WGA Anonymous: For This Writer, the ‘Slow Decay of Residuals’ Should Be the Top Priority

Ahead of a looming writers strike, we spoke with a film writer about his challenges and thoughts on residuals, minimums, and AI Chatbots.
WGA Writers Strike
A potentially looming strike points to a variety of issues in how film and TV writers get paid. But not every writer has the same challenges.
Getty Images

Are you a WGA member working in Hollywood with challenges and concerns of your own? Would you like to see a writers’ strike averted? If you’d like to share your story with WGA Anonymous, reach out at bwelk@indiewire.com. Anonymity guaranteed.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) formally begins negotiations today with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Expect to hear a lot of talking points and to see a lot of finger pointing: It’s the writers vs. the studios, the little guy versus the corporations, and each will say why the other is to blame for a potential strike, one that would be the first since 2007.

However the talks proceed, these negotiations could mean real changes in what’s made and how writers make their livings. But at the heart of all arguments are the individual writers. While the union represents all writers, each individual’s ideas and experiences are different — and so are the results they might hope to see.

To give a more personal spin on the talks, we’re speaking to individual writers under the condition of anonymity about their experiences, what they’re hearing and seeing among their peers, and where they want to see the most change.

For our inaugural installment, we spoke with a writer who has been a WGA member for six years. They are an independent film writer who has worked on a variety of features, including some studio films.

As someone who also has credits as a producer and director, their needs are not the same as a TV writer who depends on higher minimums and sorting out mini-rooms: They’re in the minority relative to the rest of the WGA. That includes them being “firmly against” the guild’s most recent victory against the agencies over packaging fees. Where they are aligned with the WGA is in addressing streaming residuals and creating sustained, long-term value and income for writers.

“If this guild was being responsible, they would be really, really getting ahead of this to avoid a strike at all cost. Not posturing like the strike’s going to happen or that it’s inevitable in order to get their demands,” the writer told IndieWire. “I really think it’s going to be devastating, and I think it’s unnecessary.”

See our full conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, below.

IndieWire: What has been the mood among other writers you’ve talked to in the industry? How are people reacting to the conditions in the industry? Are they pissed? Are they struggling? What are you observing?

When you talk to a lot of people, it feels like everyone’s gung-ho for a strike. I think there’s a sense of frustration that we’re in an economy that inflation is going up and people aren’t getting paid enough, and the majority of writers don’t make the living that a select few do. That’s the nature of this entire business. If you look at the Screen Actors Guild, the people making upwards of a million dollars are a handful of the majority while millions are out of work.

That’s the challenge, right? You’re trying to accommodate something where the supply-and-demand natures of this business are predicated primarily on people’s talent and, in some cases, relationships or other dynamics. You’re never going to satisfy everyone, but the guild’s intention is trying to find a way to renegotiate around an industry built upon multiple revenue streams and residuals. Now those residuals are out the window, in a lot of cases.

If I write a big studio feature and it goes straight to streaming and they never license it or they never do anything else, there’s a buyout. Or if I make a movie with Netflix with a buyout, then I go find my next project. That’s a cool idea because you get a bunch of money up front. But in the aggregate, there were battles fought around minimums on residuals that I think a lot of people built their lives around. That stuff is becoming less and less.


“The structured nature of requiring rooms to be a certain way is not cohesive to the type of films and shows I want to be making.”


Where do you fit into the bigger spectrum of the guild?

I’ve written a number of features that are in the hopper that haven’t been produced yet at the studio level, and some that are more independent. It’s sort of straddling these two things. I think the guild is, in a lot of ways, completely detached from the needs of independent film writers. It doesn’t really understand the dynamics at play when you’re trying to get a film made at a certain budget level and then take it to Sundance or a festival and sell it. That is a bit of a blind spot in terms of the way contracts are structured because they’re fighting for minimums. That’s all great, but what happens when you’re the writer and the producer and the director, and you’re trying to make it at a budget and you’re trying to do things a certain way, and you’re trying to accommodate and make things in an affordable way and play for the upside maybe by taking a larger share of the backend?

