Above Photo: Writers protesting outside of Netflix’s towering corporate office. Jireh Deng.
It’s Part Of The Battle For Diversity And Inclusion In Hollywood.
For the first time in 15 years, 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike May 2, mostly asking for higher pay and better employment terms. But that’s not the end of the story.
When Caroline Renard moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago, she had zero connections to Hollywood. But she was determined all the same to break into the industry and did all sorts of side gigs — from working at Veggie Grill to driving for DoorDash and Lyft to babysitting — all to pay the bills while she worked on her craft.
And that hard work eventually paid off. She moved up from production assistant on set to an executive assistant at Disney before becoming a writer’s and showrunner’s assistant until she became a staff writer on a show. But throughout that decade breaking into Hollywood, she oftentimes noticed she was one of the few or only Black women in the room. She credits mentors and great bosses for championing her work, but she frequently felt like it was a battle just to be heard as a creator of color.
Today, Renard is a writer on Disney’s Secrets of Sulphur Springs and a union captain with the Writers Guild of America. But the golden era of streaming has officially burst—she was one of more than 11,500 writers and others who went on strike May 2 after their current contract expired and negotiations fell through with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (which represents the nine largest Hollywood studios).
Among the WGA’s demands: Restricting the use of artificial intelligence in writing, establishing transparency in viewership-based royalties, paying writers their weekly minimums during post-production of shows, and preserving a minimum staff of six writers with guaranteed employment for 10 consecutive weeks on prospective shows. These demands were all flat-out rejected by the major studios. And now production in Hollywood has essentially come to a screeching halt.
As negotiations deadlocked, the AMPTP released a statement, according to Deadline, that they had offered “generous increases in compensation for writers as well as increases in streaming residuals” and are open to further improve the current offer, but that they’ve been unable to concede to the WGA’s demands around “mandatory staffing” and “duration of employment.”
But writers like Renard aren’t willing to back down on the entirety of their demands at a moment that feels existential for her profession — and hope the WGA won’t back down either. “If we don’t change what’s broken now, writing won’t be a viable career,” says Renard. “There won’t be a middle class in this industry because writing has become a gig economy. It is not sustainable.”
Renard is referring specifically to the proliferation of mini rooms, smaller versions of full-scale writers rooms that have grown in popularity as streaming services like Netflix have flooded their platforms with high quantities of shows. Now, it’s more common to see shorter seasons (maybe 10 to 14-episodes) instead of the former broadcast seasons that would be longer and carry on for maybe 24 episodes in a season. These conditions, the WGA says, have sucked writers into the orbit of freelance work.
“The companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing,” the WGA stated in a public announcement about the strike.
With those smaller rooms and shorter hiring periods, many of the writers In These Times spoke to for this article said studios appear less likely to take chances on less experienced writers — that they’re more likely to stick to the old guard, a whiter, older and less diverse crowd. This is why Renard says the current conditions facing writers casts a shadow of doubt around Hollywood’s overall commitments towards diversity, equity and inclusion. (The AMPTP did not respond to a request for comment about that claim or other claims writers made in this article.)
While diversity is growing in Hollywood, people of color, especially Latinx creators, are still underrepresented, according to an annual Hollywood Diversity Report published each year by UCLA that disaggregates representation in Hollywood by race.
“Though people of color were approaching proportionate representation among cable and digital scripted leads, cable episodes directed, and credited cable writers, they remained underrepresented on every industry employment front during the 2020–21 television season,” according to the report.
As Renard explains to In These Times, it’s not just the general lack of representation, but the lack of compensation that can serve as a barrier to writers of color and those without economic means to persist in this industry. That’s why the WGA’s demand for higher wages is so important to Renard and many of the other writers of color In These Times spoke to for this piece.
During the pandemic, digital entertainment profits boomed, as global subscribership passed the one billion mark. But writers haven’t participated in the wealth that has flushed studio executives, investors and hedge fund markets. According to the WGA, nearly half of all writers are working at the minimum, up from 33% a decade ago, and their median income adjusted for inflation has fallen in that same period by 23%.
