Are you a WGA member working in Hollywood with challenges and concerns of your own? What is your view on a potential writer’s strike? If you’d like to share your story with WGA Anonymous, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anonymity guaranteed.
On Monday, the Writers Guild of America announced a strike authorization vote, calling upon its members to decide if the guild has authority to call for a strike against the studios (AMPTP) as negotiations continue ahead of the WGA contract expiring May 1. A work stoppage of some kind looks more likely by the day. For many writers, it’s necessary.
That was the case for some writers who responded to our initial anonymous conversation with a WGA member. By that point, the guild had released its Pattern of Demands, highlighting priorities of higher writers’ minimums, restoring residuals, regulating the practice of “mini rooms,” and drawing a line when it comes to AI-produced material. For the latest writer who agreed to speak anonymously to IndieWire about the challenges they’re facing, all of those topics hit home.
This particular writer is currently a No. 2 behind a cable series showrunner. They’ve worked primarily on network and cable shows, including some long-running hits dating back to the early 2000s, and has been a guild member since 2000. They also lived through the last writer’s strike in 2007 and knows the feeling of not standing up earlier when it came to protecting residuals for DVD sales. They’ve also dealt with a fair share of “studio bean counters” cutting into what they’re owed, notably when their show’s first season was stretched across a year and a half (and extra episodes) in lieu of a two-percent pay bump heading into season 2.
“We’re frogs in the boiling water who are being by degrees inoculated to worse and worse conditions and slowly talked out of rights, compensation, and a fair share of the content we’re creating by the evolving policies of new media,” they told IndieWire. “It is absolutely urgent that we stand up and fight for the rights we’ve always had in broadcast, that those absolutely must stand with equally profitable content. Just because it’s happening on streaming instead of television doesn’t mean that we should not have the same rights and privileges.”
See our full conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, below:
IndieWire: What do you remember about the last writer’s strike back in 2007? What were the things you were fighting for then, and what were some of the conversations then compared to what’s happening now?
WGA Member: We did not stand up early and strongly for our piece of the pie of DVDs. We missed out, and we have the same opportunity. Television is starting to move to streaming, and back then it seemed so abstract and far away. But it was definitely inevitable that TV was moving more and more toward being online. There was no system in place. And much like DVDs, where there was no infrastructure and we just hoped to work it out as we go, here was this wild, wild west, completely unregulated so far, of streaming television. We did not want to get taken for a ride again and cut out of what we deserved.
We deserved a full profit share in the content that we created. And there were already rules coming down the pike, where the companies hosting the content streaming wanted the first 60 days or three months. It was wild overreach of how long they wanted to stream before residuals kicked in. And it was absolute nonsense. Of course, it was already apparent even in those early days of streaming that was the golden window of when the most eyeballs would be on this content you’d created for the company.
At the time it was justified as, well, these are rerun resources for after something has aired originally on broadcast. It’s just an opportunity for those who might have missed it to watch it again, so you’re still getting your residuals from the primary viewership on television. It was obvious to everyone that’s going to evolve to become the primary source of viewers seeing content and if we are talked into signing away the first 60 days or more of our content being viewed online, we’re going to miss out just like we did with DVDs. That felt like the primary issue of that contract negotiation. I remember feeling like we didn’t get everything we had hoped for, but we got something and it was probably the best we were going to do. It was very difficult. Of course, we all felt terrible for the crews and everyone who suffered from the work stoppage, but it did feel like we had to make a stand for the future of our industry. It was ultimately effective and necessary.
I see you’ve worked your way up on many of your shows to a producer role since then.
Producing is just a title that you get when you’ve been around on staff long enough. Producer just enters your title, but this is one of the things we’re striking about. There wasn’t a real formal training of, “now there’s producer in your title. Here’s what that means. Here’s how you watch dailies. Here’s how you weigh in on a cut. Here’s how you run a tone meeting.” It’s sort of informal the way that apprenticeship happens by accretion. What we’re losing by these companies shrinking the duties down to just the most upper-level writers is you’re losing the opportunity for the mid-level and lower-level writers to be exposed to what it means to have producer in your title. They’re losing their apprenticeship because studios and networks don’t want to pay to keep a full staff around to do the things that our title says we should know how to do.
What has been the general mood you’re feeling among other writers you know? How does it compare to what you were feeling back during the last strike?
It feels similarly urgent. It feels similarly unified. Many of my colleagues are experiencing increased difficulty pulling together a year of work. With the new work models of shorter episodes, or a process that takes an episodic fee and stretches it over a wildly long amount of time, your weekly pay drops below Writers Guild minimum. I’m in a mini room right now for the first time. I’m doing absolutely all of the work that I would do in a full writers room, and I’m paid a fraction of my normal quote.
