I’m a striking Hollywood writer, and I won’t settle for scraps any more

The studios don’t realise: The strike has radicalised all Hollywood writers. We’ll only agree to real change.

Sarah Silverman, right, walks on a picket line outside Netflix studios on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, in Los Angeles. The Hollywood writers strike passed the 100-day mark as the film and television industries remain paralyzed by dual actors and screenwriters strikes. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Hollywood writers and actors walk on a picket line outside Netflix studios on Monday, August 14, 2023, in Los Angeles [Chris Pizzello/AP Photo]

I’m a screenwriter. My union, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), has been on strike since May 2, when our contract with the studios – the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) – expired after talks broke down.

So, I woke up that morning and headed over to Disney Studios in Burbank, California, wearing a pair of Mickey Mouse ears my niece had cajoled me into buying on a trip to Disneyland. I covered the ears with two words: “FAIR” and “CONTRACT”.

I’ve been doing much the same thing for more than 100 days since then. A few of our demands: increased wages, commensurate with industry growth and inflation; writers should get a proportionate cut if shows do well; that cut should grow if more people watch my show in an increasing number of countries; weekly pay for screenwriters; restrictions on the use of artificial intelligence and minimum staffing for writers’ rooms. You can read a more comprehensive list of our asks, and the AMPTP’s responses, here.

If the AMPTP gave us everything we asked for it would only cost the studios 2 percent more each year. That’s one executive’s salary. It’s a rounding error. It is, to quote a business-y friend of mine, “budget dust”.

What alarmed me then and now was the lack of, well, negotiations in this negotiation. It’s like the studios came to the field (or pitch – hello, international audience), but instead of kicking the ball, they lay down and faked an injury.

Sure, the directors have negotiated a deal (which I, also a Directors Guild of America member, voted against because of slippery language around AI and the lost opportunity for cross-union solidarity). But after that, actors, having secured a 98 percent vote in favour of striking, went into negotiations and – spoiler alert – recently joined us on the line when their talks broke down, too.

This is my first strike as a WGA member. When writers last struck work in 2007, I was newly graduated from university and working as a freelance music journalist. I wrote comedy on the side, but the idea of making a living as a screenwriter seemed distant, unviable. Eventually, I moved to New York and threw my weight behind a career in TV and film. My first WGA-covered job was in late-night TV writing. You’ve never heard of the show, and it barely aired, but it was enough to get me health insurance for the next year. And it was enough to demonstrate how important the protections of my union were.

Before I started, I, like lots of people, assumed that working in Hollywood was glamorous. This was naive, of course. But I found that if I came prepared, did the work and continued to learn and grow, my career grew, too. Slowly, but steadily. I made a decent wage, or a little less. Sometimes I faced bad bosses and bad contracts, but my union helped me navigate that.

In the meantime, I wrote a script that got on the ‘Black List’, Hollywood’s annual survey of the best-unproduced screenplays. It felt like I was tipping from amateur into pro. The pandemic slowed things down, but I still sold a film pitch. I signed with a new agency. The pandemic loosened its grip, and things started to go back to a kind of normal.

Yet, on that film I sold, I was pushed to do a series of unpaid rewrites and waited months for responses from producers. I had to harass them to pay me what I was contractually owed. Once, I begged them to pay me on time so I could keep my health insurance – all of this would be addressed by the weekly pay proposal in our demands.

At the same time, further jobs remained elusive. I put in hours and hours of free work, creating entire worlds in order to secure writing jobs, get staffed, sell scripts. Nothing stuck.

I was shattered, exhausted, and living below the poverty line. The job was always hard, but not this hard. I assumed it was me. That I was not talented enough, despite people telling me how much they liked my work.

So, I shut up and kept working for free. I contemplated leaving the business. Later, when we went on strike and I spoke to writers who’d made big studio movies and created TV series that were raking in money for streamers, I heard a familiar refrain: I am being paid so little now. I did all this free work. I am exhausted and shattered. I thought it was only me.

Bittersweet to know you’re not alone in being abused. Writers can be navel-gazers, but when we looked up at each other we saw: It’s all of us. And it wasn’t always like this.

The bottom line is that our formerly successful business has been mangled by corporate conglomeration, Big Tech, and the billionaire class, especially in the last five years. Our last negotiation was in May 2020, when COVID-19 meant no one knew what “gains” would suffice. We effectively agreed to the status quo, which means we’re stuck in 2017 – or even earlier.

Back in 2017, while streaming was emerging, the business hadn’t fully surrendered to its current obsession with tech. Now, the tech bros are remaking the business in their own image. That means they want more “content” (shudder) with way fewer people making it, and they don’t care if those people are paid or treated fairly, or even if they’re people.

Just like a worker in their warehouse, I am, to Amazon, merely a tool to get the result they want, which is for people to buy a bunch of stuff from them.

And that is why you should care. Because at our core, that warehouse worker and I are the same. We’re being exploited. We aren’t being paid a fair wage for the literal billions of dollars we are making for massive corporations. We’re watching the middle class disappear because of greed. We’re hearing high-paid CEOs crow about record profits – and dollars saved while we strike – to their shareholders while crying poor to us. We deserve better.

Some of us are lucky to have unions to yank us to safety as the cliff of capitalism crumbles under our feet. Every worker deserves that support and a living wage. (Side note: Support the Amazon Union!)

And frankly, I’m fine with studios saving money during the strike. I don’t want them not to have money; I just want them to share a portion of it with me if I make a successful series or film.

It’s deceptively simple, but the way to success isn’t infinite growth. It’s making back your money and hopefully more – and sharing it with those who contributed. It worked in Hollywood for 100 years, and as a result, most workers lived middle-class lives.

Another way to make money? Ads. Which means streamers will need to tell advertisers how many people are watching, advertisers will pay accordingly, and then – and if this seems easy, it’s because it is – streamers will pay us based on how many viewers are watching, too.

Just a fortnight ago, AMPTP’s chief negotiator Carol Lombardini indicated a willingness to resume negotiations – by urging her WGA counterpart Ellen Stutzman (or the Stutz, as I call her) to settle for less, because “people just want to get back to work”.

What the studios don’t realise is that this strike has radicalised every writer in Hollywood. We’ve watched the business deteriorate at the hands of Big Tech and Wall Street, and we’ve been together talking about it for more than 100 days. Now we’re telling the actors and I’ve gotta say: Those folks know how to take direction.

I never wanted to know this much about how my business operates. I just want to get back to work, too. But not if there’s no business to speak of in five years.

So, as we hold the line for as long as it takes, my message to the AMPTP: You took a group of smart, isolated introverts trained on mistreatment and turned us into an extroverted, incandescently angry supercomputer capable of calculating how we’ve been wronged with increasingly greater speed and accuracy. That’s on you.

And unlike AI, writers can think creatively about the future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.