There may be a handful of people wondering why Saturday Night Live wasn’t able to do its episode with Pete Davidson this week, or why Seth Meyers and other late night hosts had to recently run repeat episodes, or why the women on The View lacked the witty insights that they sometimes show in their conversations.
Okay, maybe it’s fewer than a handful of people wondering this. In any case, these things are happening because the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has gone on strike. They are demanding a pay increase, steadier employment, and a commitment to not use AI bots to write scripts.
The last time Hollywood writers went on such a strike was over 15 years ago, in 2007-2008. Although their demands were more or less the same as today, they inhabited a much different media environment. Those were the days of big movie franchises (Marvel, Harry Potter, and the Disney princesses), popular TV series on the mainstream networks (The Office, CSI, Law and Order), and the rise of peak TV (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire). Although reality television and gameshows threatened to replace scripted entertainment, collective burnout started to set in at that point. As for streaming services, they didn’t really exist yet—Netflix was using snail mail to send out DVDs to people who were still overcoming the trauma of Blockbuster Video.
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Writers of those days had some leverage, and their absence was felt by most people. According to some estimates, the Los Angeles economy lost over $2 billion because major film studios and ancillary businesses were forced to shut down. In the end, the strike was largely successful, as writers were able to have better compensation for their work and were included in upcoming streaming productions.
This time around, the media climate is not quite as friendly to writers. Even though the demand for them is still high, if not higher with the involvement of new production companies like Amazon and Apple, there is not the same amount of profit to be made from scripted entertainment. Furthermore, most people now watch their favorite shows and movies through various streaming platforms, an altogether different model for media. Not only does this mean that certain shows and movies may not make as much money but also that the writing done for these projects is not as regular. For example, the typical 20+ episodes for one season of a show from the early 2000s is twice as long as a season for most shows today.
Because of these conditions, writers are paid more like independent contractors who do most of the work before the show’s production (in what are called “mini rooms”) than salaried employees who remain present during filming. As representatives of the WGA put it: “The companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union work force, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing.”
Additionally, writers have complained about the risk-averse nature of producers who refuse to accept scripts that don’t adapt well-known intellectual property. Writers have little choice except to produce safe scripts that follow tried-and-true formulas. Instead of respecting the writers’ vision and working with them to create a better experience, producers ask writers to make “one-step deals,” an arrangement where they are “paying a screenwriter for only their first draft of a script and then deciding afterward whether to retain them for future drafts.” Thus, screenwriting increasingly becomes mere content creation that’s utterly drained of all artistry—which makes AI-generated scripts all the more likely in the near future.
Of course, even conceding all this to the WGA, they themselves are not entirely blameless. When it comes to writing in Hollywood, one massive elephant in the room is the noticeable drop in quality and rise in wokeness in films of the past few years. In place of compelling stories and characters, most popular movies and shows now feature woke stereotypes, formulaic plots, and tons of CGI. It’s rare to see movies shot on location or that use physical models or sets; now it’s just green screens and an army of animators. It’s even rarer to have masculine men, feminine women, and a nondiverse cast that realistically reflects the story’s setting and not modern progressive sensibilities.
This terrible writing has successfully sunk even the most popular franchises, costing billions for entertainment behemoths like Disney and Warner Bros. and proving the conservative adage, “Go woke, go broke.” One would assume that these producers would learn from their mistakes and reprioritize quality writing that actually resonates with audiences. But it may be the case that there just aren’t any talented people who can write those kinds of screenplays anymore, at least not in leftist organizations like the WGA. In all likelihood, audiences can expect to see more race-swapping of Disney princesses, more geriatric actors reprising roles from their prime, and plenty more LGBT and feminist messaging. What started as gimmicky pandering is now all these writers know how to do.
One final factor that both writers and producers often miss is that audiences have changed significantly in the last fifteen years. Not only are they more diverse and dispersed around the globe, but they are far savvier, having access to all varieties of film and, more importantly, all varieties of criticism. It’s also worth noting that these critics, many of whom have amassed vast followings on YouTube, now have the power to make or break the success of new movies and TV shows. Even if filmmakers and screenwriters largely ignore these critics, many of today’s audiences will listen to them before making a choice of what to watch.
Taken altogether, it’s difficult to see how or why the WGA should have their demands met. It seems like they want to go back to the good ol’ days where the work was steady, the audiences were guaranteed, and they didn’t have to compete with other options. However, those days are over, and writers will need to rethink the work they do. Or, they can step aside and let more talented writers—many of whom correct bad Hollywood scripts in their free time—take their place.
That said, it may be that the changes in today’s media production and consumption might make the strike a success in a different way than the WGA was intending. Instead of screenwriting being a rote, predictable career that rewards unimaginative people with connections and seniority, it might actually become an art form again that demands skill, intelligence, and creativity.
For their part, producers would do well to realize they can make more money by rewarding real talent with better compensation instead of wasting this money on special effects and so much vapid content that no one wants. Whatever compromise is reached between both parties, all audiences would agree that quality should come first, and the status quo that served so well for so long needs to be abandoned once and for all.
[Photo Credit: AFP via Getty Images]