On 2 May 2023, several members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on a strike calling for a series of reforms in their payment, with a focus on the residuals from streaming platforms. Among other points of dispute between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which backs the studios, is the non-interference of generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools in writers’ work.
The strike began after the expiry of the current contract on 1 May. Negotiations were on since 20 March at AMPTP headquarters in Los Angeles’ Sherman Oaks.
WGA has around 11,500 members and many of them have since been picketing outside studios and shooting locations in New York City, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Their strike has led to a halt in popular late-night TV shows and has led to a delay in the production of new seasons of scripted shows.
This is the first WGA strike in 15 years. In fact, the writers have had to resort to strikes since the 1960s each time there was a change in distribution technology which affected their pay. This time, it is streaming. The WGA had ensured Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) for writers working on “new media,” such as online streamers. Members of WGA had to be paid the minimum guaranteed amount. But streaming platforms have turned into behemoths in the last 15 years, leading to a situation where work is not secure and members have to do more work for less pay.
These three writers shut down an entire production. IATSE crew refused to cross their picket line, so the producers couldn’t shoot, and sent everyone home. If just three WGA members standing together can do this, imagine how much power all 12,000 of us have! ✊🏻 #wgastrong https://t.co/HtFIstutx1
— Adam Conover (@adamconover) May 6, 2023
On 8 May, US President Joe Biden commented on the strike during a White House screening of the Disney+ series American Born Chinese.
He stood with WGA, saying, “I sincerely hope the writers strike in Hollywood gets resolved, and the writers are given a fair deal that they deserve as soon as possible. This is an iconic, meaningful American industry, and we need the writers and all the workers and everyone involved to tell the stories of our nation, the stories of all of us.”
The WGA strike explained and shows that have been affected
Why are the WGA writers on strike?
Simply put, it all comes down to the differences in payment structures in streaming and traditional forms of entertainment.
In the traditional format, which involves network television, writers got a share in profits from the work they created. They received residuals — an amount paid whenever creative content was re-aired, repackaged or resold. Thus, writers, or any other similar stakeholder, got guaranteed income repeatedly for years in the syndication system.
But streaming platforms don’t offer the same kind of financial security. There is no extra income for writers when their shows on one streaming platform move to another. More importantly, writers are paid fixed residuals only once by the streaming platform.
On 4 May, writer Valentina Garza, who has worked on acclaimed shows such as The Simpsons and Only Murders in the Building shared pictures of the streaming residual cheque she received for two episodes of Jane the Virgin. In total, the cheque amounts to just 0.03 cents.
“In case anyone’s wondering why the WGA is on strike, this is my streaming residual check for two episodes of Jane the Virgin. One for .01 another for .02. I think the streamers can do better. #WGAStrike #WGAStrong,” wrote Garza on Twitter.
In case anyone’s wondering why the WGA is on strike, this is my streaming residual check for two episodes of Jane the Virgin. One for .01 another for .02. I think the streamers can do better. #WGAStrike #WGAStrong pic.twitter.com/IQYeLvZGrk
— Valentina Garza (@totalvaligirl) May 4, 2023
Thus, the WGA strike is essentially about making the streaming platforms pay writers in the same way as traditional television networks.
How streaming pays less than network TV
The WGA states that the share of writers in the streaming budgets has gone down even as the budgets themselves have increased exponentially.
Unlike traditional TV, streaming has no regular seasonal calendar. This, according to a March report, titled Writers Are Not Keeping Up, by the WGA, has negatively affected writers’ pay.
“With the rising dominance of streaming—where half of series writers now work—short orders, the separation of writing and production, and the lack of a season calendar have depressed writer pay,” the guild noted in its report.
“In the 2013-14 season, 33% of all TV series writers were paid minimum; now half are working at minimum. Increasing numbers of seasoned writers, including showrunners, are now paid no overscale premium for their years of experience,” the report says.
Writers have a minimum wage in both traditional television and streaming platforms, but WGA says that there is no minimum wage for writers of comedy-variety shows for streaming.
There is also the problem of shorter schedules in the case of streaming. While a TV writer-producer works between 35-40 weeks on a network show, the same is just about 20-24 weeks for a writer-producer working for a streaming platform due to fewer episodes. As such a network TV show pays between USD 259,420 to USD 296,480 at the minimum wage of USD 7,412 per week while it comes to around USD 148,240 to USD 177,888 from streaming platforms.
Further, a 28 March report in Variety reveals, that the annual pay increments have failed to match the rising inflation. According to the last updated WGA contract, which happened in 2020, the annual increases were set at weekly minimums of 1.5 per cent, 2.5 per cent and 2.25 per cent.
