In today’s Finshots, we explain why almost every film and TV writer in the US have gone on strike.

The Story

We’re living in an era of ‘Peak TV’ — In 2021, we had 559 shows across channels (cable, streaming etc) compared to just 210 shows in 2009!

Everyone wants more content. And studios are throwing money at ambitious new productions. This means they need to hire more writers who can create original scripts and tell stories that’ll keep people on the edge of their seats, right?

On the face of it, it seems to be a great time to be a writer in Hollywood.

But no. Writers are angry. They say the studio bosses are making all the money — such as the CEO of Warner Bros Discovery who made $250 million last year. Meanwhile, most writers are barely making ends meet. They feel that they are undervalued despite the fact that it’s their content which rakes in millions of dollars for studios.

So, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), a union of nearly 10,000 film and TV writers, decided to resort to the age-old tradition of going on strike till their demands are met. And just like that, some of your favourite shows could be in jeopardy — production of Stranger Things and Cobra Kai have been temporarily paused.

What’s really going on here, you ask?

Well, it’s almost always about money. Or what they call residuals in TV parlance.

See, back in the days of TV, once a show crossed 100 episodes, it would be open for syndication. This simply meant that multiple TV networks such as Comedy Central, TBS, or CBS could air it. It was the holy grail for a TV show because this meant that it was a huge success that everyone wanted to broadcast. And each time the show was re-aired or re-used, people who were part of the show would rake in money.

For instance, the cast of Friends make roughly $20 million a year from residuals. Even the writers get a share of the revenue pie. It’s a nice chunk of passive income from a show that ended nearly 20 years ago.

But things have changed. Streaming has disrupted how residuals are paid. You see, shows don’t get syndicated on TV channels because everyone has their own platforms with original content. And because the show is available at the click of a button forever, streaming services only pay a fixed residual fee. It doesn’t matter how successful the show is too. The amount is set in stone.

That’s not making the writers too happy.

Then there’s the worry that writing is becoming more like gig work.

See, before the rise of streaming, most series’ would typically have a 22-episode season. Look at shows like Friends, How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory. Writers would be employed to work on that show for at least 10 months in a year. They’d maybe see how the audience was reacting to each episode and tweak the next one accordingly. It was a live adaptation.

But that’s not the case any more. And that’s because platforms like Netflix run smaller seasons that usually span just 8–10 episodes that are published in one shot. So the period of employment has fallen to just about 20–24 weeks now. And writers make less money because of that.

There’s something else that’s happening too. And that’s to do with career progression for writers. Studios these days keep things in silos. They hire just a small group of writers to work on a particular episode or two. They call it the mini-room. This then gets passed along to a more experienced showrunner — the ones who have creative control of a TV show.

The end result is that writers miss the experience of being on set, editing, and learning other nuances of what it takes to run a show. The progression from writer to showrunner is missing and it hurts the growth of one’s career.

They want this practice to change.

And finally, there’s also AI.

See, artificial intelligence is everywhere already. It’s taking away jobs at a fast clip. And that includes the creative industry. Feed it a few lines of text and it can create stories, music, and even movie trailers for that matter. Everyone’s feeling the heat.

And there might be some of you saying that AI simply can’t beat human creativity. But we know that’s simply not true. Ask it to write a sci-fi story in the style of PG Wodehouse and it’ll give you exactly that. And that’s the crux of the matter — AI needs something to feed on. And the AI fodder is all the past content created by humans over centuries. It then simply mimics all this to tell new stories.

So if AI can generate amazing TV and movie scripts, it’s simply because it’s banking on the works of thousands of writers from the past. They say it’s intellectual property theft. And the writers don’t even get paid any sort of ‘training fee’ when someone’s using their material for their own profits.

That’s exactly what writers don’t want. They want to protect all their content. And they’re saying that past writing material shouldn’t be used as training material for AI.

Now here’s the thing, everyone knows that it’s good writing which sells. It doesn’t matter if it’s a star-studded affair or is part of a marquee series. You can’t save bad writing.

Remember the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace from 2008? Well, that was bang in the middle of a writers’ strike. And if you don’t remember the movie all that well, no one will blame you. Because guess what… Daniel Craig and the director had to step in to do the job at the end of the day.

And as Craig put it, “On ‘Quantum,’ we were f****d. We had the bare bones of a script and then there was a writers’ strike and there was nothing we could do. We couldn’t employ a writer to finish it. I say to myself, ‘Never again,’ but who knows? There was me trying to rewrite scenes — and a writer I am not.’”

The same thing happened with the second instalment of the Transformer’s movie series. It simply didn’t do well.

But the problem is that despite knowing all of this, it seems like each time the landscape changes, writers have no option but to band together and demand their rights.

For instance, the first strike way back in 1960 was to ensure that writers would get a share of profits when TVs picked up a movie to run on the tiny screen. Then in 1973, it was when Cable TV emerged. In the 1980s, writers went on strike to get a share of royalties on sales of home video cassettes. Then in 2008, it was about residuals from DVD sales and trying to ensure that they’d make money from the future of streaming too.

And all these times, going on strike was the only thing that apparently helped their cause. There was no other way out.

So yeah, that’s why after 15 years, writers are back on the streets again. They want fair pay for giving us all some fabulous content to binge on.

Until then…

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