TV Writers Speak Out on Strike Plans and Why the Last Walkout Was "a Huge Success"
The "Peak TV" era is great creatively, says a trio of rank-and-file WGA members, but writers suffer financially while companies rake in the profits: "I feel like we are willing to work with the AMPTP, and it doesn't feel like they are willing to work with us."
As negotiators for the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers sit down Thursday for continued talks just three business days ahead of a threatened walkout, some in Hollywood — fearing the prospect of a strike less than 10 years after the guild’s 2007-08 outing — have been asking, "What are the writers thinking?"
So far, those speaking out have included showrunners (and here), negotiators and even WGA West president Howard Rodman, notwithstanding a media blackout. And many are expressing opinions via social media, an option that largely didn't exist during the last strike. But while the industry has seen the unity of the rank and file writers — that 96.3 percent "Yes" vote on strike authorization sent a message — with some exceptions writers haven't spoken directly.
So The Hollywood Reporter reached out to a number of the junior and mid-level TV writers who make up the bulk of the guild's working members. THR interviewed three of them separately and present their responses here in a roundtable format. Questions and answers have been edited for space and clarity.
Why put Hollywood through another strike?
Y. Shireen Razack (Freeform’s Shadowhunters): Nobody wants a strike. And it's not that we're trying to put the industry through it, we're not trying to put the city [of Los Angeles] through it, we're not trying to put anybody through a strike. What we want is a fair deal.
Speed Weed (CW’s Arrow, Syfy’s Haven, NBC’s Law & Order: SVU): Honestly, my sense is that [the studios] are trying to see how united we are. The question seems to me to be upside down: Why is it so important to the studios that they shut down business to deny us fair pay for what we do?
Hollie Overton (Shadowhunters, Lifetime’s The Client List): What we're fighting for is for studios and networks not to be able to hold writers for six straight months [between seasons without pay]. You're just in career limbo. The companies are making more money than ever before, and it just feels like the writers who are creating all this content are becoming less and less valuable.
I'm married, we want to have a family, we want to buy a house, and all of that's in limbo if we have a strike. And obviously that's a sacrifice, but it's worth it because if we don't strike now, we'll accept whatever they offer and then down the line, there is no middle-class writer.
I'm not excited about a strike. When I first started to hear about the word “strike,” I thought, well, I'll never go for that because I’m finally at a producer level and finally working consistently.
What changed your mind?
HO: Just attending the meetings and listening to what the leadership has been saying, and speaking to other writers that I know. And look, we're not saying we're going to strike. We're united and we just want a fair contract. It doesn't seem like we're asking for such crazy demands.
The guild argues that the companies are making huge profits, but the studios say their business is challenged.
SW: Just their quotations to their own stockholders show they are super in-the-black. I haven't heard any pushback, unlike 2007 where they were crying poor because quote unquote "Nobody knew how lucrative new media would be." I don't hear that from the studio side at this point.
Do you think the last strike was successful?
SW: The last strike was a huge success. When we struck, we did not have coverage in new media. When the strike ended, we did have coverage in new media. End of story.
HO: I think it was. If we hadn't struck, then every single person, myself included, whose work streams on Netflix — nobody would be making any money. And those are the shows that are in demand: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon. These are the places where they're making great content and you have a lot of freedom as a creator [but] we would be making no residuals or money without that strike. What we're fighting for is important because studios and networks are making millions and writers can barely pay their house insurance or not even buy a house.
YSR: I absolutely do. Fifteen percent of guild writers are employed on streaming service shows, and if the last strike hadn't happened, then the guild wouldn't have jurisdiction over that and those writers wouldn't be enjoying guild minimums at least. Those writers would be working for peanuts right now.
Were you a writer during the last strike?
YSR: I had just gotten into one of the network writing programs, so I wasn't in the guild yet. I knew that the strike was going to set my career back a year if not more, but I was absolutely 100 percent in favor of the strike. I was even on the picket lines with the writers because I knew what they were striking for was my future and the future of the guild and the future of all the writers that come after me.
Does it feel different this time around?
SW: I feel like the leadership then wanted to strike, come hell or high water. I think the more clear-minded people like David Young and the elected leadership had their eye on the prize the whole time in 2007: new media, new media, new media, [but] there was a lot of talk about reality and DVD residuals, and we were kind of all over the map. While it's easy to portray our demands this time as all over the map, I don't think they are. They hang together under the notion of getting paid for your work, getting paid for the profits you make off of those.
I sense this time there's a very mature and responsible leadership who doesn't want a strike. They just know that the strike is our only leverage and that this is a leverage place in our downward slide in relative income. And we have to take a stand and have to get something out of this. I and my fellow writers trust the leadership. They have really done their homework and really know what they're talking about.
Why do writers feel they're not benefiting from the "Peak TV" era?
HO: The producers can say, "Take this 10-week contract at scale or leave it." So as a writer you're like, "Well, this is a great show, this is a great concept, I want my own show, and if I don't take it, someone else will."
YSR: There's great diversity and there's quality content, and I think the networks and the studios are definitely profiting. I mean, $51 billion in profit last year is a really good deal, but writers' earnings have been declining year over year. In any other business, in any other industry, people's salaries are at least keeping up with inflation, and our contract with the AMPTP hasn't been doing that. And if we agreed to what they're offering right now, it will continue in a downward trajectory.
SW: In many ways, we're benefiting hugely. Hats off to the studios for by and large taking the creative constraints off of writers and letting writers do what they creatively want — that's why TV is so good right now and why it's making them so much money. But it is because it is truly creative and no longer quite so derivative that the value of the creator and the writer should be seen as much higher. Our percentage of their profits on our work is down, and it's not right.
These companies are giant behemoths. Our only leverage is our threat of a strike. I think of what Winston Churchill said about democracy: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." A strike is the worst thing we could possibly do except for all the others.
Did you think the strike authorization vote would get this much support?
SW: I was fairly confident we'd get an overwhelming response; I was blown away by 96.3 percent. The leadership earned this by laying out a very clear, well-argued case, very, very backed-up with data. This is not an emotional vote, this is a rational vote, and that should be scarier to the companies.
What is your personal feeling about a potential strike?
HO: No one wants a strike, and I'm still optimistic that there won't be one. But as the strike authorization vote proved, our membership is united behind the negotiating committee. I believe they are doing everything in their power to make a deal happen.
YSR: Work stoppage hurts a lot of people. The AMPTP now knows where we stand. They have to decide if they're willing to step up and make a fair deal with the writers who create the content that allowed them to enjoy $51 billion in profit last year. The WGA is open to compromises. The negotiating committee has made several concessions during the process thus far. If the AMPTP is also willing to compromise, rather than take a hard line, then a deal can be reached and no strike will happen.
SW: I certainly hope [the vote] convinces the studios to make a deal. It should. They should know [a strike is] going to happen if they don't. And when they say economic disruption to everyone, that's on them now. It's their doing.
Why do you think there is such a huge gap between the parties?
YSR: That's a question for the AMPTP. We provide the content for the shows that they're making so much money off of. I don't know [why] they're not willing to meet us anywhere. I don't understand. Negotiations are about give and take and we're willing to give and they just keep taking. If we were to get everything that we were asking for, all we're asking for is one-third of one percent of their profits. I feel like we are willing to work with the AMPTP, and it doesn't feel like they are willing to work with us.