But inflation in the US has soared to 9.1 per cent in 2022, leading to a significant gap between the annual increase and the actual worth of the payment in dollar terms.
The “mini rooms” that affect writers’ growth
One of the goals that WGA has set is addressing the “abuse of mini rooms.”
Mini rooms is the term for small writing staffs that streaming services employ for a very short duration. While the time duration that writers have on a show is less, the pay is very low, too.
The problem with the mini rooms is that they do not allow most writers to gain enough experience to become showrunners. Mini rooms can also directly affect a show. For instance, if the term of the mini room is over before the end of the production of the show, writers may be unavailable for any change needed in the script and the series creators may have to undertake the task themselves.
“On TV staffs, more writers are working at minimum regardless of experience, often for fewer weeks, or in mini-rooms, while showrunners are left without a writing staff to complete the season,” the WGA report states.
So, a dedicated writers’ room is always needed till the end of the production.
The presence of ChatGPT
Another issue that writers are raising is the use of AI technologies as a replacement for humans on writing tasks. It’s a major concern, which has also been raised in several other quarters and industries around the world especially due to the phenomenal popularity of AI chatbot ChatGPT and its usage since its release in November 2022.
The usage of generative AI has become one of the major issues between WGA and AMPTP. As per a proposal, the WGA wants regulations that would regulate the use of AI so that it “can’t write or rewrite literary material, can’t be used as source material” and that writers’ work “can’t be used to train AI.”
“Screenwriters are concerned about our scripts being the feeder material that is going into these systems to generate other scripts, treatments, and write story ideas,” John August, a WGA committee member, told CNN. “The work that we do can’t be replaced by these systems.”
According to WGA, AMPTP rejected its proposal and talked about “annual meetings to discuss advances in technology.”
AMPTP told CNN in a document, “AI raises hard, important creative and legal questions for everyone. Writers want to be able to use this technology as part of their creative process, without changing how credits are determined, which is complicated given AI material can’t be copyrighted. So it’s something that requires a lot more discussion, which we’ve committed to doing.”
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Celebrities who have extended support to WGA
Actors and directors have separate unions. Members of these unions cannot take part in the writers’ strike as per their own respective contracts. But this has not prevented actors and other celebrities from showing their support to the writers.
Brett Goldstein, Rob Lowe, Gabriel Luna, and John Leguizamo are among the numerous celebrities who have spoken in solidarity with the writers.
Actor Elizabeth Olsen said that there is a need to “reimagine structurally how people of all levels can continue to make a living now that we have these streaming services.”
“Actors who used to be able to live off residuals — can’t anymore because they get paid for one day. And it goes on a streaming service, and they don’t see a penny after,” she said on Variety Awards Circuit podcast.
Appearing on the red carpet for the 2023 Met Gala on 1 May, a day before the picketing began, Amanda Seyfried told Variety, “It’s necessary…I don’t get what the problem is. Everything changed with streaming, and everyone should be compensated for their work.”
“I just hope that everyone is treated equally. I don’t think they get what they deserve and that people listen to them. People strike for a reason,” actor Brian Tyree Henry said at the same event.
Drew Barrymore decided not to host the 2023 MTV Movie & TV Awards in solidarity with the writers, which led to a complete change in the event’s format.
Among the directors who supported the writers was Danny Strong of Dopesick fame, while Christopher Nolan held a placard with his brother, Jonathan, outside Paramount Pictures studio in Los Angeles.
— Christopher Nolan Art & Updates (@NolanAnalyst) May 8, 2023
Tina Fey and other members of Saturday Night Live (SNL) joined the strike call in early May. Fey was seen picketing with a sign reading “Spread the Wealth” in New York City. She was again seen joining the protesters in a rally on 15 June with Sara Bareilles and Lin-Manuel Miranda in New York City’s Times Square.
How to Train Your Dragon actor America Ferrera, Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk, Ted Lasso actor Jason Sudeikis and prominent actor-activist Mark Ruffalo are among others who have supported the strike call in the last two months.
Potential SAG-AFTRA strike
During the ongoing WGA strike call, several Hollywood A-listers might go on a strike of their own as well, to make it a combined protest of writers and actors.
In the last week of June, over 300 Hollywood stars who are members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) signed a petition, threatening to go on strike unless an agreement on a new contract between the organisation and major Hollywood studios, streamers and production companies is not reached by 30 June.
Among the top names who said they would go on such a strike were Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence.
In a last-minute scramble, the Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the combined labour unions representing over 160,000 performers, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) agreed to extend their current contract through 12 July with an assurance of continued negotiations.
