Writers on the "Existential Fight" of the Hollywood Strike: "Streamers Have Been Screwing [Us] Over"

Imagine pouring blood, sweat, and tears into a creative project only to be compensated with pennies on the dollar. Or barely being able to afford a roof over your head while employed by an industry that makes billions of dollars a year — largely thanks to your hard work. That is the reality for many TV writers and Writers Guild of America members who are striking to change the current state — and future — of their livelihood.

On May 2, the labor union — made up of over 11,500 members — called for a strike after failing to come to an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) following many months of negotiating their next three-year contract. The decision was largely fueled by changes that have yet to be made to writers' compensation, but it's evolved into more.

The heart of the strike points to the lucrative streaming boom, which writers have yet to earn their fair share of. "No one anticipated streaming to be what it was now," TV writer Isaac Gómez — who's worked on shows like Netflix's "Narcos: Mexico" and, most recently, Apple TV+'s "The Last Thing He Told Me" — tells POPSUGAR, referencing the 2007 strike. "When you look at our contract agreement, as it relates to new media, it's pretty expired language because it implies that it's an outlier versus a dominant force in our industry. Everyone is streaming right now, including broadcast networks. . . . We have these streaming platforms in which the rules are different than if it were to air on broadcast, and what we're asking for is for the rules to be leveled out."

"The irony is it isn't just for us that we're doing this for — it's quite literally for the sake of our industry."

Moreover, striking writers are also fighting for better working conditions. The AMPTP broke its silence on the strike on May 4 with a four-page, point-by-point document, shared with The Hollywood Reporter, that rebuts the WGA's stance on what led up to it. It breaks down the organization and studios' response to WGA proposals like mandatory staffing, streaming residuals, and wage increases. In a statement published by Deadline, the AMPTP said, "As we have said all along, our companies are committed to finding workable solutions to our ever-changing business for the mutual benefit of those who contribute to its success."

Regardless, as with most creative professions, it's impossible to produce quality, and even award-worthy, work when you don't know where your next paycheck is coming from; the fight for survival takes priority.

"We're on food stamps. We're on unemployment, moving back in with our parents. Sh*t is not sweet right now," says TV writer Kyra Jones, who has credits on Hulu's "Woke" and ABC's "Queens." "[This field] is really, really unsustainable, and the tipping point of that is why we're striking."

TV and film writer Kaitlin Fontana — whose credits include 2018 Sundance Film Festival selection "Franchesca" — says of the ongoing strike, "We're here for a very serious reason, which is that we didn't come to an agreement on our contract." But in the past few weeks, she's observed other things out on the picket lines, as well. "What I've been finding increasingly interesting is just how bad it is for everybody," she shares. "I assumed that some people are doing great, but hearing the creators of hit shows saying, 'I'm not getting paid what I should be getting paid for this show that I've made an incredible hit for this network,' is really driving home how we're all in the same boat."

Over the past month, striking writers have been joined by showrunners, directors, and even actors in their fight against Hollywood, whether that be pulling out of scheduled gigs or coming down to the picket lines with them. "It's been interesting seeing the camaraderie not just amongst ourselves," writer Ewan Wake says, "but even people who drive by would honk their horns and just show their support."

Having the support of these known figures, Gómez and Jones say, is meaningful to what this strike means for the industry at large. "There's amazing solidarity out there on the picket line," Jones notes. "You're seeing writers of all levels and even people who aren't in the WGA, so it really feels like everyone's very unified, everybody's out here taking care of each other. . . . There's some very beautiful community that definitely helps us keep going."

Between shutting down multimillion-dollar productions and forcing networks to alter their fall TV schedules, WGA writers are committed to making sure this strike not only makes a difference for them but also for other sectors of the entertainment industry. "It's really about implementing the structure that, in all honesty, is going to benefit the studios in the long run because better quality work will ensure a longer sustainability for the industry, as well as just greater content being created," Gómez says. "The irony is it isn't just for us that we're doing this for — it's quite literally for the sake of our industry."

Read ahead to hear more from these writers about the realities of the strike — from how long it may last to how they feel "streamers have been screwing writers over."

Getty | Pacific Press

Why are you striking?

Jones: One, because I'm experiencing such high levels of discrimination and wage theft, but I know it's only going to get worse for the people that are coming behind me. I want to make sure that they don't have to experience what we are fighting against and that we can open more doors. Because there's already a huge barrier to entry to film and television for people who don't come from privilege and money. It takes a long time to break in and you're having to hustle and hustle and hustle. And if you don't have parents that can help you financially, a lot of people end up having to pivot and go to another career because it's not sustainable. So we want to make it so that, at the very least, it's sustainable once you get your foot in the door.

"It is wild in terms of how unable writers are to create and maintain a sustainable livable wage."

Fontana: I've loved TV and film since I was a little kid. Times and conditions change in every aspect of our society, but I think a mistake that some folks are coming to is this thinking that it's a bunch of elitist Hollywood mucky-mucks going, "I want more pay even though I'm already rich." The thing that has been sort of obfusticated previous to this fight is that it's actually really hard to make a living in this business at all anymore. I'm not saying like pay a mortgage [hard], it's like, I can't get a mortgage; can barely pay my rent. That has shifted as it has across all of society; it's harder for all of us.

. . . I'm showing up partly because I see how bad it's gotten for all of us. The middle class is hollowed out for everybody across the entirety of the United States. No matter what job you're doing the middle class is disappearing. And in the case of writers, it's making it impossible for the continuum of this job to grow.

