Why I'm on strike
Plus caps and a movie to see this weekend in NYC
Greetings from Read Max HQ! Two notes before today’s dispatch:
(1) Read Max “EMAIL SUPPLY” hats are still available for purchase! In fact, the first run sold out (!) on Monday, so I ordered a second batch from my “hat guys.” The second batch is also selling quickly, and I’m not doing a third, so get your order in soon!
(2) You Can Live Forever, the moving romance my friend Mark Slutsky co-directed with Sarah Watts, is screening several times in New York this weekend and will be available to rent on iTunes and Amazon starting Friday. I recommended YCLF in a roundup last year; you should also read Mark’s newsletter story about the movie becoming a viral sensation among “a very enthusiastic community of young, extremely online queer fans around the world” who bootleged and fan-subbed the movie after it had been screened only a handful of times at festivals.
Now on to the newsletter.
As of 3 a.m. ET Tuesday I am, as a dues-paying member of the Writers Guild of America, East, on strike.
To be clear, this strike action will not affect continuing newsletter production here at Read Max, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Read Bonehouse, Inc., a New York-based S-corp of which I am the president and CEO. (While I may be, in my capacity as a screenwriter, a guild member and labor champion, I am also, in my capacity as the owner-operator of a regional newsletter and fashion brand, a member of the reactionary “petite bourgeoisie.”) The terms of the strike only cover writing I would do for members of the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, of which neither Read Max nor Read Bonehouse, Inc. is an associate.
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Nevertheless I wanted to write a little bit about how I see the strike, why I support it, and why I think it’s so important that the writers win. I would recommend reading Hamilton Nolan’s short piece about the strike too, since he says a lot of the same things a lot more effectively. (Hamilton has a great new newsletter; you should subscribe.)
The stakes are relatively simple. For the last few decades, hiring and compensation in screenwriting has been structured to encourage (if not ensure) some level of financial and career stability for working screenwriters. Jobs may be infrequent or erratic, but when they come through, a writer can be theoretically assured of a minimum level of compensation, both via “guaranteed minimum” payments at the time, and later in the process, after the movie or TV show has been released, in the form of “residual” payments. These guarantees mean that a single job can help get a screenwriter through the fallow(er) time until the next one.
This state of affairs has recently begun to change. Some of Hollywood’s basic distribution model has been transformed with the rise of streaming platforms. The entry of tech companies like Amazon and Apple into the industry has led to gushing cash and frenzied competition as major entertainment conglomerates erratically force their streaming platforms toward profitability. The incentives of this competition means that the ongoing declines in theatrical distribution and traditional TV are ignored or, worse, hastened.
Rather than attempt to solve any problems posed by streaming’s new domination, or by the entry of huge sums of volatile tech money, executives and producers have embraced this upheaval, specifically because they can use it to undermine the expectations and structures that allowed writers (and basically anyone else working on film production) to create at least semi-sustainable careers in Hollywood. The regular paychecks of traditional writers’ rooms are increasingly replaced by smaller, short-term “mini-rooms,” often assembled for shows that won’t ever see the screen. Consistent, fair, and transparent residual payments have been replaced with pathetic checks from black-box streaming platforms. The race to streaming profitability, and the problem of declining audiences for traditional cash cows will simply be solved by squeezing writers for more work for less pay.
These changes have often been excused by pleading disruption, or poverty, or both--the world has changed, the industry has changed, and so writers need to change their ways too. But what has mostly changed is that it has become difficult for even successful and consistently employed writers to make a living, as Michael Shulman has documented in the New Yorker and Mary McNamara has written in the Los Angeles Times.
Cards on the table: The strike will be felt more acutely by other members than by me; my career as a screenwriter is so far short, and not exactly triumphant, and I can’t offer a particularly heart-wrenching tale, or analysis born of long exposure.
I can offer, however, my experience as a journalist during the weird boom-bust era of the 2010s, when I heard or read versions of these same excuses about “disruption” and a “new reality” thousands of times. News media was in the midst of a similar shift in how its work was being created and distributed, and investors and executives were seeking to hire writers at lower wages to more precarious positions, or in some cases to use their writing without paying at all. (I can hear frequent readers of the newsletter rolling their eyes, because I literally just wrote about being a journalist in the 2010s last week, and it was a tired subject then. Sorry! It’s relevant!)
