The Writers Guild of America is now in week three of its nationwide strike. Two key sticking points in negotiations: residual payments and the use of artificial intelligence.
Members of the Writers Guild of America East hold signs on the picket line outside of HBO and Amazon’s offices on May 10, 2023 in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
Last Friday afternoon on a street in Brooklyn, a group of people were picketing. It was over 80 degrees out, and the sun bore down on the group as we slowly circled in front of a gate that provides entry to Broadway Stages, a Greenpoint soundstage where the television show FBI: Most Wanted was in production.
Affixed to the gate was a piece of paper that read: “You are crossing a picket line (cool!)” The site has become one of the recurring picket locations for the Writers Guild of America (WGA) East, which is now entering its third week of a nationwide strike. The 11,500 members of the guild and its counterpart on the West Coast stopped working after negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) broke down on May 1, with the studios rejecting several key proposals from the writers without offering any counterproposals.
On May 5, three WGA members shut down production on the TV series Evil, which was then being shot at Broadway Stages. Staying until 1:30 a.m., the writers maintained a picket line that members of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) refused to cross. Starlee Kine, who has written for Search Party and Dave, was one of those picketers.
“From what I understand, it was one of the last days they were shooting for the season, and that’s why they were trying to get it done,” explains Kine. “But none of this is against individual shows. It’s about the studios.”
Kine notes that she was a casualty of the same shareholder-first model studios are using to undermine working conditions in the job she worked before entering the television industry: podcasting. It didn’t matter if Mystery Show, which she hosted, was a success, she says, because executives saw shows like hers as merely one part of an extensive portfolio.
Kine was back at the Broadway Stages picket on Friday, but the scene wasn’t as victorious. While some of the IATSE members on the Dick Wolf project refused to cross the picket line, others did, and production continued.
The issues that led writers to strike have now been covered extensively. But as the strike has progressed, one in particular that has captured particular attention is the matter of artificial intelligence (AI). The WGA wants to regulate the use of the technology, proposing that AI “can’t write or rewrite literary material” or be “used as source material.” The AMPTP doesn’t agree.
While I marched in the picket line, I thought about a billboard I had seen in lower Manhattan the previous day. It was for a product called Writer, advertised as “enterprise AI,” which can be found at writer.com. “AI your people will love,” the billboard promised.
“It’s a tool like anything else,” Devin Delliquanti told me when I brought up the technology. Delliquanti, who writes for The Daily Show, noted that despite how many discuss AI, it is not AI that is replacing people’s jobs; it is executives choosing to replace people’s jobs with AI who are doing that.
He pulled up a screenshot on his phone. On the first day of the strike, he had asked ChatGPT, “Do WGA writers deserve a fair deal?” The AI tool answered as follows:
Yes, WGA writers deserve a fair deal. Writers are an essential part of the entertainment industry and are responsible for creating the stories and characters that audiences love. They deserve to be compensated fairly for their work, including receiving proper credit, residuals and health care benefits.
The Writers Guild of America is a labor union that represents writers in the entertainment industry, including television, film, and new media. . . . Some of the issues that WGA has fought for on behalf of its members include fair compensation for streaming content, protection of writers’ creative rights, and fair pay and working conditions for writers on reality television shows. Ultimately, a fair deal for WGA writers benefits not only the writers themselves, but also the entire industry by promoting creativity, innovation, and quality storytelling.
“What that tells me is that all AI is doing is copying what writers say,” said Delliquanti. “So we’re trying to get protections now before it’s too late.”
The intellectual property (IP) era in entertainment — think the never-ending stream of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — is related to the trends that writers are pushing back against, not only AI but labor cost-cutting more generally (while not, of course, reducing CEO compensation). The industry is run by people whose expertise is in reducing labor costs, not only by squeezing union workers, but by offshoring visual effects work too. They do not have experience actually making films and television. It’s no wonder, then, that so much of the entertainment they produce is lackluster.