Meanwhile, studio executives like Netflix’s Greg Peters and Ted Sarandos had pay packages amounting to $28.1 million and $50.3 million in 2022, while Disney’s Bob Chapek saw his compensation double to $32.5 million in 2021 and Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav benefits and salary totaled $39.3 million for 2022.
Without fair pay and investment in diverse new talent, Renard says the industry will continue to marginalize diverse voices. “If we want more Quintas and more Issas and more Barry Jenkins and more Ryan Cooglers of the world. We need to pay people that work,” Renard emphasizes, referring to Quinta Brunson of Abbott Elementary, Issa Rae of Insecure, Barry Jenkins of Moonlight and Ryan Coogler of Black Panther.
“All those people are not going to happen because they’re not going to be able to afford to stay here to do the job and do the art,” Renard says.
Brittani Nichols knows this all too well. As a queer Black writer on the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning show, Abbott Elementary, her breakthrough moment in this industry is less of a celebration than one filled with a sense of dread because she doesn’t know if it will hold.
“[I] think, ‘Oh, man, this next job that I get I might go backward. I might not be moving up anymore,’” says Nichols. “I might at best be somewhere that’s like sort of stagnant and, more likely with streaming, end up making less than I have before.”
Nichols remembers the financial precarity she endured in order to achieve her success today. She spent two hours commuting by public transportation each way between Los Angeles and Santa Monica to her first writing job. And for years she lived month-to-month, pouring all the money she made back into creative projects that would hopefully lead to the next step in her career.
“Some people think of struggling artists as a trope, [but] they don’t think of television writers as part of it,” says Nichols. “Our demands dictate that the way that we’re paid keeps up with the way that television is made.”
Nichols says that the current structures in Hollywood grind creatives like themselves and make it feel like the studios are pushing profits over people. And she said that added financial stress might impact the quality of their work.
On the second day of the strike, hundreds of writers were gathered in front of studio headquarters throughout Los Angeles making their discontent heard. On a megaphone, writers were blasting Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” as employees drove into work at Paramount Pictures. While most were wearing blue union T-shirts in solidarity with the WGA, one writer, Jacob Tobia, had come to serve a piece of their mind in a glittery pink suit and crown.
Tobia was holding a sign that read “Gays 4 Pay” while chanting alongside their peers. Tobia said that as a non-binary writer, they’ve pitched and produced LGBTQ shows on HBO Max, Hulu, Showtime and other streaming platforms. But they’ve seen a concerning trend that diverse shows are often cut.
Autostraddle, a digital LGBTQ publication, has tracked nearly 700 queer shows in a database and found that 20% of queer-inclusive shows are canceled after one season. GLAAD tracks LGBTQ representation on television and found in their most recent report that cancellations have removed 24% of all LGBTQ characters.
Sapphic shows have drawn frustrated petitions from viewers. Netflix has a growing pile of canceled lesbian shows including First Kill, Atypical, Warrior Nun, and Teenage Bounty Hunters. On Amazon Prime, the popular comedy-drama series A League of Their Own featured a cast of queer women and women of color playing baseball in the 1940s was abruptly canceled after its first season and offered a truncated second season after months of negotiation between Sony Pictures Television and the showrunners Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham.
Bela Bajaria, chief content officer of Netflix, has championed the aggressive production of content flooding their subscription service. In an interview with The New Yorker in January, Bajaria shared that there isn’t room for shows that don’t immediately become hits. “At some point it’s, like, is the budget better spent on a next new thing?”
Writers, like many other creative professionals, take inspiration from their own lives. Those lived experiences often inform the material they write, the shows that are produced, and the representation that we see on our screens that ultimately informs our cultural and social fabric. Investing in diversity isn’t just feel-good virtue-signaling — it sells. The annual Hollywood Diversity Reports have found that shows and films with a diverse cast have, on average, higher ratings.