That aspect of things makes me a little concerned about the minimums going up across the board without accommodating, similar to how SAG did with different budget tiers. How many films sold at Sundance this year? What was it, four or five and the rest are just sitting waiting for distribution? Writers in my situation of, how do you build independent films? Or, how do you write a film on spec and then go get someone to make it and put it all together? You inevitably find yourself being a bit more producorial. I don’t think that’s an area of the negotiation they’re thinking a lot about because I don’t know if the majority of writers are doing that.

That majority is clearly leaning toward working TV writers who may be struggling.

I have friends who write on big shows, and I have friends who write on shows where they wrote for a season and they didn’t get credit. I have friends who have made shows who wrote the whole season. That, to me, is very exciting. I like the idea that you can be malleable with the way in which you build a show. I think that the structured nature of requiring rooms to be a certain way is not cohesive to the type of films and shows that I want to be making, which is strong, unique points of view. Not that it has to be singular, but it has to be very much guided through a point of view or voice. Then if you want to round out by bringing in additional writers to punch up jokes, or to help something, by all means.

If I’m just looking at how to go execute and get the thing made, I don’t have a particular interest in building out a traditional writers’ room. So getting rid of the mini-room thing, I don’t really know what that means in terms of a demand. I know what the intention is, which is to get more writers jobs. It’s to say, ‘No, you need to fully staff.’ If they can figure out where to draw the line on that, great. But then what happens when there’s a big show for a streamer and they bring in a filmmaker with a really strong voice? He’s just like, ‘No, I’m just gonna write.’ That’s where it becomes tricky.

I don’t know the answer or what the guild is going to do about that. I just think as an artist and as a filmmaker, I really struggle with my own guild telling the rules of how I’m allowed to create.

And the industry is changing so dramatically that the things people are fighting for in this moment could be completely different years from now once these conversations come up again.

The tough part about this is, the people who are the big showrunners and the big studio writers — this is not an issue for them. They have such leverage to negotiate their deals to where they’re getting massive, massive fees or buyouts. This is really trying to protect the smaller writers and the majority of writers.


“How do you stop people from using an AI Chatbot to write a script and then turn it in? I have no idea.”


I’m all for those things, but I think the thing in the long run that is going to be the most devastating to the longevity of life or to the to the economics for writers is going to be the slow decay of residuals. To me, any way we can figure out how to protect or safeguard these residuals and continue to earn money over time, that’s the sweet spot for me. That’s worth so much more. What streamers have done is they start with big buyouts and then they get smaller and smaller and smaller, and they settle into a range where it’s not really enough.

What would be the impact of a strike on the industry, and how would it affect your work and your career?

I think it’s going to hurt people who are hustling for writing jobs way worse than me. I have the luxury of having written a bunch of stuff and also I can produce and direct. I have things that I’ve already written that I can go get set up and made, hopefully, before or during. I’m very fortuitous being a writer-director and having the ability to pivot.

A lot of friends truly are writers through and through. That’s their calling. I hope that the juice is worth the squeeze and that they really take seriously, every single week and every day that the strike is happening, because the people on the other side, the studios can wait it out forever.

We’re living in a world of content now. We can get content in all directions. There’s unscripted content, there’s a backlog of content, they can acquire things that were already made. It’s not ideal, but time is on their side more than it’s on our side, because writers have the real needs of their children and their families and their mortgages and all those things. That’s the case with every strike, but I have not been able to discern from this list of demands what the key elements are and what we’re actually going for, besides everything?

From your experience, what are the ways in which the guild can be very purposeful about addressing residuals?

I don’t know how they do that. They’d have to request that there was some degree of transparency on streaming and views. There’s not even a metric for how to go about quantifying the residuals on these things that are scraped by ads. If Netflix buys something and they make it, then they own it, and then it plays on Netflix and only Netflix. So there’s nothing. You don’t see another dollar.

I think at the beginning, the economics of that for certain creators was massive because there was this flood of money upfront and you didn’t have to think about residuals. But I think in the aggregate, with every single other buyer going into streaming, I can’t help but look at it and say we had multiple points and all these different sort of revenue streams that there would be reporting on, and then you get these little checks.


