tv What Happens if There’s a Hollywood Writers Strike?
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.
In late April, eligible members of the Writers Guild of America — the people who write the Hollywood shows and movies we watch in theaters and at home — voted to authorize a strike, by a historic margin: 97.85 percent voted yes.
That doesn’t mean a strike will happen. But the WGA’s contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents about 350 TV and film production companies, ends on May 1. And if the two parties can’t reach agreement about the terms of the next three-year contract, then writers could walk off the job as soon as that happens.
Writers strikes are something the average person doesn’t have to think about most of the time. At most, we have hazy memories of strikes from years past, maybe wondering why some seasons of The Office seem shorter when we stream them. But they’re significant moments in cultural history, and often have to do with different aspects of the business trying to figure out how to deal with the giant technological advances that drive Hollywood.
So here are five questions about the possible WGA strike, why it matters, and what it might mean for you and for the future of entertainment.
What is a “writers strike,” anyhow?
In simple terms, a writers strike means that a subset of the members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the labor union to which most working writers in Hollywood belong, will stop working until the WGA reaches an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). No member of the WGA will write new scripts for TV shows or movies until the WGA membership votes to end the strike. For most writers, this also means forgoing income from writing for the duration of the strike.
Members of the WGA who work in broadcast TV, radio, streaming news, online media, nonfiction podcasts, nonfiction TV, and public TV will stay on the job. (That includes me: I’m a member of the Vox Media Union, which is part of the WGA East, and thus in the online media sector. However, I wouldn’t be able to sell any scripts or options to a struck company in the event of a strike. I wasn’t planning on it, but lots of people in those sectors would be affected too.)
Members of the WGA on strike in 1988, in Los Angeles.
George Rose/Getty Images
When writers strike, the ripple effects can be large, particularly for people who work in TV. Production slows down or stops, which means that all of the other people who work in the entertainment business — electricians, caterers, set dressers, directors, background actors — have to find other work. It’s also noticeable to audiences, since some TV shows have to stop production, while others are delayed or truncated.
The goal of a strike is to force the AMPTP to negotiate, with the hope of reaching an agreement that both sides sign on to, and a new minimum basic agreement, or MBA — kind of like a minimum wage for writer jobs — with terms that will last for three years. The WGA’s contract is renegotiated every three years. But there hasn’t been a strike since 2007-08.
How do screenwriters make money?
If this was a joke, the answer would probably be “slinging coffee.” But plenty of writers do support their families by working on TV shows and movies, coming up with original ideas to sell to movie studios, adapting existing IP, and doing lots of other writerly things. To put it simply, writers are the first block in the tower on which the rest of the product is built.
Here are some of the more common ways that writers make money (though certainly there are more):
- Write a movie script, then find a way to sell it to a Hollywood studio for a lump sum.
- Sell an idea for a movie to the studio. Maybe get hired to write it.
- Write a book or create some other intellectual property that a studio buys outright or “options” (giving them, well, the option to adapt it). You might also get hired to adapt it, for more money; you might not.
- Get hired to revise an existing screenplay, often one that was written by someone else. (You know when there are seven writing credits on a movie? That’s what’s going on there.)
- Sell an idea for a TV show, or maybe a pilot script, to a studio. You might also get hired to be the showrunner, an executive producer who makes the whole thing happen.
- Get hired to write on a TV show as part of a writers’ room — which, importantly, can mean you also end up producing the show, which in turn means you get paid extra.
And then there’s residuals. Those are like royalty payments for screenwriters. If you have a writing credit on something, and the rights to air it are bought by a cable network (for instance), then you get some money. If you’ve worked a long time, or worked on a long TV show or a particularly popular one that runs in syndication a lot (think Friends), then you get a check periodically for your residuals. That can be a substantial part of your income. Part of the reason that residuals were first negotiated by the WGA was the understanding that if a network is re-running a previously created show in a particular timeslot, that’s taking away work (and thus income) from a writer who might otherwise be writing something that fills that slot.
