From the outside, writing for television seems like a prestigious and glamorous job. These are the people working behind the scenes to create Hollywood magic. They’re the people who come up with the stories everyone’s talking about around the water cooler (or, maybe more accurately, on Slack). We might assume that those people enjoy, if not fame and fortune, at least comfort and stability. Yet that’s increasingly not the case—even for writers working on a bona fide, critically-acclaimed hit series.
“I have friends who believe, ‘Oh, Alex worked on The Bear, Alex is rich now. Alex can buy a car.’ And you know, I’m not. I’m broke,” writer Alex O’Keefe tells The A.V. Club. “[When] I won the WGA Award for The Bear for Outstanding Comedy Series, I had a negative bank account. My suit was bought by my family and friends, and my bowtie was bought on credit. All that glitters is not gold.”
O’Keefe is one of many members of the Writers Guild of America who took to Twitter to share his industry experience in the lead-up to the strike vote. Those who spoke up come from all over the industry—people who write for shows like Abbott Elementary, Shadow And Bone, Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj, XO Kitty, Roswell, New Mexico—and from every level of the business, from staff writer to showrunner. “Fun fact, when we made the YJ pilot, Bart [Nickerson] and I made a 40K production fee, split between the two of us, minus commissions (25%) and taxes, for 8 months of work,” Yellowjackets co-creator Ashley Lyle tweeted, shocking even her star Melanie Lynskey. (“The main thing any of us have to go on when choosing a project is the quality of the script. It’s everything,” Lynskey herself tweeted in support of the WGA. “There is no industry without writers. They deserve to be able to make a living!”)
Some writers have used their social media to help the average viewer understand how the state of television writing has fallen below equitable standards. Ashley Nicole Black (A Black Lady Sketch Show) and Brittani Nichols (Abbott) posted explanations about the lack of residuals in the streaming era. CSI: Vegas staff writer Dave Metzger shared that his experience in one of the dreaded streaming “mini rooms” ultimately led to being so underpaid that he fell behind on paying his WGA dues; despite rising to the level of staff writer, he’s had to take jobs outside the industry or accept work beneath him on the ladder to stay afloat.
“There are a handful of writers who make huge amounts of money. But a lot of us are struggling to make ends meet, and increasingly need to work other jobs just to afford rent and groceries,” Metzger shares with The A.V. Club. “I know many incredible writers who have been forced out of the business simply because they couldn’t make rent anymore. And, anecdotally, writers of underrepresented identities are disproportionately affected by these changes.”
With a historically high turnout and an overwhelming majority of guild members voting to authorize the WGA strike, negotiations with AMPTP (the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) will continue through May 1, when the current WGA contract expires. If the two groups don’t reach an agreement, the strike will be on—and these writers are explaining just why they voted in favor of that outcome.
The state of television in the streaming era
The “Writers Strike for Dummies” explanation of the current state of TV can be boiled down to this: profits are high and budgets are up, but writers are making less than ever. According to the WGA, half of all TV series writers are working for the guild’s Minimum Basic Agreement rate, regardless of their level of experience in the industry. And that MBA hasn’t been adjusted for inflation.
Plus, despite the fact that there’s more television than ever, there’s somehow less work. That’s because of the rise of miniseries and short-episode seasons. Writers are only being paid for 8-10 episodes of work. “[It] becomes, instead of a career of writing, it becomes a series of short-term gigs where the money you get you have to stretch out, and stretch out, and stretch out to make it for an entire year,” O’Keefe says. “And writers are going months, years, between projects.”
Many writers have tweeted about the concept of “mini rooms,” which Workaholics alum Alex Blagg describes as a “relatively new [phenomenon] that came with the arrival of the Netflix model” and has become increasingly common in the streaming era. These rooms tend to employ fewer staffers than in the past for shorter periods, meaning less work (and less money) all around.
A “mini room” can also refer to writers’ rooms in which entire seasons of television are written before production—or, sometimes, before the show is even given a green light—providing a loophole for companies to pay even more experienced writers the MBA rate, according to O’Keefe. This formula also prevents young writers from getting the chance to be on set, which is a “huge generational problem,” Blagg explains to The A.V. Club, “as this is how younger writers were able to learn the ins and outs of production so they could become producers and showrunners themselves someday.” So the mini room model not only cuts writers out of the profits, it hinders their ability to climb up the ladder and experience greater career stability.
But there’s something else insidious about the mini room model. Because some mini room projects never make it to series, that means companies have a backlog of projects that could be moved into production. It’s a way for streamers to bypass the effects of a strike, O’Keefe warns, “because they understand how screwed up the industry is and they understand that the writers are pissed, they’ve been stockpiling scripts in order to prepare for a massive work stoppage.”
One takeaway from the writers’ messages, on Twitter and beyond, is that nobody wants to strike. “Beyond just writers, there are many thousands of hardworking craftspeople—set dressers, hair and makeup, carpenters, and many more—who will be put out of work if we end up striking,” Metzger acknowledges. But as O’Keefe argues, those workers, and workers across every facet of the industry, have also been cut out of profits. “It’s not the writers who will be grinding Hollywood to a halt,” he says. “It’s the studios. It’s the network. It’s the six corporations who own 90% of the media industry, have received record profits, and shared none of it with any workers across any part of their machine. It’s a systemic issue.”
“We are the creators of a product that brings in billions in profits—and yet we’re treated as disposable gig workers,” Blagg tells The A.V. Club. “For us, this negotiation isn’t just about getting a little bump in our pay—it’s about addressing the existential issues that have made our entire career unsustainable.”
What does this all mean for the folks watching at home? “[If] the studios win, they will make more money for their shareholders, and in exchange, the quality of the movies and TV shows you like will go down,” Metzger says. “If we win, it will protect or even enhance access to writing as a career, which means better-written [and] produced TV and movies for you to enjoy; and more access for writers of underrepresented identities, which means richer and more diverse TV and movies for all of us.”
Additional reporting by Drew Gillis.