The WGA Writers Strike: Simplifying the Strikes

© Andrew B. Hurvitz | Flickr

Whether you work in TV or not, the Writers Guild of America strikes can be confusing, but fear not! Strap in and let Ben Carpenter take us through what this all means for us, the writers, and for television.

Understanding the Basics

A strike should be simple, no? A classic case of worker versus employer in which they demand what is, usually, rightfully theirs. This could be better pay, working hours, staff benefits or even all of the above. Well, the Writers’ Strike is the perfect example. However, for one reason or another the details remain complex, and as a result, only alienate the public from an important cause. It may seem obvious, but for a strike to reach its maximum audience, the general public has to at least understand why and how the strike is happening. It’s with that in mind that I provide a simplified, accessible and (hopefully) entertaining breakdown of one of the most significant events in the entertainment industry of the 21st century. You may be surprised how much these strikes may even affect you, the viewer.

It would be far too complex to start by throwing out key players and industry names, so instead let us hark back to the good old days of 2007, when Avril Lavigne was insisting you needed a new girlfriend and Transformers had just been released on DVD. It was in November of that year that The Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), a union representing screenwriters for both film and television, announced they would be striking in anticipation of the growing industry that was streaming sites. Integral to this entire discussion is the nature of the WGA in general. Unlike many other unions that focus mainly on the here and now, the WGA instead works to anticipate future change and prevent issues their writers may encounter in a shifting culture. This doesn’t mean there aren’t current issues that their strikes don’t focus on fixing, but their preventative measures are important to note.

So, without going too much into history, the WGA settled after 100 days in February 2008. Furthermore, their concerns surrounding streaming sites were proven correct as time transpired, with Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ becoming behemoths that may as well have wiped terrestrial television off the face of the planet. In their 2007/08 strikes, the WGA cited concerns over the pay for writers in the face of an ever-developing internet. Much like actors, writers rely on the residuals from re-running episodes on television to pay their bills. With an increase in streaming series that don’t pay residuals at all and studios selling box sets to these companies, writers would, and did, find their income badly damaged. On top of this, a writer’s salary for many series, including Mad Men and Pushing Daisies, was even found to average out below minimum wage at the time of the 2007 strikes.

During the 2007/08 strikes, writers for ‘Mad Men’ and others were found to be underpaid. | © Lionsgate Television

Flashing forward to the current strikes and it would look as though history is repeating itself. This time, the culprits arrive in the form of A.I and ChatGPT. For those who are unaware, these two programs are much like Karen from SpongeBob Squarepants, in that they are examples of technology capable of producing content, such as scripts, in the same vein that a human being can. Understandably, this has ruffled the feathers of writers worldwide. As a result, and in typically dystopian fashion, the WGA requests contractual agreements between their writers and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that limits studios’ use of A.I. and maintains the involvement of human writers. I simply cannot believe I have had to put the word human before writers. This time, the WGA is also set on simply increasing the wages of their writers in general. As studio profits rise and streaming giants continue to grow, writers have found themselves left behind. A perfectly imperfect example of this is co-writer of The Bear Alex O’Keefe. Upon attending the WGA awards (and even winning Best Comedy Series), O’Keefe told the New Yorker that his bank balance was actually negative. The Bear is produced by Hulu which is in part owned by The Walt Disney Company. Their current worth? $165 billion.

What does this mean for you, the viewer?

Ok, so now the scene has been set you may be wondering: what has any of this got to do with me? Well, you would be surprised how much the strikes directly affect public consumption. Whilst current television series and films that have already completed filming will continue to be broadcast according to plan, production on pretty much every single one of your favourites has been delayed, with the list including Stranger Things, Hacks, Yellowjackets and The Last of Us. With writers refusing to cross the picket line and continuing to work until a deal has been struck, the upcoming seasons remain either partially or even fully unwritten. The writing process for an average series takes at least a couple of months, and with the strikes potentially lasting over three months (according to industry analyst Doug Creutz), you are likely to find yourself running low on new series to binge in the second half of this year. 

This is frustrating for everyone involved. From the very top of the production cycle to the actors waiting for work to commence, and finally, the viewer paying reasonable money to streamers for content they may not be seeing for a while, the situation remains bleak. It is, however, important to remember the two essential takeaways from this round of WGA strikes: 

1. The longer the strike extends the more time both unions will have to finesse an agreement. If all remains fair, writers will get paid their dues and a more secure working environment will be created. The final result of this is that the industry becomes more inviting to newcomers, who can rest easy knowing that the hard work of the strikers got them the pay and treatment they deserve.

2. Secondly, and more directly to you the viewer, the halting of production until writers have settled prevents film franchises and television series’ alike from facing a severe decrease in writing and narrative quality.

If the second point seems confusing, let me give you a prime example of what goes wrong when you attempt to produce a project without the help of the appropriate writing staff. The name of this project? Quantum of Solace (2008).

Released in November 2008, approximately one year after the strikes began and just over two years since Daniel Craig’s initial outing as James Bond, the production of Quantum of Solace was heavily marred by the strikes. The script was  rushed due to the knowledge of the incoming strike, and submitted just two hours before the strikes officially began. This meant that the film entered production without any formal script alterations being possible. The result of this was a convoluted plot that even the actors claimed to be confused by and a final product that received fairly lukewarm reviews. Craig even claimed that he and director Marc Forster rewrote certain scenes on set, moments before shooting. Revealing to Time Out in 2011 Craig claims:

“We couldn’t employ a writer to finish it. There was me trying to rewrite scenes – and a writer I am not. Me and [director] Marc Foster were the ones allowed to do it. The rules were that you couldn’t employ anyone as a writer, but the actor and director could work on scenes together. We were stuffed.”

James Bond actor, Daniel Craig, admitted to rewriting scenes from ‘Quantum of Solace’ with director, Marc Foster, during the strikes. | © Eon Productions

Often viewed as one of the worst entries in the James Bond film series, the events surrounding Quantum of Solace act as a cautionary tale to those in Hollywood who undermine the significance of talented writers. The late ’00s boom of reality television can also be traced back to this tumultuous period. Shows such as The Real Housewives and The Celebrity Apprentice, starring Donald Trump, experienced a significant boost in budget and popularity as studios pooled their money into television that could be produced without a writer being needed. Now I’m not saying that Trump gaining a big enough public profile to become the President of the United States was down to the WGA strikes, but you are welcome to connect the dots in your own time.

Well… what happens next?

As mentioned previously, the strikes could very well continue through the summer months and even edge into the autumn. For those of us eagerly awaiting the return of some of our favourite shows and the release of big-budget flicks, such as Marvel’s Thunderbolts and the Blade reboot both being put on indefinite pause, there’s every chance you may have to dip into your back catalogue to find entertainment. But all is not completely quiet on the Western front…

In situations such as these, studios become desperate to retain profits. This, of course, is fairly unsavoury, as time and energy should be being channelled into resolving the strikes and not making money. But, sadly, that is not the world we live in. Finding a silver lining, reality television truly would not be what it is now without the desperate measures taken back in the winter of ‘07. Proving that people love to watch other ‘real’ people behave terribly allowed for the expansion of an industry as controversial as it is entertaining. From Love Island to Selling Sunset, viewers can continue to get their fix as production continues on all things reality TV, despite the strikes. 

This of course won’t tide most people over for long, but can definitely act as a cushion whilst the WGA continue to work tirelessly to obtain the treatment and pay they deserve for providing consistent entertainment that we all know and love.

For consistent updates surrounding the strikes your strongest, most reliable source is Deadline.

To show your support please visit The Entertainment Community Fund website.

Words by Ben Carpenter

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