Though the SAG-AFTRA strike call is not directly related to the WGA strike, both writers and actors share similar issues. The actors are up against streaming giants over shrinking compensation because of the disconnection between royalty and the popularity of films or shows. There is also the concern over AI being able to recreate the performances of stars.
Major shows affected by the writers’ strike
The 2007 WGA strike led to the shortening of seasons of shows such as 30 Rock, CSI and Grey’s Anatomy among others. This was when TV primarily meant network television on cable. But now programmes on both network and streaming television will be affected by the strike. Here are some of them:
The writers’ strike almost immediately affected late-night talk shows, such as Jimmy Kimmel Live! on ABC, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on CBS, and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on NBC. All of these shows have started airing reruns of their programmes. This is because the shows heavily depend on current-events, which would require writers to pen comedy scripts around them on the same day.
Daytime talk shows have also been affected. Whoopi Goldberg acknowledged the issue during a telecast of her show, The View, saying that it will not be funny as the writers are on strike.
At the top of the show, Whoopi warns that The View is not going to be funny for a while because all their writers are on strike.
“So, you’re going to hear how it would be when it’s, you know, slicked up. Okay?” pic.twitter.com/q9vHw7CXNJ
— Nicholas Fondacaro (@NickFondacaro) May 2, 2023
The writers room for the third season of the Emmy-winning show is closed. Writer Brittani Nichols told Democracy Now that the strike might have an impact on the number of episodes of the show.
Hollywood screenwriters of @WGAWest are going on strike. They are fighting for a living wage in the streaming era, says Abbott Elementary writer @BisHilarious, who calls the industry a “gig economy,” where studios prioritize Wall Street, not workers. pic.twitter.com/GDxWvfi5ZJ
— Democracy Now! (@democracynow) May 2, 2023
Work had already started on the third season of Showtime’s Yellowjackets, but it is now paused.
“Well, we had exactly one day in the #Yellowjackets S3 writers room. It was amazing, and creatively invigorating, and so much fun, and I’m very excited to get back to it as soon as the #WGA gets a fair deal,” wrote the show’s co-creator Ashley Lyle on Twitter.
Well, we had exactly one day in the #YellowJackets S3 writers’ room. It was amazing, and creatively invigorating, and so much fun, and I’m very excited to get back to it as soon as the #WGA gets a fair deal. #1u #unionstrong ✊🐝
— Ashley Lyle (@ashannlyle) May 2, 2023
Cobra Kai is a hit Netflix martial arts comedy-drama. Its co-creator Jon Hurwitz took to Twitter to comment on the status of the show.
“Pencils down in the Cobra Kai writers room. No writers on set. These aren’t fun times, but it’s unfortunately necessary,” wrote Hurwitz.
We hate to strike, but if we must, we strike hard. Pencils down in the Cobra Kai writers room. No writers on set. These aren’t fun times, but it’s unfortunately necessary. The moment a fair deal is in place, we’ll get back to kicking ass. In the meantime, sending strength and… https://t.co/99UulF7HeW
— Jon Hurwitz (@jonhurwitz) May 2, 2023
Jen Statsky, co-creator of the Emmy-winning comedy, said on Twitter that the strike has affected season 3 of the HBO Max/Universal TV show.
“We are devastated to not be with our incredible crew and cast right now, but there was no other option here,” wrote Statsky.
We are devastated to not be with our incredible crew and cast right now, but there was no other option here. Writing happens at every stage of the process – production and post included. It’s what makes shows and movies good. It’s what makes them possible. #wgastrong https://t.co/aU8QqUDEwu
— Jen Statsky (@jenstatsky) May 5, 2023
One of the biggest shows to have been impacted by the strike, Netflix’s Stranger Things will see a delay in the release of its fifth and final season.
The Duffer Brothers, creators of the show, confirmed the development on 6 May.
“Duffers here. Writing does not stop when filming begins. While we’re excited to start production with our amazing cast and crew, it is not possible during this strike. We hope a fair deal is reached soon so we can all get back to work. Until then — over and out. #wgastrong,” wrote the Duffer Brothers on Twitter.
Duffers here. Writing does not stop when filming begins. While we’re excited to start production with our amazing cast and crew, it is not possible during this strike. We hope a fair deal is reached soon so we can all get back to work. Until then — over and out. #wgastrong
— stranger writers (@strangerwriters) May 6, 2023
So far, Blade is the only movie where work has been formally delayed partly due to the strike. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film starring Mahershala Ali had to pause pre-production work because of the WGA strike. Its current release date is still 6 September 2024. It is not clear if the studio will postpone the release date.
(Hero image: SAG-AFTRA/@sagaftra/Twitter; Featured image: Writers Guild of America, East/@WGAEast/Twitter)
This story first appeared on Prestige Online Singapore