There are not enough people coming up from the back end to fill the spots that are showrunners, and people who've been making this work for a long time, they're not getting an opportunity to do that work on sets. And it "happens to" coincide with a period of time where more queer folks, people of color, and more vulnerable people are coming up the ranks of writers. It's around the same time that they started going, "You know what, we're not going to give you guys all the stuff we used to give everybody else." That is also the same as the rest of the fight and that is highly suspicious to me.

Gómez: The biggest [reasons] in the television space have to do with the length of these writers' rooms and typical broadcast rooms before streaming really came into effect. The majority of those rooms lasted 30 to 40 weeks and what we're seeing right now are these mini rooms that can be as short as six weeks and as long as 20 weeks. Sometimes your shows aren't even guaranteed to be aired, and so these rooms are smaller and smaller.

There's also an incredible amount of inconsistency in terms of levels. Like there's not necessarily a clear pathway anymore. With each room, you get bumped, and with each bump, there's a higher pay. But we're seeing show writers make the same wages as story editors, depending on the context. It is wild in terms of how unable writers are to create and maintain a sustainable livable wage. It has sort of perpetuated this freelance gig economy.

Getty | Mel Melcon

What have you observed about the strike as a writer still trying to break into the entertainment industry?

Wake: There's a lot of uncertainty and confusion around the whole thing, but this is really fighting for everyone. I truly believe that this is an existential fight. Like if we don't do this, will we have this field in a few years? It's truly an existential fight for the writers and not just writers in TV, but novelists and other people, too, because who's to say they won't try to do the same thing for other fields? In general, this is sort of like the canary in the coal mine right now. Like can we make sure we keep the rights to tell human stories by humans? I feel like if we don't do this, then, once again, we're opening the floodgates for other people to say, "What can we get away with?"

Has social media had a positive impact on the grassroots organizing of the strike so far?

Wake: Absolutely. I've heard about a lot of the strike-like movements happening through social media. Social media has made this a lot easier. I could only imagine how this was done in 2007.

"That's another way that studios f*cked up because they've made us all powerful, knowledgeable people about the ways in which we've been screwed."

Jones:You can hear straight from the writers themselves rather than whatever is filtered through the press. . . . So with social media, you can hear directly from the writers rather than having to guess whether or not the depiction of what's going on is actually accurate.

Fontana: Yes I do. We're in such a different era now, particularly, because we have social media as such a fabric of our lives. It existed in a minor way then but people weren't going on MySpace being like, "My show's canceled." It's so much more a part of our lives now and individual writers on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are empowered to share their perspectives.

Also, I've never seen so many people whose job it is to actually write good scripts and we would love to just be able to do our job. But all of us now have become de facto experts on how we're being screwed over. That's another way that studios f*cked up, because they've made us all powerful, knowledgeable people about the ways in which we've been screwed.

What are your thoughts about the conversations around AI technology in the entertainment industry and how that may impact writers in the future?
Jones: It's so scary and dystopic. And I know it's not just going to affect the entertainment industry, AI is going to put a lot of people out of jobs. I kind of feel like the Writers Guild is really on the forefront of getting ahead of that fight.

But also, we're already seeing [studios] shrinking writers' rooms. There used to be writers' rooms of 17, 20 people. I've heard about three, four people, and I think the studios want to keep shrinking [them] until it's going to be one person and [AI chat bot] ChatGPT. And, of course, who are they going to keep as the people to fix these scripts? It's probably going to be the already established rich, white male showrunners. So people like me, we're going to be cut out of the industry.


What changes do you hope to see as a result of the strike?
Jones: Generally, we hope that screenwriting becomes a sustainable career again. Right now, it's a gig economy, and people who don't come from wealth and privilege can't afford to live gig to gig. So I hope that it becomes lucrative enough for us to be middle class again, at least. Maybe think about buying a house at some point.

I think it's going take these studios losing as much money as possible for them to come back to the table. I don't know what that point is or that threshold, but I do know that the studios do not all agree. They're not all on the same page as far as what things they're willing to negotiate on, so I do see a possibility of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers starting to splinter off and maybe some studios negotiating with us and signing a deal versus some others folding out.

"I think [studios] think we might peter out but we're not going to, we're just going to get angry."

Do you think the strike will last longer than the last one?
Jones: I don't know. Everybody that I know who was present for the 2007 strike does think this will last longer. I'm not quite sure why they think that. I think partially because we're fighting for more things, whereas the strike in 2007 was mainly about residuals. The streamers are not going to be, obviously, impacted on the consumer side as quickly because they already have things that are in the vault that they haven't released yet. It's going to be broadcast that suffers the quickest.

But it does seem like the studios are kind of shook already. The first week, they were already suspending people's deals and normally they don't do that that fast. We're shutting down productions and that's going to cost them a lot of money. So I could see it going faster than people expect, especially because there is so much solidarity between the unions.

Wake: There have been various talks about how long it's going to go but I don't know. It really depends on the willingness of the opposing party to really come and talk with everyone. . . . Right now it's all a toss-up. The common refrain is: it could be a week from now, it could be like six months now — nobody knows.

Fontana: Our last strike was a hundred days long and that was the shortest strike, so I think 100 days is the one to beat. Personally, I would love it to be resolved sooner. It's just getting hotter out there on the picket lines. We're showing up, we're shutting down productions in New York and LA and elsewhere. We're not going to stop doing any of that. I think [studios] think we might peter out but we're not going to, we're just going to get angry. We're going to be more desirous of seeing an end to this thing the longer this goes on. I hope it's not 100 days but we're ready for it to be 100 days if it has to be.

Editor's note: These interviews were conducted before the Directors Guild of America and AMPTP struck up their new tentative three-year labor contract on June 3, per The Hollywood Reporter.

These interviews have been condensed for length and clarity.