The guild’s doing a great job of educating the membership that this is the moment to stand up and protect the livelihood that we fought for from being eroded under the under the guise of “Oh, it’s new media. We’re going to make new rules now.” No, you’re not. It’s the same amount of eyeballs. It’s the same amount of profit. So no, you’re not going to take away our residuals, and you’re not going to talk us into mini rooms and erode our pay.
What’s at the top of your list of things you want to see the guild address?
I want to see our pay go up with income in proportion to the growth of the industry. There’s this hocus-pocus that happens. Here’s an example. I have a quote that I have built over the years of working on broadcast television. I made my deal on my current show on a cable network. It is not broadcast and the conversation with business affairs was like, “Well, this is cable. Their quote was built up on broadcast. We can’t meet it.” The reality is there are ads on this basic cable network and it is one of the most watched networks in the country. It has a massive audience. Therefore, it’s absolutely arbitrary hocus-pocus that this company is saying they can’t meet my quote because we’re cable. When you look at the numbers, no, you may not justify not paying me the livelihood that I have won over years and years and years of faithful service of creating content for the millions of eyeballs of Americans who enjoy our material.
“You can afford the people who create the stories you shoot in your new $1.5 billion studio.”
I don’t care how you want to spin it. You guys are making more profits. Fox is about to do a $1.5 billion renovation for new production facilities on their lot. If you can afford that, you can afford the people who create the stories that you’re going to shoot on your wraparound, digital projection new studio. You simply may not talk us out of our fair share that we have negotiated and fought for in the past under the guise of, “well, things are shifting, we’ve had layoffs.” You’re profiting more than ever before and our pay must reflect that.
We see what you’re paying the CEOs. We see what you’re paying for production budgets; they’re ballooning! You must pay the people. It comes down to the people. You will not be allowed to forget the people who are creating this for you. And I mean that across the board: crews, cast, everybody.
It seems like the solutions for achieving that, it’s not just one thing. It’s not just higher minimums, it’s not residuals on its own, it’s a combination of all these things.
Yeah. It’s all organized for me under “protect our pay moving forward.” You also asked me what’s the one that hits me on the gut. The one that hits me on the head is when companies try to cut costs by minimizing the amount of time that the staff is on the payroll. You lose out on a whole apprenticeship. That one’s a little more intellectual for me, but absolutely just as crucial. We must be training the next generation of content creators so that they are savvy, experienced, seasoned producers who know how to do this.
Are you seeing a lot less of that because of these new means and “hocus-pocus,” as you call it?
One of the things the Writers Guild wants to do is mandate that you have to hire a staff to be part of such a massive undertaking and investment, because you will be cultivating the next generation to take on these high-budget, high-risk content creations. Under the guise of cost cutting, they’re eliminating writing staffs and the whole lower-level and mid-level writers who would learn an incredible amount. It means a generation of writers can’t afford rent in LA, can’t afford to stay here, have to work two extra jobs.
I worked a day job when I was creating a theater company, because theater companies are begging rich people for nickels and dimes to survive in this country. But when you’re creating mass culture for millions of people, you’re supposed to share in the profit of that and not have to scrounge around and work a day job and not be able to live. We’ve got to protect the middle- and lower-level writers so that they understand how to operate this giant machine, and so that they can inherit it.
Is there an example of that you’ve seen in your own experience that was way understaffed?
I’ve been fortunate to work on some old-guard shows. There was a limited series on Netflix and we had a decent writing staff. But I did not get to go to set for the first time in a long time. I’ve always been able to go to set, and that was weird. I felt like I was writing in a vacuum. We wrote all of the scripts and then the show went into production, and I never went. The creator and her No. 2 were the only ones who went and produced it. And that was disappointing.
I happen to be lucky that I had built my production skills in my two previous jobs. I spent a lot of time being exposed to pre-production, being on set, post-production, going to a spotting session, giving notes on cuts, running the tone meeting, giving notes on wardrobe, all of the ways that the story gets told. We’re writer/producers. We don’t just write a script. We write the story in the way that the clothing tells the story, the locations, all of these things are part of the storytelling, which is why we’re writer/producers. So I was denied that on the Netflix show.
What has been the experience of the mini room? What are you getting paid? What is that environment like, and why is it being done in this way?
Our goal is to write five scripts of 10 [episodes]. In this mini room, it’s seen as a nickel-and-dime cost-saving measure. If the second season is picked up, that means you actually have to pay writers their full episodic fee. It’s going to be shorter. You’re going to keep it shorter because you did all of this pre-work of conceiving of the whole arc of the season, agreeing to stories for most of those episodes, and then going through the whole scriptwriting process of five scripts, all with a very low Writers Guild minimum weekly rate.
“There’s absolutely nothing mini about mini rooms. The only thing mini about it is our pay.”
