The WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) is represented by nearly 12,000 screenwriters across the United States. It comprises television, motion pictures, cable, and digital media writers. These screenwriters represent eight major film studios: Netflix, Disney, Paramount, Discovery, Apple, Warner Bros., NBC Universal, and Sony.
These screenwriters work on tight deadlines to produce scripts for the film studios. They gather work, writing and revising scripts in writers’ rooms. Writers’ rooms are widely used in the US and can range from two to thirty writers per room. “Mini-rooms” are, as indicated by the name, a miniature version of a writers’ room, often for smaller shows with smaller budgets that are paid less.
Every three years, the WGA negotiates with the major film studios listed above to ensure that the writers receive fair wages and other means of compensation regarding the production and licensing of their work. There are also pension and health benefits for their members. In recent history, the WGA has negotiated higher compensations for writers and increases in pension and health contributions from film studios. The WGA was founded in 1954 and has since had six strikes, growing to a member count of over 11,500 writers across America.
What caused the strike?
On March 14, the WGA released an article titled “Writers Are Not Keeping Up,” reaching national headlines. This article, in summary, stated how writers needed to catch up as the value of their work decreased as the fast-paced industry sprinted ahead. Factors such as too little pay, the threat of artificial intelligence replacing their jobs, insufficient staffing, and inadequate writing spaces were enunciated in the article.
“On TV staffs, more writers are working at minimum regardless of experience, often for fewer weeks, or in mini-rooms, while showrunners are left without a writing staff to complete the season,” stated the article, “And while series budgets have soared over the past decade, median writer-producer pay has fallen.”
According to the article, in the last decade, although the costs for television shows and movies have been on the rise, the median writer’s weekly pay has fallen by over 23%.
“The companies have leveraged the streaming transition to underpay writers, creating more precarious, lower-paid models for writers’ work. Our 2023 negotiations must significantly address writer compensation.” The article concludes with a promise to writers: a satisfactory deal must be made with fair compensation, or a strike will be called.
The WGA failed to reach a satisfactory deal with the AMPTP; thus, on May 2, 11,500 screenwriters of the WGA went on strike.
The WGA stated that during the strike, writers cannot “do any writing, revising, pitching, or discussing future projects with companies that are members of the AMPTP.” They could not respond to notes or attend meetings related to their work. The idea was to strip the film studios of their workers to demonstrate their significance and value, thus improving the chances of reaching a fair negotiation.
What did they ask for?
- The WGA asked for an annual minimum pay increase of 5 to 6 percent. The average yearly screenwriting salary was $110,000.
- Safeguards against AI are only used as an idea generator, not a replacement. AI was a huge factor in the writers’ requests, who worried that the studios would take advantage of the AI machines and avoid paying the writers. The writers demanded that AI could not be used to write or rewrite scripts.
- Higher residual pay. Residuals are financial compensation for writers when their work gets reused. A decade ago, a writer would receive huge compensations for a rerun of their work. Due to streaming services, films and TV shows will stay on the media platform indefinitely for viewers to watch and rewatch again. Because streaming services are not entirely transparent with viewership, writers do not know exactly how much attention their work receives, especially after a long time, possibly reducing their pay.
What is happening now?
- The writer’s strike ended on September 27 after reaching a tentative deal with the film studios. The new deal encompassed what the writers asked for:
- Regarding artificial intelligence, “AI can’t write or rewrite literary material, and AI-generated material will not be considered source material under the MBA, meaning that AI-generated material can’t be used to undermine a writer’s credit or separated rights.” stated the WGA in their official deal terms. Film studios cannot edit or rewrite scripts the screenwriters have produced using AI. AI cannot be cited as a source for screenwriting, preventing film studios from avoiding paying the screenwriters what they deserve.
- Regarding minimum wages, the WGA demanded a 6% increase this year, followed by 5% next year and 5% in 2025. The AMPTP offered a 4%-3%-2% deal. They ultimately negotiated a 5%-4%-3.5% minimum wage increase. The Warner Bros. Discovery stated in early September that the double strike would cost the company nearly $500 million in the coming year
- Regarding residuals, the WGA and AMPTP negotiated residual bonuses for shows viewed by 20% of the streaming service in the first 90 days. Both viewership-based and subscriber-based residual deals were made. The companies agreed to provide the WGA with the streaming hours of “self-produced high-budget streaming programs.” This would mean that no “back-end residuals” would escape.
- Pension and health benefits were also included in the new contract.
The original contract proposed by the WGA would have cost the film studios approximately $429 million annually. In contrast, the agreement proposed by the AMPTP would have cost a mere $86 million a year. The final negotiation would cost the film studios $233 million annually.
However, the writer’s strike has not only affected the writing and film industry. It has also dealt a 5-million dollar blow to California’s economy. Small businesses indirectly related to the film studios (catering businesses, car rental services, etc.) have been severely impacted.
This is because the studios and office buildings generate most of the business for the restaurants and other shops. In contrast, the 2008 writers’ strike cost California’s economy $2.1 million, lasting precisely 100 days.
The 2023 Hollywood writers’ strike kickstarts a new era: human writers versus artificial intelligence. The question is this: what values do human writers have that artificial intelligence cannot bring to film studios, and how long will it last?