Take for example the smashing success of the underdog A24 film, Everything Everywhere All At Once which centers the experiences of a working-class Chinese immigrant mother and her queer daughter. The film has become A24’s highest-grossing film of all time and this year swept the Oscars.
Shows like Abbott Elementary, which features a predominately Black cast, have been lauded for their authentic and hilarious portrayals without resorting to stereotypes about Black children learning in an underfunded public school in Philadelphia. None of that would have been possible without the agency of Black writers and creators behind the camera.
But that journey where top showrunners —the equivalent of a director’s creative role on a movie set — would start as entry-level writers isn’t a linear path. It’s not just the lack of sustainable wages, but the fact that writers are becoming more distanced from the final product of their work. Unlike feature films, scripts for television have often been treated as a living document, with a writer ready on set to make changes to the needs of the show.
Nick Adams, a 50-year-old writer, has been on staff on hit shows like New Girl, Black-ish, and BoJack Horseman over the past roughly fifteen years. He’s noticed that younger writers aren’t being paid to be on set to advise directors and actors, which also means fewer of them are learning how to manage a production. And the Hollywood Diversity Report found that white women and showrunners of color are more likely to run sets with smaller budgets of less than $3 million in comparison with their white male peers.
Even writers like himself who have been established and respected for their contributions in the industry are starting to feel a squeeze as well. Adams tells In These Times that he still receives residuals — royalty checks from his time as a writer on New Girl, but that such checks are almost a thing of the past with writers being paid a flat-rate fee for domestic and foreign distribution in a streaming era.
At this stage in his career, uncertainty is still present. It’s only if he can score two writing positions or a broadcast show in one year that he can make sure that his family is squared away as comfortably upper middle class. But even that doesn’t mean all that much in Los Angeles, one of the most notoriously expensive cities to live in the country. The Los Angeles Times reported that now the average person needs to make more than $200,000 annually to afford a home mortgage.
David Slack, another established writer, has produced major shows like Teen Titans, MacGyver and Law & Order. He was on the picket line for the last major writers’ strike in 2007 when writers picketed for 100 days to ensure that streaming shows would be unionized. In 2019, Slack was one of the 7,000 writers who proceeded to fire their agents when agencies refused to meet the demands of the WGA.
He’s no stranger to this fight and knows that collective power is one of the few checks that writers have against the monopolized titan of the streaming studios.
“We have these billionaire robber barons who decide to buy the digital town square, and then turn it into some boastful playground,” says Slack. “The only power any labor organization has is the power to withhold our work.”
Renard is part of that cohort of Gen Z and millennial writers who are persistently working to move up the ranks in the WGA and in writers’ rooms. And she’s observed, they’re less likely to adhere to outdated ideas of so-called paying your dues and tolerating unpaid labor and more emboldened to speak up on the conditions of a workplace and less tolerant of the idea that one needs to suffer and pay their dues to make it.
And perhaps that’s why Adams thinks this strike, in particular, feels different than other ones before — with young and diverse people championing the labor movement not just within Hollywood, but across all industries.
This, to me, feels like the same sort of existential crisis of capitalism that is happening with teachers and support staff at schools, nurses, Starbucks baristas, Target employees, all across the country,” says Adams.
“Americans of all stripes are realizing that the system is not working for them,” he says. “The people didn’t get up and go to work and generate billions of dollars of profits for these massive corporations so they can’t afford to live a good life.”
Just a mile away from Paramount Pictures, writers last week were waving their strike banners with sassy slogans on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and North Van Ness Avenue outside Netflix’s office. Railing against the behemoth of their gleaming offices, the hidden masterminds of every hit television show were now demanding their due. Writers of all ages and backgrounds were marching in solidarity. Some had participated in the strike 15 years earlier, others were on strike as writing staff on the cusp of joining the WGA.
But there was a sense of jubilant solidarity as Teamsters and other drivers passing through honked in support of those on strike — one writer’s sign perfectly encapsulated the mood: “Eat the $tudios.”