- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Flipboard
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Tumblr
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
On May 10, the Directors Guild of America sent a message to members that exemplified the muddled situation in which writer-directors find themselves amid the ongoing writers strike. In the communication, the DGA advised its members that minor script changes — like cutting for time and making small edits to dialogue during production — may be required of writer-directors during the strike if they are working on a project they wrote only in their capacity as a director.
The DGA considers small script changes to typically be part of a director’s workload, and the union’s “no-strike” clause requires it to put a good-faith effort toward requiring members to continue directing during the strike. But the “strike rules” governing what members of the Writers Guild of America can do during its strike mandate something different — that “hyphenates” (writers who are employed in additional roles) are prohibited from performing these “(a) through (h)” services (referring to a clause in the contract), which the WGA considers a form of writing.
All of which puts writer-directors who belong to both unions in a tough spot: They risk WGA discipline — and potential public censure if they are perceived to be somehow crossing the picket line — by doing this kind of minor script-editing work. But if they don’t complete their directing work, the DGA has warned they could be replaced on the job, even though they “cannot be forced to work” individually.
“Pretty much, right now everybody’s confused,” says writer-director Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans), noting that the peers she’s talking to want to support the WGA strike that began May 2 but are still figuring out the details. “Certainly, we are talking to each other and trying to figure out what everybody’s doing,” adds writer, director and showrunner Tony Phelan (A Small Light). “There is a real concern about not crossing picket lines.”
Writer-producers face their own challenges. While producers do not have a union — the Producers Guild of America is a trade organization — several major industry employers have sent letters to showrunners and writer-producers since the strike began, reminding them they are contractually obligated to perform non-writing services. Conversely, WGA leaders encouraged these members not to produce during a showrunners meeting at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills on May 6 as the union seeks to demonstrate how the industry suffers without writers. “It’s kind of impossible to separate your producer brain from your writer brain. Everything really is writing,” explained one attendee regarding the theme of that meeting.
The situation of writer-actors is slightly more straightforward: Performers union SAG-AFTRA has advised hyphenate members to “continue working as an actor” on projects where they have dual employment. (The union cites its own “no-strike” clause and individual members’ personal service agreements as reasons for advising members to continue SAG-covered work.) While the WGA has said it “strongly believes that no member should cross a WGA picket line or enter the premises of a struck company for any purpose,” it cannot discipline hyphenates for doing non-writing work (or, theoretically, an actor who is also a WGA member from walking onto a studio lot to do performance work only).
Still, confusion and anxiety around what work a hyphenate can or can’t, or should and shouldn’t do, has driven some to consult their reps. Multiple legal sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that the debate over what constitutes “writing,” given that the Writers Guild maintains that (a) through (h) duties are a form of that work, has created particular issues for writer-directors. Some studios are telling dual DGA and WGA members that those duties are required of directors, and some are offering to indemnify hyphenates who continue to perform their directorial duties in the event the WGA pursues punishment for breaking its strike rules. Some writer-directors have even requested that employers send them a letter admonishing them to fulfill their contractual obligations as a director, including (a) through (h) services, “so they would have some argument to say [to the WGA], ‘I didn’t have a choice,’ ” says one prominent talent lawyer with multiple hyphenate clients.
For hyphenates inclined to back the WGA in whatever way they can, at least one group chat has sprung up so they can consult one another. Sorry to Bother You writer-director Boots Riley belongs to a WhatsApp group with around 100 members that has become a resource for hyphenates. “You have a lot of directors and a lot of people that are both WGA and DGA that are trying to figure out, how do you support this?” he explains. Riley notes that many creatives in Hollywood tell stories about right and wrong and characters coming to the realization of an appropriate course of action, “but in real life, that shit’s confusing.” Writes writer-director Hannah Fidell (A Teacher) of the group in an email, “The strike presents a lot of moral, ethical and legal issues for those of us who are hyphenate WGA/DGA members. The coming together of this community has been a bright spot as we writer-directors navigate the existential crisis facing both of our unions.”
Ultimately, many hyphenates are making individual choices based on a complex calculus of what their own consciences are telling them, their loyalty to the labor movement, their leverage with employers, the state of their careers and the circumstances of their current project. Riley, for instance, has chosen not to promote his upcoming Amazon series I’m a Virgo, which he wrote and directed, nor prepare the series’ second season or a potential upcoming film. “It’s about making sure that I get more satisfaction from knowing that I’m on the right side of things,” he says. Alexander is putting some finishing touches on her current film’s score and VFX; she says Netflix decided not to release it and returned the film to her. “I don’t feel I’m crossing the picket line because the movie is mine, you know?” she says. She wants to honor the cast and crew that collaborated on it by doing what she feels is ultimately director’s work. The talent lawyer notes that some clients “don’t feel they have the luxury as a director to not complete their film and make it the best possible thing they can.”
The stakes feel especially high in 2023, as multiple sources note that one big difference between this strike and the last one, in 2007-08, is the speed and prevalence of social media. “In 2007-08, there were showrunners who continued to work through the work stoppage and said they were working as producers when they were doing what we would classify now as writing work,” says Phelan, noting there was some “animosity” toward those individuals. “With the megaphone of social media, now that gets amplified and sped up in a very pointed way.”
Already, just over two weeks into the strike, production has been paused on Netflix’s Stranger Things and Max’s Hacks as showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer and co-showrunner Jen Statsky, respectively, have publicly declared that writing continues well into production on those projects. After one WGA member accused showrunner Tony Gilroy of “scabbing” on social media by doing producing work on Disney+’s Andor, the creator issued a statement on May 9 that he had ceased all non-writing producing work following the WGA’s showrunners meeting three days earlier.
One interesting test case in perception will be the 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, which began on Tuesday. As of press time, multiple prominent writer-directors — including Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson and James Mangold — were still expected to attend and promote films in their capacities as directors. (The WGA’s strike rules FAQ webpage states that writers are prohibited from making “promotional appearances” for struck companies.) How will fellow WGA members respond to those appearances, and what will those directors do if asked questions that address their writing work? Only time will tell.
Ashley Cullins contributed to this report.
A version of this story appears in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day