On Tuesday, the first day of the strike by the members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), a tweet posted by writer Emily St. John Mandel went viral. It featured a photograph of a picket sign bearing a tongue-in-cheek threat: “Pay Your Writers or we’ll spoil SUCCESSION.”
The words were presumably written by a striking television or film writer, like myself, who has been left to apply their creative talent to sign-length slogans. The specific threat was (probably?) fake, but the overall point holds: Writers are central to storytelling in entertainment, and when you treat us unfairly, there will be consequences.
As someone who hates conflict but loves fairness, I felt a twinge of anxiety in joining the picket line. I don’t think I was the only one. In fact, if it were up to the writers, we wouldn’t have had to strike at all. When the WGA began its negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the group representing Hollywood studios, the goal was a fair contract that would help writers maintain sustainable careers. Taken together, the measures we asked for amounted to roughly 2 percent of the profits made by the studios—and the increasingly consolidated corporations behind them—from the work we do. Given the fact that those profits would literally not be possible without our writing, this didn’t seem like a lot to ask for. But the AMPTP never got close to offering that kind of an agreement, offering only about 20 percent of the additional money we asked for, and refusing to engage with several of our core proposals. So, with an overwhelming 97.85 percent approval by voting members, we decided to strike.
The conditions that caused this strike (the first by the WGA since the 2007–08 walkout) have been percolating for years. While overall production budgets have risen sharply, writer pay has declined by 4 percent over the past decade—23 percent when adjusted for inflation. The shift of film and television to streaming has meant lower residuals (the money writers get paid when their shows are re-aired) and shorter seasons. The proliferation of so-called “mini-rooms”—where small writing staffs often work on a show before it is green-lighted—has many writers taking short-term jobs for less than their established rate. Nearly 50 percent of writers are working for the minimum salary, compared to 33 percent 10 years ago. To paraphrase Chris Rock, the bosses would love to pay us even less, but they’re not legally allowed to. And people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQIA community are impacted the most.
What makes this so frustrating is that the money for what we’re asking is readily available. Implementing the WGA proposals would net total yearly gains of $429 million for 20,000 writers. Netflix, Paramount, Comcast, Disney, Fox, and Warner Bros reported a total of $28–30 billion in operating profit each year from 2017–21. In 2021 alone, eight Hollywood CEOs pocketed nearly $780 million between them.
These companies are not pivoting to streaming because they have a passion for innovative technology. They’re doing it because it’s profitable. Claiming that they can’t pay us fairly because they’ve chosen to distribute our work on an app rather than a television channel is disingenuous. They can, but so far they have refused.
The proposals the AMPTP put forth reveal deeply regressive priorities: stripping away protections for long-term employment (and attempting to create a single-day rate for comedy/variety writers); refusing to grant a fair share of profits for streaming content; and allowing writers’ rooms to continue shrinking thanks to contracting writing budgets and the specter of AI-driven scripting. At every opportunity, the studios are prioritizing shareholder greed and trying to turn writing into an unstable gig-economy profession.
All of that explains why I and so many of my colleagues are making ourselves uncomfortable on the picket line. Fortunately, as I learned, the line itself is not about conflict. That takes place at the negotiating table. The line is about solidarity, both from within our membership and from the members of numerous other unions who have voiced support for our guild. It’s about affirming our worth within our industry and our commitment to an equitable future for ourselves and for the writers who will come after us. Through this unity, as much as through conflict, we will demonstrate and wield the strength to get what we deserve. That is the power solidarity gives us.
That, and the fact that a select few within our ranks could, if they so choose, spoil the end of Succession. For our sake—and for yours—let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
Correction: This piece initially said that eight Hollywood CEOs earned over $773 million between them in 2022. In fact, they earned nearly $780 million in 2021.