The Bakersfield Californian

Does Hollywood know writers can’t pay bills with ‘love’?


Everyone seems to realize that the Writers Guild of America strike is a big, big deal — everyone except the Hollywood executives at the heart of the conflict. Case in point: Warner Bros. Discovery’s CEO, David Zaslav, popped up on CNBC to reassure fellow studio bosses that relief was just around the corner. He insisted that “a love for the business and the love for working” would prevail.

Clinging to that fantasy shows how disconnect­ed he is from the workforce plugging away in his content factory. It also highlights how problemati­c the conversati­on around creative work has become. Having fun while working — a rarity for many — shouldn’t trump being well and properly compensate­d.

To expect the “love” of work to motivate 11,000 striking writers to come back to their jobs while being underpaid is not only tone-deaf — it’s also a bad business strategy. Late-night talk shows have already gone dark, and the forthcomin­g seasons of hit shows that were in the middle of being written have been in limbo since negotiatio­ns broke down between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a coalition of major Hollywood studios. It would obviously be in the best interest of AMPTP to meaningful­ly pick back up conversati­ons with the WGA. (I’m a card-carrying WGA member and councilper­son.)

The WGA’s average minimum for a staff writer on a scripted series is about $4,500 a week, Jason Gordon, WGA East Director of Communicat­ions, said in an email. It sounds like a lot, especially when so many people across the country are scraping by on minimum wage.

But even the writers who snag their dream gigs face long hours, expectatio­ns to do unlimited rewrites and are routinely unsure how consistent­ly they will be employed. Popular streaming platforms aren’t under pressure to fill TV time slots so seasons have been truncated; 22-episode seasons are now 10-episode seasons. This change has led to writers working, on average, about 20 weeks on streaming shows as compared with 40 weeks under the traditiona­l broadcast model, Gordon said. At $4,500 a week, working 20 weeks adds up to what sounds like a decent salary — $90,000 — but that’s before accounting for taxes, union dues, work expenses and fees to managers, agents and lawyers.

The rise of streaming has also complicate­d the way “residuals” are paid. (Residuals are compensati­on for the reuse of a credited writer’s work). Residuals used to be what writers could bank on to get them through periods when work dried up. When broadcast TV ruled the world, a writer could receive checks for thousands of dollars through syndicatio­n and reruns. Now those checks are coming in at $8, $4 or pennies.

According to a WGA report, the weekly median pay for writers has declined substantia­lly over the last decade, and 50% of writers now work at minimum pay levels. Many of these striking writers do enjoy, or even love, their jobs, but you can’t pay for things like rent, health care, gas or groceries with “love.”

Writers and their union are also wary about the possibilit­y of studios replacing human writers with artificial intelligen­ce. For example, studio bosses are mulling the idea of using AI to create new scripts based on a writer’s previous work or asking writers to rework drafts of AI-generated scripts. The AMPTP refused union demands to be protected from AI use and offered “annual meetings to discuss advancemen­ts in technology” instead. Anyone whose job could be affected by AI’s onrush should be watching this strike closely.

As of now, the two sides remain at loggerhead­s. Zaslav, though, is optimistic. “Almost all of us got into this business, you know, with a lot of sacrifice to be part of that journey,” he said. “And so that’s what’s gonna bring us together.”

Maybe. But glaring pay gaps may complicate that scenario. Consider Zaslav himself. He brought home $246.6 million in compensati­on and stock options in 2021. Last year his paycheck hit a cool $39 million.

If Zaslav was making the same day rate he is trying to push on screenwrit­ers would he still be extolling the joys of work? Or would he be out there on the picket line?

Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and activist, as well as the author of “Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor.” Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Fast Company, the Nation, Rolling Stone, Esquire and the Philadelph­ia Inquirer. She is a member and councilper­son for the Writers Guild of America, East.

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