“We Just Want To Work And Be Paid Fairly For It” – A Guide To The Hollywood Writer’s Strike
When the Writers Guild Of America (WGA) went on strike in 2007, it lasted three months and eight days. On 2 May 2023, the WGA went on strike again. Now that the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation Of Television And Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) has joined the picket line to negotiate for better pay and working conditions, the predictions are that this strike will go beyond the length of its 2007 predecessor. But why, 16 years on, are writers still protesting?
In the past couple of decades, streaming services have changed the TV landscape by picking up existing network shows and becoming programming hubs themselves. Every three years, the WGA renegotiates its contracts. Today, the amount of television programming – largely due to the rise of streaming services – has bloated. But while companies have invested billions into producing shows, wages and working conditions have remained either static or gotten worse.
Matthew D’Ambrosio, a writer on The Witcher and The Vampire Diaries, began his career with a 22-episode season where writers would work from August to May, and get residuals (a form of royalty payment) when episodes they have written are re-aired. There was also the opportunity for writers to go to production and oversee the filming of episodes.
But then, explains D’Ambrosio, everything changed. “Our show had its streaming rights sold to Netflix and the residuals stopped. Now as more shows have moved to streaming, the length of writing rooms have gotten shorter. Today most rooms are 20 weeks or less. You have to make 20 weeks of pay last a year or more. Not only that, but you sometimes have mere weeks to write entire seasons and then you’re done. No rewrites. No production experience.”
Another demand from writers is to standardise residuals. Ashley Nicole Black, a writer on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, Ted Lasso and A Black Lady Sketch Show, has only experienced writing in the streaming landscape, but is well aware how residuals have changed. “When people think of how a writing career works, they picture the Friends writers room getting rich. Now, in streaming, you get the same flat residual regardless of how successful the show is. Now, even if every single person on Twitter is talking about how they love the show, and the streamer is taking out ads calling it a hit, the writers are getting sent checks for $1.25.”
AI has also become a factor, with writers asking for tools such as Chat GPT to be used to help research and come up with script ideas, but not to write them. Another complication is that both the Directors Guild Of America (DGA) and SAG-AFTRA are renegotiating their contracts. On 23 June this year, the DGA agreed a new contract with the Alliance Of Motion Picture And Television Producers (AMPTP). But with no agreement reached with AMPTP, SAG-AFTRA joined the strike on 13 July. SAG-AFTRA has been vocally supportive of WGA especially since they share many of the same concerns. Now that it has ended up striking, even more productions are affected, meaning huge repercussions for Hollywood studios.
The WGA strike is hoping to bring about a transformative change, both for the current generation of writers and the next. “We’re asking for 2% of the profits off the products that we create,” D’Ambrosio says. “We want to be able to ensure a future for screenwriting in general. Younger writers are missing out on the tools of previous generations that help them to become veteran producers. We just want to work and be paid fairly for it.”
Kerensa Cadenas is a writer based in New York. She has written for publications including The Cut, Thrillist, Vulture, GQ and Vanity Fair