Layoffs and mini-rooms: why writers strike

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As September ended, so did the Writers Guild of America’s (WGA) 148-day strike, after successfully reaching a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

The strike was initially prompted by a series of demands, many of which were closely related to the rise of streaming services over the last decade. For consumers, streaming has allowed us to enjoy more on-demand content than ever, however, for writers, this transition has led to greater job instability and reduced benefits. This article will explore these negative repercussions on the lives of Hollywood writers, highlighting the reasons for such a widespread, organised response from the WGA in May 2023.

Streaming has grown at an average rate of 35% a year, according to FilmLA President Paul Audley when speaking to the LA Times. Most of us now expect to find exactly what we want, when we want, with the click of a button. You might expect that with this boom in demand, opportunities for writers in Hollywood would be endless, but WGA union members tell a bleaker tale.

Gone are the days of 22-episode seasons where one episode is broadcast weekly

You may have noticed a pointed decrease in the average number of episodes per season of new shows on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Gone are the days of 22-episode seasons where one episode is broadcast weekly. Screen Rant has suggested a few reasons for this: shorter seasons lend themselves better to our binge-watching habits, there’s less risk involved if the show flops, and the end result can give audiences better television with fewer filler episodes. For writers, this has meant fewer opportunities, a decrease in pay, and a decline in job security.

The emergence of ‘mini rooms’ is a clear example here. A TV-exec in Variety describes a mini room as a ‘miniaturized writers’ room’. As Variety explains, while a traditional writers’ room involves around seven or eight writers, a mini room may only have two or three writers to support the showrunner. The normalisation of short, 10–12 episode seasons has meant that ‘mini-rooms’ have become more commonplace, creating fewer opportunities for writers to work, especially newer writers. Even the writers who are hired are still left in less-than-ideal situations since often they will only be paid the minimum wage agreed in the WGA’s contract.

Furthermore, mini rooms generally only take place for short periods of time, perhaps a couple of months of script development before the writers are dismissed. Not only does this process create job insecurity with uncertainty between projects, but also limits career development, as writers are being denied valuable production experience. Writers who want to go on to become showrunners or producers have been denied the opportunity to gain the relevant skillsets necessary for development. George R.R. Martin summarises this problem in his blog perfectly: “If the Story Editors of 2023 are not allowed to get any production experience, where do the studios think the Showrunners of 2033 are going to come from?” Another hot topic surrounding streaming is residuals. Residuals are long-term payments to writers, actors, and directors for re-runs or re-airings of shows and films – all of which are negotiated by unions.

Residuals are especially important in the entertainment industry where opportunities are unpredictable, so residuals can act as passive income during less active periods. LA Times explains that streaming has made it harder to calculate residuals based on popularity since it’s hard to directly connect viewership to profitability on subscription-based services, as opposed to traditional TV and film where ratings and viewership are publicly shared. Consequently, writers’ pay has become depressed, with a 23% decline in median weekly writer-producer pay over the last decade (adjusted for inflation).

Fortunately, many of these issues have been addressed in the recent agreement with AMPTP, which the WGA labelled “exceptional”. For example, the deal sets minimum staffing requirements for writer’s rooms, an increase in minimum pay, and improvements to employment length, which help to address problems with dodgy mini rooms. Moreover, there are notable improvements to residuals. The WGA will now have access to confidential viewership stats for streaming shows, and writers will receive bonuses for well-performing shows.

These new measures signal an encouraging step forward towards improved benefits and working conditions for writers in this new age of streaming. They also highlight how crucial it is to support unions, and that they can have a real impact with enough resilience. Similar negotiations for actors are currently going on between SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP, which will hopefully be as successful as the conclusion of the WGA strike.

Illustration: Hayleigh McClean

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