Yes: Journalism and screenwriting are different jobs in different industries--for one thing, Hollywood, despite what its executives would like you to believe, is still a hugely profitable glamor industry awash in money--but it would not be unfair to say “they’re doing to screenwriters what they did to journalists,” if what you mean is that they--and it is in some cases quite literally the same Silicon Valley executives and investors!--are using technological shifts in production and distribution as an excuse to roll back labor protections and grind down writers’ share of current or future profits, regardless of how those technological shifts will affect the business overall.
What I would like to communicate is something that I think all the writers know but the executives behind AMPTP don’t seem to understand: This did not work. It has been a difficult few decades for the newsmedia industry, but “exploit writers more” has not cleared a straightforward path to profits, especially not when it’s the only idea you have. The publishers that tried to build themselves on the back of further-exploited labor have all gone out of business or unionized, while many of the publishers that pre-existed the “disruption period” and were jeered as dinosaurs march on with unadjusted labor protections.
The good news is that I don’t think Hollywood has to move through a similar “lost decade” of pointless disruption, greedy exploitation, and discarded careers to finally direct itself, at least vaguely, toward an clear and sustainable business strategy weaned off of easy money and big-tech dreams, as newsmedia apparently had to. Besides starting from a position of much greater strength, the entertainment industry has a lot of historical experience with major technological shifts in distribution (TV! Cable! VCRs! DVDs!). And, importantly, the WGA has a long history of fighting to ensure that writers don’t get left behind when these shifts happen. The reason writers have the semi-stable career and compensation structure I outlined above--instead of unpredictable employment, day rates, onerous contracts, and other forms of exploitation--is because protections and guarantees hard-won by the WGA through decades of labor action, often directly in the wake of disruptive technological change. Residual payments were won by the WGA in a 13-week strike, its first ever, exactly 70 years ago; the independent health plan, through which writers can obtain health insurance (and keep it between jobs) was won in a four-month strike in 1973.
The WGA’s job is to protect writers and their share of proceeds from the production of their work, not to save Hollywood from mortgaging itself to easy, flighty tech money. But I think a clear win for writers could go a long way to putting the entertainment industry on more stable footing, too. My simple, stupid logic is this: If we stop studios and streamers from exploiting writers (and actors, and directors, and below-the-line crew), we will in so doing force them to come up with business plans beyond “exploit the workers more until the numbers make sense.” This may be a painful process! But it will be a relatively short process that is painful for the lavishly well-paid executives, rather than for the writers and others just hanging on from job to job.
A quick note about A.I.
This is, ostensibly, a newsletter about the future, so I wanted to point out that artificial intelligence is an issue in the negotiations. You can see the summary version of the WGA proposal above and get a sense of the AMPTP’s whole “vibe” in its response.
This Vox piece explains pretty well what the WGA is asking for:
“So we felt it’s important to get two things defined in the contract more clearly,” August told me. The WGA has two main stipulations. First, the guild wants to make sure that “literary material” — the MBA term for screenplays, teleplays, outlines, treatments, and other things that people write — can’t be generated by an AI. In other words, ChatGPT and its cousins can’t be credited with writing a screenplay. If a movie made by a studio that has an agreement with the WGA has a writing credit — and that’s over 350 of America’s major studios and production companies — then the writer needs to be a person.
“Based on what we’re aiming for in this contract, there couldn’t be a movie that was released by a company that we work with that had no writer,” says August.
Second, the WGA says it’s imperative that “source material” can’t be something generated by an AI, either. This is especially important because studios frequently hire writers to adapt source material (like a novel, an article, or other IP) into new work to be produced as TV or films. However, the payment terms, particularly residual payouts, are different for an adaptation than for “literary material.” It’s very easy to imagine a situation in which a studio uses AI to generate ideas or drafts, claims those ideas are “source material,” and hires a writer to polish it up for a lower rate. “We believe that is not source material, any more than a Wikipedia article is source material,” says August. “That’s the crux of what we’re negotiating.”
I’m glad that the WGA is confronting this head-on, and that it’s focusing really specifically on how A.I. might be used to undermine both the structure of the guild itself (essentially by turning it into a scab-bot), or to undermine writer control and compensation. I remain basically unconvinced that A.I. is going to replace many jobs--especially writing jobs--on the merits. But I absolutely believe a lot of jobs are going to be “replaced” by worse-performing A.I. for reducing-the-labor-share reasons, and I don’t trust at all that Hollywood executives and their new tech buddies have the taste or foresight to see why that’s a bad idea.