Film critic A. S. Hamrah made a similar argument in a piece about the strike. “In the age of IP, the writing has already happened,” writes Hamrah. “The intellectual property already exists. And it is highly protected by copyright law and by contracts that secure sequel rights, remake rights, and every other kind of ancillary right.”
“Even with those IPs, writers can tell innovative stories. But you need writers all across the industry in order to tell the non-tentpole things,” Delliquanti told me. (In the industry, a “tentpole” is a big-budget film that can be reliably expected to generate enough revenue to make up for riskier projects). And it may be the case that television is different from films: after all, many people speak of television’s golden age as including recent hits such as The White Lotus.
But what’s at stake in the WGA strike overlaps with what would be required for more risk-taking on small- to mid-budget projects: the absolute number of working writers, with incomes that offer the stability needed for such undertakings.
“You need a base of middle-class writers who are able to stay in the industry in order to do that,” says Delliquanti. “You have to keep that base of writers with things like residuals, and keeping that base will prevent the industry from becoming solely giant, tentpole movies, written by two or three people who are successful while the rest of the writers are struggling.”
Another recurring topic of conversation on the picket line is the fast-approaching expiration of contracts for other Hollywood workers: the members of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). Both unions’ contracts with the AMPTP expire on June 30, and negotiations for the former have begun (the latter begins bargaining with the studios on June 7).
“This year’s negotiations are about more than reaching a fair agreement for the next three years — they’re about setting the course for the future of our industry,” said DGA president Lesli Linka Glatter in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter before bargaining began. She outlined the union’s priorities, which include issues around streaming distribution, residuals, cost-of-living allowances, the union’s pension and health plans, training, diversity and inclusion, and the length of workdays.
While those priorities overlap with the ones that led the writers to strike, there is trepidation in the WGA’s ranks regarding the directors’ negotiations. The DGA struck a deal with the studios during the last writers’ strike, increasing friction between the two unions which continues to this day. (The DGA hasn’t struck since 1987, and even then, the strike lasted less than one day.) The directors’ organization put out a statement in support of the WGA a week before the strike began, but thus far, the only news from the bargaining table is a statement released on May 10, the first day of bargaining, in which both sides state that they have agreed to a media blackout for the duration of negotiations.
As for SAG-AFTRA, their members have been a dependable presence on WGA picket lines, with SAG-AFTRA staffers handing signs out to their members. For the actors, AI is a pressing issue, as are residuals and higher wages.
But some of the union’s rank and file were unsettled by a quote from SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher, made as she was on a WGA picket line at Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles. Asked by Deadline about her union’s upcoming negotiations, Drescher said, “I don’t think that what’s very important to writers . . . is the kind of stuff that we’re going after.”
In response, some SAG members have begun urging fellow actors to push for a strike authorization vote to show the studios that they, too, are ready to stop working if that’s what it takes to win a strong contract.
“The issue of residuals for streaming that writers are facing is also a problem for actors,” says Ellen Adair, who has worked on shows including Homeland, The Sinner, and Billions. Adair said that one actor-specific issue has been the move to have actors self-tape auditions rather than physically going to an audition, a pandemic-era change that saves producers money by shifting the cost of auditioning onto actors.
“Self-taping has been great for some actors, but it has not been great for me,” says Adair. “I really miss the opportunity to connect with casting directors in the room, I miss the opportunity to get some information about the thing that I’m auditioning for, and it passes the expense to the actor.”
That desire for community was one reason she was on the picket line in Greenpoint on Friday. “I feel strongly about a lot of the things that the writers are striking over, from making sure that they have a minimum number of writers in a writers’ room to regulating AI. But also, it’s just nice to be out here with people I admire,” said Adair. Our conversation was cut short when a friend of hers, a WGA member, arrived on the picket line. The picketers had gotten a bit quiet, so we stopped talking and went back to chanting.Original post