There are plenty of other ways that writers make money in Hollywood. What’s important to note in all of this is that very few writers are making a huge amount of money.
The WGA’s contract is designed to make sure that writers make at least a minimum amount and aren’t undercut by studios — in other words, to ensure that it’s viable to make a living wage while also creating some of the most lucrative products in the world.
Why are the writers considering striking? It seems like there’s more work to be had in Hollywood, not less.
As with everything in Hollywood, the answer to this is both very complicated and simple. Studios and production companies want to make more money, in most cases to please the investors and the corporations that own them, and so they find ways to cut corners wherever they can. On top of it, technology always introduces uncertainty and change in Hollywood, and the WGA’s issues have to do with two big technical changes: the prevalence of streaming, and the looming challenge of AI.
Let’s start with streaming services, which need a constant stream of content to attract and retain subscribers. For a few years, that’s meant that Hollywood’s writers have been kept very busy, and new series were ordered all the time, which meant more jobs, in theory, for writers.
But streaming services are, in many regards, the problem. Certainly, they created more jobs in production — or at least they did, until recently, when studios started canceling shows and contracting their budgets, including those for streaming platforms. Yet the real problems are the type of jobs, the ways studios keep costs down, and the deflation of wages, all of which make it hard for writers to pay their bills.
It might seem counterintuitive, but while the number of jobs available has soared, and the budget allotted to productions has risen substantially, the amount that writers in those jobs earn has gone down, in some cases quite significantly. According to a bulletin that the WGA produced this spring ahead of negotiations, the average writer-producer pay — many writers working in TV pick up a producer credit as well — has actually declined 4 percent over the past decade. If you adjust that for inflation, it’s a 23 percent decline, and that’s in a world where the cost of living has soared (particularly in major cities, where the jobs tend to be).
There are a lot of complex reasons for this, some of which require pretty technical explanations. But some of them are observable to the average person. Most TV shows on streaming have far shorter seasons than their broadcast cousins — 8 or 10 episodes, as opposed to 22 or more — and that means writers get paid less for each job. The space between seasons can also be very long on streamers (years or more), rather than the few months of a broadcast show. Significantly more writers at all levels are working for the MBA than in the past. And though there are fewer episodes in a season, streaming showrunners (the people who are ultimately in charge of managing shows and making creative decisions) are working as long as their peers in broadcast TV, per the WGA’s report, but because of the way the contract is set up, their median salary is about 46 percent of the broadcast median.
Screenwriters who work in movies have their own set of headaches. Perhaps the biggest comes with the fact that median screenwriter pay is the same as it was in 2018, and when you factor in inflation, that means it’s declined by 14 percent. And, the WGA found that writers who were paid less than $150,000 for their screenplay were asked to do more unpaid rewrites than those paid more for their screenplays, which amounts to a lot of unpaid work conducted over months that less experienced (or less famous) writers have to do in order to be paid the 50 percent of their fee that they’re still owed. Screenwriters who write movies that end up being released to streaming services — and that’s a lot of people — can find they’re paid MOW rates (movie of the week), which is significantly less than for a theatrical film.
Members of the WGA on the picket line during the 2007-2008 strike.
Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg via Getty Images
One issue that’s become a significant sticking point for the writers is something called a “mini room,” a practice that began about a decade ago but has exploded as streaming shows have multiplied in the past few years. In a mini room, fewer writers than usual (two or three, instead of the usual seven or eight) are hired to write a number of episodes of a show before it’s even picked up for production. The writers in mini rooms generally are paid less than they would be in a regular writers room, and the jobs of writing and production, which are often combined, are now separated. The guild argues that this separation is a serious issue, since a writer’s progression from lower-level staff writer toward higher-paid, higher-experience jobs — ideally leading to an eventual position that requires experience, such as a showrunner — happens through mentorship during the production process. The mini-room model makes writers as disposable as possible, and ensures they’re not even around (and thus getting paid) when production begins.
