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Ask the Expert: Film and television writers’ strike

May 8, 2023

Editor’s note: On July 13, SAG-AFTRA announced that Hollywood actors would go on strike for the first time in 60 years, joining a walkout by writers. The below Q&A was published just after the Writers Guild of America went on strike in early May.

American film and television writers went on strike May 1 as negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers broke down. Questions remain as to how long the strike will last and what effects will be seen in the days and perhaps months to come.

Alicia Kozma. Photo by Chaz Mottinger, Indiana University Alicia Kozma. Photo by Chaz Mottinger, Indiana University

We asked Alicia Kozma, director of Indiana University Cinema and board member for Art House Convergence, about the issues at stake.

Question: Can you break down the reasons behind why TV and film writers are currently on strike?

Answer: Writers are striking because of three critical issues. The first is that more than half of television writers now work for what’s called “minimum,” which is essentially the very least someone can get paid to write a television show. Some streaming companies have refused to honor minimum pay for certain television shows, meaning writers on those shows have no salary protection or advocacy to ensure they are fairly compensated.

Correspondingly, TV writers have seen a 23% decline (adjusted for inflation) in pay over the last decade, despite the fact production budgets for television shows have ballooned over the same period. Simultaneously, pay for film writers has declined by 14%.

The second issue is that writers’ residual payments — which are a percentage of the revenue a TV show or episode makes over its lifetime — from streaming services are a fraction of what they are for broadcast stations.

Third, writers want limits on the use of AI in writing rooms explicitly integrated into union-AMPTP agreements. There are, as always, other issues, but these are the three strongest motivating factors behind the strike.

Q: How will the writers’ strike affect audiences and the entertainment business, which is still rebuilding after the pandemic?

A: Television is where audiences will see the biggest impact. Studios and streamers announced that they’ve been “hoarding” unproduced scripts in the event of a strike, so production won’t fall behind. However, during the strike, audiences will see immediate changes in shows that are written daily, like late-night talk shows, and weekly, like “Saturday Night Live” and many sitcoms.

Depending on how long the strike lasts, audiences can expect to see an increase in reality television shows, which often have story editors rather than writers. The last writers’ strike in 2007-2008 lasted 100 days, and during that time there was a glut of new reality shows unleashed onto the landscape.

In truth, the biggest cost of the strike is to the writers themselves. Writing for film and television is a solidly middle-class profession; no one gets rich doing it. Writers are only paid if they are working. Many writers who have been dealing with these precipitous declines in salaries report having other jobs in between shows or even holding second and third jobs while actively working on a TV show. Once the season or the show ends, the paychecks stop coming. In the past, their base pay and residual percentages were reasonable enough to sustain them in-between projects, but that’s not the case anymore.

Q: If there is a slowdown in film production, what will cinemas do to get patrons to the box office?

A: Film is much less impacted by the strike than television. First, once a screenplay is sold, the writer’s work on a film is effectively done. But television shows are written daily, weekly or monthly, so TV writers have more of a consistent churn of new material than film writers do.

Second, films take much more time to make, often one to three years for a single movie. The upcoming slate of new releases for the next year in film were all made one to three years ago, and film production has been happening for all of 2023 to date. So there is a much deeper bench of finished products to pull from for many months to come.

Q: Do you think the advent of AI-generated content could affect the collective bargaining power of screenwriters, and is the Writers Guild of America negotiating for protections against AI-generated content?

A: AI limitations are a demand the writers are striking for. It does hold some threat for our overall television and film landscape, particularly in making it more bland, less interesting and less innovative. The writers guilds are some of the oldest and strongest entertainment unions we have, and for good reason. Film and TV can’t be made without writers, and it’s been proven time and time again that collective bargaining works, and unions make the lives of their members better.

I think about it like this: To weather this moment, studios and streamers are hoarding unproduced scripts from the very writers who are striking; they are not asking AI to produce new content because even they know writers are indispensable to film and television.

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Julia Hodson

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