The writers proposed wage increases between 5% and 6%, but the studios offered between 2% and 4%, which is below the rate of inflation and essentially amounts to a pay cut.

The writers also said studios rejected their proposal for “preserving writers’ rooms” and making sure a minimum number of writers work on each show. In the streaming era, many series now have what are known as “mini-rooms,” meaning fewer writers are employed on those shows. And since streaming often has fewer episodes per season, the writers are then employed for a shorter duration.

“You’re looking at a time where maybe you get a job that lasts eight to 10 weeks. Now that money you make there has got to stretch you a year, maybe two years. That’s incredibly difficult if you don’t have a partner who’s helping you, if you don’t have a family who’s supporting you, if you’re on your own. That’s pretty tough, and it’s unfair, because we need to do a lot of work to encourage people from underrepresented groups to join us and to be writers,” said Iturri Sosa, a writer on “Narcos: Mexico” and “The Deuce,” and a WGAE strike captain.

Sosa is part of a group of Latina TV writers who came up at similar times in the industry and now support and mentor younger Latina TV writers. “What is this industry going to look like if we shut off that avenue?” she said.

In addition, a growing number of writers have been missing out on crucial career advancement opportunities and ways to build experience, like being on set during the production of their shows, they said. This affects who gets to advance in the industry and create their own shows and/or serve as showrunners, the highest rung of the TV writing career ladder.

The writers also proposed protections around the use of artificial intelligence, including that “AI can’t write or rewrite literary material,” “can’t be used as source material,” and that film and TV writers’ work “can’t be used to train AI.” It reflects a growing worry across creative industries that AI seems to be the latest shiny object CEOs are chasing. In response, the studios “rejected our proposal” and instead offered “annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology,” the writers said.

“It costs them nothing — no money — and offers us no protection. It’s worse than nothing. It’s just a full ignoring of the problem,” said “Last Week Tonight” and “Desus and Mero” writer Josh Gondelman, a member of the WGAE’s council. “We’re saying, like, ‘We would like to not be replaced by machines.’ And they’re saying, like, ‘Every year, we’ll update you on how the machines are doing.’”

Another problem created by the streaming surge is a sharp decline in compensation in the form of residuals, payments writers have historically received whenever their shows get re-aired or syndicated. Thanks to streaming, shows have never been more available. But many writers have not benefited from the streaming boom.

Members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) East picket for the second day on Wednesday at Netflix's New York City office.
Members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) East picket for the second day on Wednesday at Netflix's New York City office.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The practice of being paid residuals “has been decimated by streaming,” Strong said. “Streaming has completely changed the landscape of the entire industry.”

These working conditions greatly affect who gets to make a living as a writer and whose stories get told. For every famous screenwriter or showrunner, there are many more writers just barely scraping by, fighting to make sure they get their health insurance and can pay their rent.

“There’s this cushy misconception that people in this industry do not have to really worry about that,” Yang said. “But things have become more and more inhospitable and unlivable as time goes on, and the reason it’s an existential crisis is because it’s all just become kind of untenable.”

Writers are concerned the studios’ proposals will make it even harder for regular people to make it in the industry and turn it into what amounts to gig work, rather than a stable job. For example, under one of the studios’ proposals, comedy and variety show writers “can be employed on a daily-rate basis,” essentially turning them into freelancers.

Stewart, who has worked on comedy and variety shows, believes that proposal “is the canary in the coal mine for all TV and film writers.”

“It’s come into late night first because late night was already the cheapest thing to make. And it’s going to come to everything, if we let it,” she said, explaining that without a guaranteed minimum weekly payment, writers won’t be eligible for health care coverage.

“You’ll have to get job after job after job. And that’s what we’re seeing across the board: feature writers, TV writers, comedy writers having to get tons and tons of jobs in order to make their health care minimum.”

It’s a risk Stewart understands firsthand. In 2019, she was diagnosed with cancer. If it weren’t for her health insurance on the show where she was a writer at the time, the cost of her treatments would have bankrupted her, she said.

And great shows and movies only get written if writers have some semblance of stability, as Joey Daniel, a writer on Vox’s “Explained” series on Netflix, pointed out. “If people have to worry about their job tomorrow, they’re not going to write well today.”

The strike itself is a terrifying prospect for writers, who, in most cases, are now immediately out of work. But the stakes are too high, as “A Black Lady Sketch Show” and “Ted Lasso” writer and comedian Ashley Nicole Black summarized on Twitter.

“This is scary. But a future where we accept what the companies are trying to do — low paid, freelancer writing gigs with no job security — is much scarier,” she wrote. “You can’t make good art that way. And writers generate far too much profit for them to accept it.”

As Gondelman explained Wednesday, the major companies have created the existential crisis at the heart of the strike.

“We would love to go back to work, and we’d love to get a fair contract that would let us go back to work. But we can’t sign what they tried to put in front of us because it would continue to erode and eventually destroy what we do for a livelihood,” he said. “What we do is so fundamental to the way they make their money that for them to say, like, ‘We’re not going to allow you a path to a sustainable career and a sustainable livelihood,’ it’s not just insulting, it’s reckless.”

The WGAE picket line at Netflix in Manhattan drew top writers and allies on Wednesday.
The WGAE picket line at Netflix in Manhattan drew top writers and allies on Wednesday.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Wednesday’s picket line also brought out some big names showing up in support, including “Sex and the City” and “The Gilded Age” star Cynthia Nixon.

“You know, my whole profession, people might not think of it in that way, but it’s totally based on writers and interpreting the work of writers, right?” Nixon said. “So much of what I love in our culture is made possible by writers. There’s content like never before, and there’s money being made like never before. And the writers who are actually creating all of that content are not sharing in that. So if you have some show that you love, that it’s your favorite show, just know that the people who created it are suffering, and they need your support.”

Nixon noted that fans of her shows often praise the “witty lines” of her most iconic characters, such as Miranda on “Sex and the City.” Though Nixon brought them to life as an actor, all of it was written by writers.

“AI can never create the work that writers do, that a human mind does,” she said. “Somebody had a tweet today saying, you know, ‘AI could never have come up with Miranda eating cake out of the garbage. It could only have been created by a deeply depressed, high-functioning writer.’”


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