The entertainment industry is becoming increasingly precarious and badly paid – we spoke to some WGA screenwriters about why this has happened, and how they are fighting back
For the first time since 2007, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has gone on strike. The entertainment industry has changed dramatically within the last decade, thanks in part to the rise of streaming, but the ways that writers are compensated for their work have failed to catch up. “Basically, writers are making less money, working shorter gigs and with less job security,” Dana Schwartz, an author and screenwriter, tells Dazed. To fight what it describes as an “existential threat” to its members, the WGA is demanding better compensation, increased pension plans and health coverage, changes to working conditions, and restrictions on how studios can implement AI technology into the writing process.
Speaking at a picket line on Tuesday (May 2), the WGA’s chief negotiator said that writers will strike for “as long as it takes to make a fair deal.” The studios have given little indication that they are willing to compromise, so it’s difficult to say how long this might be (the 2007 strike lasted for 100 days.) The effect on Hollywood has been instantaneous, with late-night talk shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Late Night Show With Stephen Colbert already going off-air. Soap operas, which tend to have a quicker writing process, will be next to feel the pinch, and we can expect to see production stalling on network and streaming shows (although some, including House of the Dragon, have decided to go ahead without writers on-set.) Studio films, which are scheduled much further in advance, are less likely to be impacted, but it depends on how long the strike lasts.
Inevitably, the strike is having a knock-on effect with other workers in the industry, many of whom are already losing pay. “It’s pretty stressful,” says Bianca Perez, a writer who runs the Instagram meme account yung_nihilist and works part-time as an (un-unionised) PA on Saturday Night Live. While the show is off-air, she expects to lose at least a couple of months’ income. “I’m struggling with regard to other forms of employment right now, so I was definitely counting on my work at SNL. I’m kind of in a limbo period at the moment,” she says. But despite the fact that her own finances are taking a hit, she is firmly backing the strikes, as is everyone she works with. “It will definitely trickle down and benefit people who aren’t even part of a union,” she says. “Striking is the only way that any rights have ever been won in the entertainment industry, so it feels like a necessary step.”
As it stands, it’s harder than ever to make a living from screenwriting, and this is in large part down to the rise of streaming. Back in the day, screenwriters used to make money from “residuals”, which are similar to royalties: basically, every time a network screened an old season of Friends or The Simpsons, the writers involved would get a cut. But in recent years that model has flown out of the window, partly because streaming platforms are so opaque about viewership data. “A writer can write on a huge hit streaming series and never see residuals because of the complicated internal mechanisms of the streaming network”, says Schwartz.
“As our industry has shifted to streaming, the studios have found ways to exploit our time and labour,” Leann Bowen, a screenwriter who works on Ted Lasso, among other shows, tells Dazed. “With each passing year, it seems like there’s a new way for them to restructure our place in the industry.” Compared to the pre-streaming era, there are more production companies and more shows being made, but this doesn’t translate into more paid work. Studios are commissioning shorter seasons and cutting back on labour costs. It used to be standard practice for a team of writers to work on set throughout production, ensuring that their material was shot well, advising the editing process and providing last-minute rewrites when something wasn’t working. Apart from anything, this was important for quality – the second season of Heroes and the James Bond film Quantum of Solace, both shot during a strike without writers on set, were notoriously terrible for this reason. But that approach is dying out. Now, productions typically have just one writer on the set (the show-runner) and they’re responsible for everything, performing a range of tasks which previously would have been split between a whole team. “The streaming model has allowed studios to etch out as much energy and labour from as few people as possible,” says Bowen.
‘People often overestimate how much screenwriters get paid... it is still such a minuscule amount compared to what the studio heads are making’ – Leann Bowen
One of the biggest problems facing early-career writers in the industry, according to Bowen, is the expectation that you will work for free. When a studio expresses an interest in your idea, first you have to prepare a pitch. If they like it, then they ask you to write some pages and develop the characters. These requests keep coming, and before you know it you’re stuck in a six or eight-month-long process where you’re working without pay and the studio still hasn’t committed. “New writers are itching for these opportunities, so they get taken advantage of,” says Bowen.