“It’s not about getting an extra $10,000 upfront. Like, what are we even talking about? It’s about downstream revenues.”


I don’t know that that’s going to be replaced. Maybe that’s a thing of the past and everyone’s coming to terms with it and they’re focusing more on upfront payment. But the upfront payment thing is not going to be a problem for the streamers of the world. They’ll happily pay a higher minimum to writers, but the low-level writers that you’re trying to protect are not always the ones even getting those jobs. The higher-profile projects, people are being paid well above scale, anyway. So it’s this weird thing. Who pays the minimums? Independent films, smaller companies, and companies that aren’t well capitalized to writers, writers who are newer and greener. So that threshold, in the aggregate, I think is just going to create less jobs. If I have a production company, if I’m paying a writer WGA minimum contract, $10,000, $15,000, whatever that number is, is the difference between me hiring someone or not.

I don’t know how to solve that. It’s the question of, does minimum wage [create] more jobs [or] are there less jobs? I don’t know. I just know that where writers are getting paid scale is not typically at the studio level, from my experience. They might offer scale, but you’re always going to go up above it if they’re well capitalized.

What are your thoughts on AI Chatbots?

I guess it’s cool to get ahead of that. SAG did it with the deepfake stuff. I haven’t actually looked at how good the writing of that stuff is, but how does it harm anyone to try to stop that? I don’t know how you enforce it. How do you enforce it in a college classroom? Like, how do you stop people from using an AI Chatbot to write a script and then turn it in? I have no idea. An unenforceable law, good luck.

I guess the fear is the studio is going to say thanks, no thanks, we have this algorithm that can do the writing for us. Is that realistic to you?

It’s all realistic, but that’s the way the world is going. Why should we be protected in a way that all other industries aren’t from automation? I’m all for it if we want to try to fight for it, but it’s a closed-circuit industry. That’s probably an easy give that the studios will be like, ‘Sure, we won’t ever hire AI bots.’ But again, if a bot can write a better script than me, then make that movie.

If a studio wants to go make a bot movie and eventually have a computer generated, animated movie that is completely generated by a bot, which is probably where we’re headed too, do it! Then you know what, we’ll figure out how to make a living doing something else, and we’ll all sit back and enjoy the AI-created multiverse movies that are made. But I don’t ever see that happening. Even if you could mimic the voice of someone, you can’t mimic the future iterations of that voice or mistakes of that voice or of that artist. So I don’t see that as a real threat. It’s probably impressive that there’s scripts that you can’t tell the difference.

It doesn’t sound like something that a lot of people in your circle have been talking about.

I’ve heard about it! There’s AI that can write scripts better than anything, and I’m like, oh cool, I don’t have to work. I’ll go do something else. I think the Luddite nature of trying to stop technology is futile, but we can certainly give it our best efforts. I’m all for banning that and telling studios they can’t use that because why not, but I think there’s an inevitability to technology we can never truly avoid. I don’t know how you do that.

You know what would be great, is if we can figure out how to create revenue streams into the future for writers. Antitrust law has gone out the fucking window in this country. It’s oligopoly upon oligopoly in all these industries. They broke up the studios and the theaters way back when. Now we’ve got studios pumping their product direct onto streaming platforms and not paying anyone anything for it.

That’s the biggest issue that we’re facing because it completely removes a transactional step where we would’ve been remunerated [again and] again. The whole idea of studios owning their work and then licensing it out, or continuing to license it into the future — with each one of those streams, that goes away. That’s where we’re being killed, by death by a thousand cuts.

To me, that’s the only thing. It’s not about getting an extra $10,000 upfront. Like, what are we even talking about? It’s about downstream revenues. So it’s this very myopic viewpoint that drives me crazy with these guilds. “Revise and expand all arbiter lists?” Completely revamp the arbitration process. That would be my thing. I’m either an outlier or someone who has a different view on what would really satisfy the lifeblood of writers for a long term. And I don’t think minimums upfront is going to get it done.

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.