‘I got a check the other day for $8’: TV and film writers share why they’re on strike

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Entertainment writers are striking coast to coast. The clever signs they’re holding up on the picket lines (“Don’t pay us peanuts to write ‘Billions’“) are often as creative as their work.

Every three years, the Writers Guild of America, the TV and film writers’ union, negotiates a contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. It’s intended to cover issues such as minimum pay for various projects, health insurance and workplace safety. The AMPTP represents Hollywood studios such as Paramount Pictures and NBCUniversal, network television companies like ABC and Fox and, newly, streaming services like Amazon.

This year, negotiations began on March 20 and included a series of proposals touching on the changing nature of the industry, which has been transformed in recent years in large part due to the proliferation of streaming platforms. Proposals include new terms around how feature film writers get paid; how many writers can be staffed on TV shows and how long they’re to be staffed; the lack of minimums for comedy/variety shows (like late night programs) on streaming; and the regulation of AI in creating new material.

In the last decade, median weekly writer-producer pay declined 4%, or 23% after adjusting for inflation, according to the WGA. Screenwriters’ pay declined 14% in the last five years after inflation as well.

After negotiations reached an impasse on May 1, the WGA called a strike to begin on May 2.

“The thing that we have been trying to communicate to the studios for six weeks face-to-face is that this is not simply an economic negotiation,” says Greg Iwinski, 38, an Emmy winner who’s written for “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” among other shows, and a member of the WGA negotiating team.

Although wages were central to the discussions, the issues are bigger than pay, he says: The strike “is about a systemic problem.”

Entertainment is ‘basically a freelance industry’

Hollywood is a Wild West of work contracts.

“It’s basically a freelance industry,” says Christine Becker, professor at the University of Notre Dame’s department of film, television and theatre. “You go from job to job,” and each contract can look different from writer to writer depending on their experience, for instance. Shows have different lengths and cadences, films have different budgets and so on.

Though WGA contracts guarantee minimum payments, writers’ take-home pay can be much less. Minimums are pre-tax and writers often must also pay teams that can include a lawyer, agent and manager — a group that can command a cut as high as 25%. They must account for union dues (1.5% of their pay). And they must save, since their work is notoriously precarious, and no one can ever be sure when their next paying project will arrive.

TV writer Sheri Holman on strike in New York.

Photo by Gili Malinsky

“Even if you’re on a very successful show, there’s absolutely no guarantee that you are going to be on that show in the next season,” says Miranda Banks, chair of the film, TV and media studies department at Loyola Marymount University and author of “The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild.”

There’s no guarantee you’ll be hired to write again at all.

What’s changed: Shorter TV seasons, fewer chances to advance

The process of making a TV show is much different than it used to be.

Historically, a network television show might run for 24 episodes a season and writers “would be guaranteed to be working for about nine months every year,” says Banks. “It was a full-time gig.”

Writers rooms are smaller now, presenting less of a chance to get hired. TV seasons can be as short as eight episodes, “13 at best,” she says.

Dylan Guerra, 28, recently worked on season three of HBO’s “The Other Two.” The season is slated to be 10 episodes altogether, and the writers’ room met for “around 15 weeks,” he says, “which is on the shorter side.” After fees and taxes, he got about $3,200 per week for those 15 weeks.

There are fewer opportunities for advancement for junior writers now as well. For example, writers previously got paid to go on set and be part of production in case any storyline needed to be changed. They could then accrue production skills to take to future projects.

That’s less common these days. “I did go to set a bunch,” says Guerra, “but that was unpaid.”

‘I got a check the other day for $8’

Residuals in the age of streaming look different.

“The network model was if a show was successful, it would get sold into syndication,” says entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel. Shows could be distributed internationally and have summer reruns as well, all of which generated residuals. But in the age of streaming, a show “stays on the platform year after year,” says Handel.

Bestselling author Sheri Holman, 56, joined the industry eight years ago, first as a writer and now as an executive producer on shows like Apple TV+’s forthcoming “Palm Royale.”  She says the residual checks she’s received for streaming shows she’s worked on can vary wildly — and because many streamers don’t provide specific viewer data, “we have no idea how [residual amounts] are calculated because they do not tell us.”

“I got a check the other day for $8,” Holman says. “What is even the point of that?”

‘A girl also has to eat’

On the movie side, films take much longer to get green lit. Giving the final “yes” to a project is “a big risk for an executive,” says Banks. “And oftentimes, a safe thing to do is punt something forward” for someone else to OK.

Award-winning playwright Chisa Hutchinson, 42, joined the industry in 2019. She has written films like 2020’s “The Subject” starring Jason Biggs, a low-budget indie, though she wasn’t yet in the union at the time.

TV and film writer Chisa Hutchinson.

Photo by Gili Malinsky

As of May 1, the last day of the WGA’s 2020 contract, a writer in the union working on an original screenplay for a low-budget film (costing less than $5 million) would get a minimum of $81,220 for an original treatment, a first draft and a final draft of the screenplay. Pay would be broken up into those three different installments and would not include fees and taxes.

Routinely, she says, a feature that “I think is going to take six months [ends up taking] a year, year and a half.” Studios take a long time to send back notes “and the pay doesn’t change. And it’s impossible to plan around. It’s impossible to budget around.”

Many screenwriters say they’re asked to make changes to scripts without getting paid for their work.

The situation can feel so impractical as to be untenable. “A girl also has to eat,” Hutchinson says.

‘We’re ready for this kind of scary’

Of the more than dozen proposals the WGA outlined, the AMPTP rejected nine outright. A May 3 AMPTP statement to CNBC Make It included the following:

“The AMPTP presented a comprehensive package proposal to the Guild last night which included generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals. The AMPTP also indicated to the WGA that it is prepared to improve that offer, but was unwilling to do so because of the magnitude of other proposals still on the table that the Guild continues to insist upon.”

“The AMPTP member companies remain united in their desire to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial to writers and the health and longevity of the industry, and to avoid hardship to the thousands of employees who depend upon the industry for their livelihoods. The AMPTP is willing to engage in discussions with the WGA in an effort to break this logjam.”

The last writers’ strike took place in 2007 and lasted 100 days. Negotiations stalled around issues like residuals for DVDs and pre-streaming versions of watching TV on the internet.

It is as yet unclear how long this particular strike will last. For his part, Iwinski is prepared to hold out for as long as it takes to guarantee the job parameters he and his fellow writers are proposing.

The fight against big studio heads might be intimidating, he says. But “we’re ready for this kind of scary.”

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC and CNBC.

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