Screenwriting is becoming a more precarious profession, which reflects a larger pattern in the entertainment industry: teamsters, hair and makeup stylists, and other production workers are also scrambling for short-term work. “We feel the same way about other members of production because we are a union town and have been since the 1930s,” Bowen says. There is a lot riding on the outcome of the strike, and not just for writers – a victory for the WGA would empower other workers in the industry to negotiate better contracts.
More than most forms of industrial action, writer’s strikes tend to draw a lot of attention: celebrities turn up on picket lines or make headline-grabbing shows of solidarity (Drew Barrymore just pulled out of hosting the MTV movie awards to support the strike ), the WGA members are skilled at writing viral-friendly placards, and it relates to the films and TV shows which people are talking about already. This is positive, in a sense, but it can be a double-edged sword. There are a lot of preconceived notions about Hollywood, and the people work there, which don’t necessarily reflect reality.
“People often overestimate how much screenwriters get paid. I’m fairly high level and, compared to the average worker in the United States, I make a fair amount of money. But it is still such a minuscule amount compared to what the studio heads are making,” says Bowen, who, despite her success, still can’t afford to buy a house and is renting with her two children. LA is becoming more expensive at the same time that wages are being driven downwards. According to the WGA, pay has declined by 14 per cent in the last five years and the percentage of writers being paid the minimum rate has risen to 49 per cent (compared to 33 per cent ten years ago.) “What the WGA is fighting for is to make writing a sustainable career for the junior and midlevel writers,” says Schwartz.
AI technology threatens to accelerate these downward trends, which is why the WGA is demanding regulation on how it can be used. Its ‘Minimum Basic Agreement’ (meaning the lowest standard for what the union will allow in a writer’s contract) includes the following stipulations: AI can’t be used to write or rewrite material, AI cannot be used as source material, and no material created by WGA writers can be used to train AI. At present, the idea that ChatGPT could write a decent full-length screenplay might seem far-fetched (I asked an AI engineer I know and he said he considered it unlikely). “I don’t think it could write anything good. Maybe it could write a bad Hallmark movie,” says Bowen. “I think the best writing is a reflection of humanity, and I don’t think AI can really get to the core of that.”
‘If they can automate writing, they’ll do it. Studios will pay for bad content, so if they can get bad content for free, then 100 percent, they're gonna try it’
But what isn’t far-fetched is the possibility that studios will use AI to drive down labour costs. “I do know studios will try as hard as they fucking can to do it. If they can automate writing, they'll do it. Studios will pay for bad content, so if they can get bad content for free, then 100 per cent, they’re gonna try,” says Bowen. There is only so much that the WGA can do to prevent this. It doesn’t have the power to stop studios from creating entire shows scripted by AI or hiring non-union writers to polish up (presumably terrible) AI-generated content. But what it can do is prevent AI from being incorporated into the work of its members.
While public reaction to the strike has mostly been supportive, the AI issue has proven contentious. A certain kind of right-wing, Elon Musk-adulating tech bro is salivating at the prospect of creative labour being rendered worthless. It’s one thing to think that AI might be a useful tool, it’s quite another to hope that it will supplant human creativity altogether. There’s a kind of giddy, gleeful resentment at play, partly because these people see Hollywood as a liberal bastion and the people who work there as their ideological enemies. “I think they want a sense of ownership over cultural shifts in our society, but they don’t and they never will. Most of the people in the industry are open-minded and left-leaning. I’m sorry you don’t have a piece of that pie, but maybe you should look inwards.” says Bowen.
The deterioration of working conditions in Hollywood shows that the gig economy is coming for just about everyone, even those who work in industries which are typically considered glamorous. The drive to devalue labour is baked into capitalism, it’s an inevitable trajectory, and the WGA is fighting the same fight as any other union. “I think that some people have tied themselves into knots to figure out ways that they can side with the billionaires, the studio heads and the people with private yachts,” says Schwartz. “But I can assure them that those billionaires are not on their side and never will be. Solidarity among workers is the only way to actually make change.”