And then there’s residuals. Streaming created a host of residuals issues, if only because when streaming first became part of WGA contracts 15 years ago, people thought of streaming as “TV on a computer,” something only a few people would ever really want. In 2007-08, when the guild last went on strike, streaming residuals were one of the main issues being negotiated; back then, the offer on the table to writers was zero.
Now — when a whole generation can’t even really remember regular broadcast TV — the way streaming residuals are calculated still hasn’t caught up with broadcast, even though many shows are created just for streaming platforms. There’s a complicated set of equations and designations that mandate what kind of residuals different programs pay out. In general, the biggest problem is that residuals on streaming are lower than in broadcast TV. If you write on a broadcast show, and it’s a huge success, then you get extra payment, in part because your show is bringing more eyeballs to advertisements or cable subscriptions. But if you write, say, Stranger Things, and it’s a massive hit for Netflix, bringing in thousands of subscribers and revenue, you don’t share at all in the profit even though you’re a main reason the platform is succeeding. That, the WGA argues, needs to change.
One issue that really illustrates the challenges streaming presents is the divide between comedy-variety shows on streaming (like Apple’s The Problem with Jon Stewart or Peacock’s The Amber Ruffin Show) and the same type of show on broadcast (like Comedy Central’s The Daily Show or CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert). Whether on streaming or broadcast, this type of show requires long, late hours from staff, including writers. On broadcast, writers are covered by the MBA; the studios, however, have refused to hire writers under the MBA for streaming comedy-variety shows. Instead, they negotiate the rates individually — and for most writers, that means they get paid less than those on broadcast, even though the product and workload is the same.
All of this is a huge issue, but there’s another one — AI. For writers in particular, that’s not just some buzzy tech idea. It’s a threat to their livelihood, and one that could in the end be a much bigger problem for writers than everyone may anticipate.
A lot of the TV episodes and movies produced by Hollywood are, by nature, highly formulaic. (Think of a police procedural, or a Hallmark movie.) A scenario could arise in which an AI tool is used to generate an idea for a plot, or even a full script, and then a writer is hired to revise it, or punch it up. This would cut costs for the studio, in a few ways. They wouldn’t need to pay a writer for their ideas anymore; they’d work at a lower rate, since technically they’d be “adapting” an idea. And you can easily imagine a scenario in which someone gets their intern to do a pass, or just does it themselves.
“Won’t the result be ridiculously unwatchable?” you might ask. The answer here is complicated — after all, a lot of the “content” pushed through the tubes and onto your TV can feel suspiciously like no human really touched the script, right?
There are other issues, too — problems the AMPTP likely also has an interest in staving off. For instance, if a software program was involved in drafting a script, then can the creators of the program’s algorithm claim part of the credit and, therefore, part of the residuals? And since AIs currently are incapable of distinguishing between copyrighted and freely available material, the potential for rights infringement is huge.
But more importantly, the issue at hand is whether AI poses threats that we can’t possibly imagine right now. Just because a tool doesn’t write particularly compelling scripts today doesn’t mean it won’t in a year, or in three years. Part of the reason the WGA has so much trouble with streaming is that nobody quite realized how the technology would morph and change, or how dominant it would become, so quickly.
AI has the potential to do the same, and much faster. It could not just reduce writers’ pay, either — it could eliminate their jobs altogether for large swaths of entertainment output. The WGA can’t keep the technology from developing, but they can ensure that any studio that wants to do business with their writers will have to ensure basic standards of human involvement and pay them a wage that keeps pace with the budgets and success of the studios hiring them.
A striking WGA member in 1988 waits for the bus.
George Rose/Getty Images
If the writers strike, what happens to my shows?
It very much depends on which shows you watch!
The first effects of a strike, should it happen, will be felt in late-night variety and comedy shows like Saturday Night Live or The Tonight Show. Their scripts are written extremely close to when the show is shot (in some cases, on the same day). Without a script, the show can’t go on. Many of those networks will air re-runs of the show in place of original shows, but for obvious reasons, viewership drops — and that means reduced potential for ad revenue. The studios own the networks, and ad revenue provides their bottom lines.
