“Pay your writers, pay your writers!”
Students’ chants echoed through the venue as Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav delivered a commencement address to Boston University’s class of 2023 on May 21.
Though the logos of Disney, Netflix, or Warner Bros. are stamped on our favorite pieces of media, what makes these works so successful are not the corporations bankrolling them, but the thousands of writers who bring them to life.
Unfair wages and poor working conditions are still fresh in the minds of UCSC students after last fall’s academic workers strike. Our voices should be heard in solidarity with those now on the picket line.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike on May 2, after the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) failed to reach an agreement with WGA on their contracts. AMPTP represents Hollywood’s biggest film and television studios, such as NBCUniversal, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, and Amazon Studios.
The WGA is calling for fair compensation and residual payments, better pension and health funds, and improvement of professional standards and treatment of employees.
Writers’ pay has decreased by 4 percent over the past decade — adjusted for inflation, that’s a 23 percent decline. Residuals, once the staple of a writer’s income, have also dropped to mere pennies on the dollar, as direct-to-streaming features and shows do not benefit from reruns with advertisements like broadcast shows and theatrical releases. Streaming services pay writers little to no residuals, regardless of viewership or popularity. One of the WGA’s main demands is raising compensation in this area.
On top of that, the length of seasons are often halved on streaming services, going from around 22 episodes on broadcast to eight to ten. This means that film industry professionals need to book more projects each year to make ends meet.
With the focus on churning out a high quantity of shows, TV production is in a period of radical upheaval.
The standard practice of assembling teams of around a dozen writers to create a story is being phased out by producers and replaced by the “mini-room” model, where just a handful of writers bulk-write episodes — many of which never see the light of day.
Producers use these projects’ smaller scope to justify lower wages, while still requiring much of the same work as traditional writers’ rooms. As these practices become more common, consistent and steady employment becomes rarer, effectively turning writers into gig workers.
The use of artificial intelligence (AI) has also become a flashpoint in the negotiations. As soon as language models like ChatGPT hit the market last year, writers and creatives became intimately aware of the threat AI could pose to their professions, while producers just saw profit. WGA included the topic as a line item on the contract, proposing a ban on AI being used to “write or rewrite literary material,” or training AI models based on writer-produced materials covered by the WGA minimum basic agreement. AMPTP refused the proposal, only offering an annual meeting on technology in response.
To create a fictional world that feels real, productions depend on diverse lived experiences, perspectives, and approaches that can only come together in collaborative and human spaces such as writers’ rooms. These are qualities that artificial intelligence cannot replicate.
During the pandemic, streaming companies saw a tremendous boom in profits as much of the world was pushed indoors and onto their devices. Post- lockdown, the waters have receded on the streaming giants, who are now desperate to maintain subscribers.
More than ever before, these companies are dependent on a steady flow of high quality content to break even, and the source of that river is the writers. The WGA has a long history of successful strikes, and this strike comes at a time when AMPTP is vulnerable enough that WGA’s demands are within reach.
UCSC is no stranger to striking. We’ve seen firsthand the emotional and financial toll that poor working conditions can take on the individual and the community, as well as the power that can be wielded with collective action.
We may not be doing the same labor, but we have intersecting desires. We share the interest of maintaining sustainable communities that are grounded in collaboration, justice, and creativity.
Media is a cultural touchstone with transformative abilities. Quality screenwriting creates stories that resonate with, uplift, and transform us.
None of this can be done without the labor of screenwriters. Hollywood is America’s biggest cultural export, and the message a labor victory could send would be monumental — that everyone is entitled to fair wages and that creative labor is more valuable than corporate greed and expedience.
The WGA strike may last months, and as it continues, more and more projects will face delay and cancellation. No matter how much you may be anticipating a release, waiting and protecting the future and livelihoods of the writers that make Hollywood happen is worth it.