Hollywood's Striking Writers: Why Wouldn't They?

Professor in American Film, Television and Cultural History, Dr Karen McNally comments on the recent strike action that has brought Hollywood to a standstill.

Date: 6 October 2023

 It can’t have escaped the notice of many that Hollywood has for several months been on strike, leaving film and television productions on pause, live shows cancelled, and forthcoming projects delayed. Here’s a quick summary of the current state of play regarding negotiations between the professional Guilds and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP): 

– Members of SAG-AFTRA (the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) withdrew their labour in July. This strike is ongoing.  

– The Writers Guild of America (WGA) began its strike in May and struck a deal on 27 September, making this the second-longest dispute since the Guild was formed as a merging of East and West Coast unions in 1954. Members have now returned to work.  

– The Directors Guild of America (DGA) agreed a new contract in June without going on strike. This strategy arguably turned out to be a fail when the industry was shut down by the other Guilds who, in turn, have reportedly since gained greater benefits for their members than were achieved by the DGA. 

What unites the actions of the Guilds is two key issues: the uncertainty around the use of artificial intelligence and ownership of professionals’ creative product, identity and image; and reward for their work, in wages and, in particular royalties or residuals (money earned from repeat screenings, alternative formats etc). If you’re tempted to feel little sympathy for those who work in Hollywood, remember that the people you’ve heard of (and probably few of these will be writers) are not the ones routinely damaged by the industry’s historically poor treatment of those whose work is the creative basis of its existence.  

Try riding around Los Angeles in a few Ubers, and it soon becomes clear how many writers, directors and actors are sustaining themselves financially by today’s equivalent of the waitressing and barista jobs of past mythology, even after working on successful, long-running shows. Residuals have repeatedly been at the crux of disputes going back as far as the 1960 WGA strike followed by action taken related to VHS and DVD sales.  

In recent years, streaming has provided opportunities for the producers to make huge profits while limiting creator benefits to those related to theatrical release or to a small percentage, exacerbating the unequal distribution of reward. This time, however, the WGA has been determined to cut the producers off at the pass, and collective action with SAG-AFTRA has certainly realised results. This became the second-longest writers’ strike in Hollywood history, and the low-production years of the pandemic will have prompted the studios to broker a deal and get films and TV shows up and running again, despite their natural inclination to play hardball.  

The WGA is reporting a settlement at nearly three times the original offer from AMPTP, ensuring that the key issues have been addressed for professionals working in the industry as it moves forward. The writers also – inevitably – won the public relations game. From the erudite picket line interviews, to the creative placards – ‘I like your offer as much as you like an angry female lead’ might be my favourite – to actors including Jon Hamm and Jessica Chastain hitting the streets in support, the Hollywood writers could only ever have the upper hand. Talk show hosts including Seth Meyers, John Oliver and Jimmy Kimmel set up the podcast ‘Strike Force Five’ that feasted on backstage tales of late-night while simultaneously sustaining their crews financially through the course of the dispute.  

The producers gave them no competition at all. Disney CEO Bob Iger, whose contract provides him with possible earnings of $25 million a year, described the announcement of strike action as ‘very disturbing’ (without considering that to be the point), and commented on the writers and actors: ‘There’s a level of expectation that they have that is just not realistic.’ Following the recent battle between the mouse and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Iger managed to remind liberal audiences why Disney was never really one of the good guys. The conciliatory tone attempted in August via Iger’s ‘deep respect’ for the industry’s creative professionals was little and late.  

In Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard, its protagonist screenwriter Joe Gillis played by William Holden bemoans the status of writers in Hollywood: ‘Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.’ Wilder and his co-writer Charles Brackett knew well of what they wrote. The cult of the (male) director of the last 60 years has only pushed writers further into the background. Maybe this sustained action will remind audiences that nothing exists without the story and the script. In the case of producers, we live in hope. 

The famous 'Hollywood' sign atop the Hollywood Hills