The work I’m doing is everything I would do in a normal episodic, picked-up-to-series writing room. We’ve spent weeks conceiving of the whole season, we got notes from the studio, notes from the network, we revise twice, three times, four times, five times, how exactly to fine-tune this story arc over 10 episodes. We’ve written story areas for episodes 1-5. They’ve been noted multiple times by studio and network. We’ve written outlines, multiple notes from studio and network. We’re just now starting to cycle scripts through, and that’s beginning the notes process. There’s absolutely nothing mini about it. The only thing mini about it is our pay.
Is this something you had ever experienced before? Had you heard about this from your peers?
I started hearing about mini rooms about five or six years ago, and I’m sure it existed before that. To me, it’s one of those things that happens in this industry where no one ever thought to say, “You can’t do that.” Like packaging. Packaging was the ultimate hocus-pocus. Like, let’s create a different name for agencies doing what they should do, and then decide that this other name for the thing that we’ve been doing all along means we get to siphon off a percentage of the entire production budget of a project moving forward. And get to own a bigger piece of it than the creator, in many cases.
In many rooms, it’s the same thing. No one ever said we can’t hire for a tiny, tiny little fee. I’m sure somebody found a little loophole. “Ooh! If you’re not in production, you can hire a room and only pay them the Writers Guild minimum. Oh, well then let’s hire them before we’re in production and write as many scripts as we can. And then when they’re in production, we’ll keep that super-duper short and we’ll get rid of them as soon as we can and deny them the opportunity to go to set and do post-production.” It’s all just bean counters taking more and more and more for them and eliminating the possibility for us to do what we always did, which was created when it’s in production with the pay that we deserve.
Are you hoping to see this practice completely abolished, or regulated in some way?
Yes, I’d like it regulated. I like writing a show without the pressure of production. I see the appeal of that. Everybody gets to take as long as they want with round after rounds of notes. But you’re going to have to pay us our episodic fee because it’s an insane amount of work. Whatever we’re fighting for on mini rooms, that’s what I’m fighting for.
I don’t know what the negotiation process is on that point, but any version of, “I know we pay you $35,000 an episode when we’re in production, but we feel you should only get paid $8,000 a week because we’re not in production”? I don’t see any daylight between what we deserve and what that offer is. It’s $35,000 an episode. The work is the same. Pay me $35,000 an episode to write these 10 episodes, whether we’re in production or we’re not. It’s still hard to come up with what the teaser is.
How have things changed on the broadcast end in terms of the residuals you’re receiving compared to what you were seeing in the past?
The difference that I’ve experienced is we used to get bigger residuals from that first rerun, but that’s being eaten into by networks running things online instead of repeating them on broadcast. You get a lot less residuals from things streaming online than they do from appearing on broadcast. That was part of the giveaway of things we could’ve won in ‘07-’08, when we had to negotiate a resolution where the terms were not as favorable for online as they were for broadcast.
“AI should be top of mind. It reminds me of, ‘TV online? Who’s going to watch that?'”
Writers always talk about green envelopes because our residuals come in these wonderful mint-green envelopes. It’s a wonderful color because they always contain these wonderful checks that you get for the content that you created. And when I was on this Fox show, I got that amazing first rerun check on Fox because it was a big, sturdy broadcast show that had this nice audience for the rerun. But I have seen that erode where you get less and less of those nice rerun checks. That’s now been replaced by the much smaller residuals from streaming and SVOD.
Should studios utilizing AI software be an issue that’s top of mind?
I absolutely think it should be top of mind. It reminds me of, “TV online? Who’s going to watch that?” Look, it’s coming. Let’s get ready. It absolutely has to be regulated. What I would like to see is you can’t feed copyrighted content created by a paid person. You can’t feed that into your program without paying for it and then paying for the material that is generated from the use of that. That’s our work! You can’t have it for free.
I assume you want to see minimums rise as well?
Absolutely. Commensurate with the success that your wealthy companies are enjoying.
Is there a number you’re hoping for?
If we’re going to do mini rooms, there’s got to be a minimum that allows a staff writer to live in Los Angeles and not have to work a day job. Whatever that number is, that’s what I want.
Are you doing anything to prepare for a potential work stoppage? What are your thoughts or concerns if something happens?
I’m feeling very lucky that I got into this mini room so I have some work in advance of a possible work stoppage. I’m hopeful that negotiations won’t necessitate a work stoppage, that the AMPTP recognizes our unity and our just cause, and they get their shit together and don’t try to go up against us, and to avoid a disruption to content that they all need.
Other than feeling grateful for the work that I have right at the moment, I am economizing in my life as I can. I have a daughter in college. Can’t withhold the tuition payments, but I’m lucky enough to have worked in this business to not fear for a work stoppage. But I’m absolutely willing to suffer disruption to protect that security and stability for the next generation and beyond.