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On May 3, Kale Futterman spent her 30th birthday walking a picket line in Los Angeles alongside thousands of TV and film writers as part of the current strike organized by the Writers Guild of America. After becoming a writer’s assistant in 2017, Futterman landed her first paid writing job in 2021 on Netflix’s Ginny & Georgia. She’d worked in just three writers rooms over the course of her career.
Despite murmurings of a potential strike, Futterman admits, “I was living in a little blissful bubble of delusion,” explaining she was holding out hope until the very end that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers would meet the WGA’s demands. The project she was working on just hours before the WGA officially announced the strike was her first time being a story editor.
“We are sacrificing everything,” Futterman says of WGA members’ decision to strike. “Like a lot of other writers of color, I got stuck in the staff writer loop for a while. I was really excited about entering this next phase of my life where I was hopefully not going to be freaked out about, can I pay my rent? Can I pay my bills?”
Futterman’s financial concerns are a key reason why the strike is seen essential for the future of diverse storytelling: If writers of color, who are already underrepresented in Hollywood, can’t make a living from their work, there simply won’t be anyone left to tell those stories. According to the latest WGA West Inclusion & Equity Report only 37 percent of TV writers in 2020 were Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). That percentage drops to 23.3 percent and 22.6 percent for BIPOC development/pilot writers and screenwriters, respectively.
“Writers from historically marginalized communities are the first ones who suffer when the belt tightens,” explains Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, vice president of the WGA East and co-chair of its Committee for Inclusion & Equity.
Though streaming has led to an influx of shows about diverse communities, many of the writers rooms for those series are mini rooms, meaning they last no longer than 20 weeks, notes Cullen, who says she once worked in a mini room that was only three weeks long.
“The problem, especially for lower level or emerging writers, is that many of them aren’t able to get hired again and one issue is that these mini rooms pay most writers the same, whether you’re a 20-year veteran or a newbie,” she adds. “So, why hire a talented new writer from a marginalized community if I can get an old hand for the same money?”
That narrative is a familiar one for Futterman. “Every time I’ve finished a show, I’ve had multiple months without a job. As a lower-level writer, you’re not making enough to sustain yourself through those off times and it’s incredibly stressful during those periods,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to work fairly frequently, but even with that said, I’ve had really short order rooms. The longest one was 24 weeks, and after that I didn’t have a job for another three months. With taxes and your rep’s fees, all that money dwindles down.” (The AMPTP, in a retort, called one of the WGA’s proposals for mini rooms — to set minimum staff sizes — “a hiring quota that is incompatible with the creative nature of our industry.”)
It’s for that reason, Cullen considers AMPTP’s tentative agreement to pay staff writers script fees on top of their weekly pay one of WGA’s “great gains” (the sides are still at odds over the percentage gain of that pay, though). Historically, staff writers have not been eligible for script fees. “That’s something that the guilds have been fighting for for decades and we finally got it. This will be a tremendous boon to lower-level writers,” she says.
It’s not just in rooms that writers have been limited, explains John Lopez, a writer on the Netflix series Seven Seconds and Showtime’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Whereas writers’ rooms used to run concurrently with production, now many of them break before a studio decides whether to make a show. If a project is greenlit, studios sometimes argue that they can’t afford to pay writers to be on set.
“That leaves the showrunner by themselves to do all of the rewriting and cover set, which is an impossible job,” says Lopez. “The showrunners need writers there. And diverse writers are often the first to be let go. Those who get picked to stay in writers rooms and cover set tend to be the senior writers. But there aren’t as many diverse writers at senior levels. We’re there. We’re fighting our way up that ladder, but there needs to be more of us.”
AMPTP rejected the WGA’s proposal which sought to establish a requirement of six writers and a guarantee of at least 10 weeks of work for pre-greenlight rooms. An additional post-greenlight proposal which would have required half of the minimum staff be employed through production with one writer per episode up to 6 episodes, and an additional writer required for each two episodes after six was also rejected.
One of the most visible consequences of cutting marginalized writers out of production is the omission of diverse characters, Lopez notes.
“Showrunners want to make better shows. They want to make shows that are representative of the world, but they’re pulled in 20 directions. It’s often the staff writer or the diverse, lower-level writer-producer who has to say, ‘Wait a second, this character should be an African American. This person should be an immigrant. This individual should be Latinx. They should be non-binary,” he says. “If you don’t specify diverse casting, if you don’t fight for it, it doesn’t happen.”
Another trickledown effect of removing writers from sets is they lose the opportunity to gain the necessary experience to move up the ranks, says Anthony Florez, co-chair of the Native American and Indigenous Writers Committee, who notes the number of writers, and by extension mentors, within the Indigenous community is already lower than other minority groups. The WGA West Inclusion & Equity Report 2022 found less than 1 percent of TV writers and screenwriters are Native American or Indigenous.
“A lot of native writers I know are independent filmmakers and that’s the only set they’ve ever been a part of, so when they get hired onto a TV show, the giant scope of that production is a whole other ballgame,” he says. “I don’t know how anybody could expect any sort of writer, no matter how talented they are, to be able to make a shift from never having been on a set to then being able — if they’re moving up the ladder of writing and they’re working on television shows with the idea of becoming a showrunner someday — to handle a $300 million company as the main decision-maker and also write all of the episodes and make sure the story is told well. It’s sort of a ridiculous ask of anyone.”
It’s scenarios like this which occupy Florez’s mind more than the strike and the pending negotiations themselves. “I’m concerned that some of the writers who just started to get somewhere might feel discouraged or like they don’t want to deal with Hollywood anymore,” he says adding, “Native people are so spread out and rural. It’s a big thing to decide to leave your community and move to Los Angeles.”
The reward for the work writers of color do should match the sacrifices they make to get stories told in ways beyond monetary compensation, as well, says Florez. He points to stories like Prey, Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls as examples of studios’ tendency to add Native stories to streaming platforms rather than invest in theatrical releases that enhance the viewing experience and broaden viewership.
“At the end of the day I worry about projects that we put our heart and souls into and that tell American history in a certain way that don’t get the audience they deserve. And the writers and the directors don’t get the money and the residuals that they deserve. That’s the bigger issue that we’re striking for,” he says. “We want our stories not to just be something that gets made and put on a shelf.”
In the face of AMPTP’s rejection of the WGA’s proposal to regulate the use of artificial intelligence on MBA-covered projects, the union is steadfast in its insistence that humans should be the ones to to write those stories.
“AI is an existential threat for writers, and it is one of the main reasons that we strike,” says Cullen. “AI learns from the work that already exists. It is a plagiarism machine. So, it’s copying the work and learning from the creative work that’s available and written by the class that was able to get movies and TV shows produced up until now, and they are not people who look like me.”
Cullen adds, “It takes a human mind; it takes personal lived experience to create true diversity in the work that we produce. And that is the great gift of diversity in our creative ranks and why we need to continue to fight so hard for it.”
With face-to-face negotiations with the AMPTP concluded for now, the ball is currently in the studios’ court, says Cullen, who emphasizes that through their efforts, the WGA is simply trying to ensure the future of screenwriting as a viable profession.
“Writers are not looking to turn back the clock. We understand that television and filmmaking have changed,” she says. “However, we absolutely need some reassurance that our jobs are going to continue to propel writers, especially marginalized writers into a middle-class living or else we simply cannot sustain this line of work.”
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