Shows in which writing staffs are working on future episodes as the show is being shot (such as network dramas with lengthy seasons) will be hit next. The last time there was a writers strike, for instance, shows like The Office and Scrubs had to cut their seasons short. (Episodes of Donald Trump’s new show The Celebrity Apprentice — a twist on his non-famous-person show The Apprentice, which NBC had quit airing due to low ratings — took their place.)
That 2007-08 strike took place mid-season, which is part of why it’s so memorable. This strike would likely begin in early May, as most of the more traditional shows are wrapping up their seasons; Law and Order’s season finale, for instance, airs in early May. Scripts for shows nearing the end of their seasons are likely being rushed into completion, as well as scripts for a potential fall premiere, with the goal of keeping interruption to a minimum. The real impact would be felt if the strike were to extend into the fall season. The 1988 strike started on March 7 and ended August 7, which meant most of the shows had to start their fall season in late October or early November, rather than late September or early October. In those days, when network TV was kind of the only game in town, that mattered a lot.
But it matters less now, and that is the issue at hand. Many of the shows we watch now already have huge gaps between seasons, or stockpile scripts with a mini-room, or don’t come back at the same time every year, so the effects will be less obvious to the audience. Reality (or “unscripted”) TV is hugely popular, and studios have typically leaned on it to fill programming holes in case of a strike. (That might not be true forever, especially since unscripted TV hours are grueling and the people who make it have been considering their own organizing efforts.)
In addition, there’s a huge pile of TV shows that you can watch — probably a bunch you’ve been meaning to catch up on — that you’ll watch if your favorite show has to delay during the strike. Many streamers (Netflix in particular) also have found success with international programming, and could import more, from writers who aren’t WGA members. Movies, meanwhile, take a lot longer to make and get to the public than TV shows, so the effects will likely be even less obvious.
So unless you’re an avid late-night viewer, or unless you work in the industry and can’t find work, you may not even realize a strike is happening — that is, unless it goes on for a very, very long time.
Or, of course, unless other unions get involved.
Wait, other unions? Is that a possibility?
Maybe. We’re in unfamiliar waters here. But there’s some indication that, unless an agreement is reached very soon, this could be the summer not just of a WGA strike, but a mega-strike — or, at least, a tense set of negotiations and a lot of uncertainty.
Here is what we know. The contracts for both the DGA, to which Hollywood’s directors belong, and SAG-AFTRA, the union for actors and voice actors, are up for renegotiation at the end of June. In November 2022, the DGA sent a “pre-negotiation” offer to the AMPTP, seeking resolution ahead of bargaining on matters similar in many ways to those at issue for the WGA — streaming, data, and monetization. Had the AMPTP and the DGA reached an agreement, or even an understanding, it would have set the tone for the WGA’s negotiations. The AMPTP, however, reportedly rejected the DGA’s proposal. Meanwhile, SAG-AFTRA released a statement in March that demonstrates they’re concerned about and prepared to fight for protections related to AI — particularly important for actors since their likenesses and voices, which AI is increasingly able to imitate, are their livelihoods.
The WGA is the first of the unions to negotiate this year, and as some have noted, the results of the first union’s negotiation tend to be passed along to the others when they reach the bargaining table. That means the AMPTP has a particularly keen interest in not ceding too much ground to the WGA in their negotiations — and that, in turn, could mean a longer strike if one begins, or even a pile-up if nobody’s happy with demands. (In 2007, the last time the WGA was the first guild to negotiate, the result was a 100-day strike.)
Of course, if the DGA, or SAG-AFTRA, or both were to go on strike, the industry more or less would immediately shut down. Even existing scripts couldn’t be shot. With the shutdowns and heightened production demands of the acute pandemic era still barely out of the rearview mirror, nobody wants that.
But for many members of Hollywood’s labor unions, the issues at hand are existential, determining whether it will even be possible to have a Hollywood in the future, a business in which people can work to create entertainment, share in the profits, and still afford to pay their rent. It’s a particularly pivotal moment in the business — and thus the stakes are extraordinarily high.