Outside Hollywood Studios, Writers Make Their Case5 min read
Ellen Stutzman, a senior Writers Guild of America official, stood on a battered patch of grass outside Netflix headquarters in Los Angeles. She was calm — remarkably so, given the wild scene unfolding around her, and the role she had played in its creation.
“Hey, Netflix! You’re no good! Pay your writers like you should!” hundreds of striking movie and television writers shouted in unison as they marched outside the Netflix complex. The spectacle had snarled traffic on Sunset Boulevard on Tuesday afternoon, and numerous drivers blared horns in support of a strike. Undulating picket signs, a few of which were covered with expletives, added to the sense of chaos, as did a hovering news helicopter and a barking dog. “Wow,” a Netflix employee said as he inched his car out of the company’s driveway, which was blocked by writers.
In February, unions representing 11,500 screenwriters selected Ms. Stutzman, 40, to be their chief negotiator in talks with studios and streaming services for a new contract. Negotiations broke off on Monday night, shortly before the contract expired. Ms. Stutzman and other union officials voted unanimously to call a strike, shattering 15 years of labor peace in Hollywood, and bringing the entertainment industry’s creative assembly lines to a grinding halt.
“We told them there was a ton of pent-up anger,” Ms. Stutzman said, referring to the companies at the bargaining table, which included Amazon and Apple. “They didn’t seem to believe us.”
The throng started a new chant, as if on cue. “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! This corporate greed has got to go!”
Similar scenes of solidarity unfolded across the entertainment capital. At Paramount Pictures, more than 400 writers — and a few supportive actors, including Rob Lowe — assembled to wave pickets with slogans like “Despicable You” and “Honk if you like words.” Screenwriting titans like Damon Lindelof (“Watchmen,” “Lost”) and Jenny Lumet (“Rachel Getting Married,” “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds”) marched outside Amazon Studios. Acrimony hung in the air outside Walt Disney Studios, where one writer played drums on empty buckets next to a sign that read, “What we are asking for is a drop in the bucket.”
Another sign goaded Mickey Mouse directly: “I smell a rat.”
But the strike, at least in its opening hours, seemed to burn hottest at Netflix, with some writers describing the company as “the scene of the crime.” That is because Netflix popularized and, in some cases, pioneered streaming-era practices that writers say have made their profession an unsustainable one — a job that had always been unstable, dependent on audience tastes and the whims of revolving sets of network executives, has become much more so.
The streaming giant, for instance, has become known for “mini-rooms,” which is slang for hiring small groups of writers to map out a season before any official greenlight has been given. Because it isn’t a formal writers room, the pay is less. Writers in mini-rooms will sometimes work for as little as 10 weeks, and then have to scramble to find another job. (If the show is greenlit and goes into production, fewer writers are kept on board.)
“If you only get a 10-week job, which a lot of people now do, you really have to start looking for a new job on day one” said Alex Levy, who has written for Netflix shows like “Grace and Frankie.” “In my case, I haven’t been able to get a writing job for months. I’ve had to borrow money from my family to pay my rent.”
Lawrence Dai, whose credits include “The Late Late Show with James Corden” and “American Born Chinese,” a Disney+ series, echoed Ms. Levy’s frustration. “It feels like an existential moment because it’s becoming impossible to build a career,” he said. “The dream is dead.”
Studio executives have largely maintained public silence, instead leaving communication to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on their behalf. In statements, the organization has said its goal was a “mutually beneficial deal,” which was “only possible if the guild is committed to turning its focus to serious bargaining” and “searching for reasonable compromises.”
On Monday, when talks broke down, the organization said the companies had made an offer that included “generous increases in compensation for writers.” The primary sticking points, it added, were union proposals that would require companies to staff television shows with a certain number of writers for a specified period of time, “whether needed or not.”
Samantha Riley, whose credits include “Hacks” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” started to breathe fire on the Netflix picket line when the conversation turned to the offer made by the companies. (The union made the proposals public.) “I’m offended by the offer,” Ms. Riley said. “It’s horrendous.”
In particular, writers were irate about the manner in which studios responded to their concerns about the impact of artificial intelligence on the future of screenwriting. The W.G.A. wants studios to agree to protections that guarantee A.I. will not encroach on writers’ credits and compensation. The studios rejected the proposal, instead suggesting an annual meeting on advances in technology.
“Radicalized might be too strong of a word, but the studios, by doing that, made people even more unified,” said Tom Szentgyorgi, whose credits range from “The Mentalist” to “NYPD Blue.”
First-day enthusiasm notwithstanding, writers will find it no small task in coming weeks to block a production apparatus that, in the Los Angeles area alone, is spread across more than 100 studio facilities, several hundred postproduction houses and numerous location shoots that move from day to day. Hollywood’s most recent strike, in 2007, stretched for more than three months. The 2007 strike was in winter, when daytime temperatures in Los Angeles are in the 60s. The upcoming summer in Burbank, however, means 100 degree days, day after day.
Irene Turner, a veteran of the 2007 strike, was a bit weary after three hours of trudging in the sun outside Disney on Tuesday. But she was nowhere close to calling it quits. “This is super good for me because I sit on my butt on a laptop,” she said.
Ms. Turner, whose credits include the 2017 Netflix film “The Most Hated Woman in America,” called the strike “necessary and miserable,” adding that “a lot of people will get hurt.” The 2007 strike cost the Los Angeles economy an estimated $2.1 billion, with small businesses supporting television and film production also crunched.
Kevin Yee, an actor (“Dickinson”) turned screenwriter who was pumping his sign up and down furiously outside Warner Bros., said he was nervous about how long a strike could last.
“It felt like the producers wanted us to strike,” Mr. Yee said. “They’ve stopped greenlighting a lot of things in anticipation of this. So there wasn’t a lot for me to do anyways. With the current state of things, there is no hope for this industry unless they step up and they make this a sustainable career. So to me, I have nothing to lose.”
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