Comment: Writers love their work, but love doesn’t pay the bills

The job and its pay has changed with streaming; producers need to honor writers’ concerns for their work.

By Kim Kelly / Bloomberg Opinion

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 percent 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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