Hollywood writers on ‘offensively bad deal from the studios’

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Zoie Matthew, produced by Angie Perrin and Zoie Matthew

Hollywood writers on strike carry signs that say, “Our therapists keep saying we have to stand up for ourselves, so here we are, sorry,” and “I like your offer as much as I like an angry female lead,” May 2, 2023 in Los Angeles. Photo by Adam Stein.

More than 11,000 film and television writers are hitting the picket lines as the Writers Guild of America officially goes on strike Tuesday. The union’s contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents studio management, expired at midnight. The two sides failed to agree on new terms after weeks of negotiations. 

In a statement, the AMPTP says it offered “generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residual” — writers would gain about $86 million per year. However, the WGA asked for more than $400 million.  

The last WGA strike happened in 2007, lasting 100 days. That halted dozens of productions, transformed Hollywood, and cost the California economy $2 billion.

Depending on how long this strike lasts, Hollywood could see similar disruptions soon, says Gene Maddaus, senior media reporter for Variety.

“There's a lot of stuff that's been shot and is in the can basically, and that all [can] continue to roll out. But you're looking at a major disruption of the production pipeline for television, and that will have an impact down the road. If not next week, then two months from now, or three months from now.” 

The media landscape has also inherently changed — there are more writers and TV shows on the air than ever before. The key difference: Some of these shows have fewer episodes, meaning less stable work for writers.

“You might not work more than four or five months out of the year. And then the rest of the year, you're looking for work,” he explains. “People are feeling the strain of that and feeling like we should be able to build a career here, and we're just struggling to get the next job and it's always a constant hustle.”

Rejected proposals 

WGA members — including Liz Hynes, staff writer for “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” — weren’t hoping for a strike. But she sees it as necessary to secure adequate wages and protections for the guild.

“The good news about getting an offensively bad deal from the studios is that everyone is really fired up and ready to work together and work hard until we get what we need,” she tells KCRW.

Among the union’s proposals, nine items were rejected, seven of which did not include counter demands, says Sean Collins-Smith, a story editor on “Chicago PD” and a show captain, which is a liaison between his show and the WGA. That includes proposals to release viewership numbers for streaming shows and the regulation of using artificial intelligence. 

He points to another proposal — which would establish residual pay for streaming shows based on viewership — that was rejected: “That’s a very simple proposal and it creates transparency between the streamers and the writers and the union. And not only do they reject that proposal, they refuse to make a counter for that one. And the document is riddled with examples like that, where the guild says, ‘Hey, we just want this simple thing. We think it's far too late.’ And the Alliance says, ‘No, we're not going to do that.’”  

Collins-Smith adds that some proposals show the union looking ahead. “We want to make sure we set up protections for the future, whereas the alliance, it feels like they're stuck in the past because whenever we make a proposal that is looking ahead, they not only reject it, but they either refuse to make a counter, or the counter that they make — it's so laughable that it seems like it's a parody.” 

Immediate effects

Late-night shows will shut down immediately. Hynes won’t do more writing until the strike ends.

“It means we don't get to do the thing we love the most in the world, which sucks. We all really love what we do. We're really grateful to get to do it, and we know that our comrades and other departments feel the same way,” she explains. 

Writers will also go without pay.  

Collins-Smith says that while his role on a broadcast show brings good pay, others aren’t so fortunate. “If you're on a streaming show, or something like that, your pay might just be half or a third or a fourth of what someone like me is making. So whereas I am well-situated to weather this, others might not be. And that's part of the reason we're striking, because we're saying, ‘Look, it should not be a situation where you work on a show like ‘Stranger Things.’ And then if you have a three, six, [or] nine-month hiatus, you're struggling to make your mortgage.” 

Impacts on other production crew members

The strike will also halt work for behind-the-scenes workers, including actress and stunt driver Melissa Wahe and set dresser Matt Atzenhoffer.

Wahe says many of the productions she was working on were paused even before the strike began. “So I’ve been doing a lot of side gigs … and saving money, knowing that this is coming,” says Wahe.

She says as the strike continues, she’s going to enhance her skill set, such as earning a license to drive big rigs. 

But she is concerned that pending negotiations with other Hollywood unions — including the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild — could lead to more work stoppages this year. 

“It's hard because we know that this is for the betterment of our future in terms of securing those better deals … and they need to be able to secure proper deals,” says Wahe. “But at the same time, we’ve got to work. We just came off of COVID. And we're starving.” 

Matt Atzenhoffer, a Hollywood set dresser, says he has also been scrimping and saving. He and his family moved not long ago, and didn’t have a chance to put much away before the strike began. 

However, he hopes that a victory for the writers will set the stage for future worker gains in the industry — including for his union, IATSE, which narrowly averted its own strike earlier this year. 

“When unions and guilds and workers unite and get something better from themselves, we see the evidence throughout the history of this country that when unions do better … other unions do better,” says Atzenhoffer. “So we're going to hopefully build on what they gain, and then we will gain as well.”

Is it the right time to strike?

Collins-Smith pushes back against the idea that it’s not the right time for action. He says that’s because there’s constantly some type of uncertainty in the industry, pointing to the pandemic, and before that, the introduction of streaming. 

“Where do we draw the line? At what point when they say it's the wrong time, are we just gonna have to put our foot down and say it's never been the right time? When we struck in 2007, 2008, it wasn't the right time. And we had to do it. And it was 100 days, and it was painful. But we made advances,” he argues. 

Listen to day one coverage from Press Play and Greater LA.