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What’s up with the writers strike?

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CONSTANTINOS PSILLIDES on why we should care about action in America

Here’s a question: what’s your favourite movie or series scene? Is it Samuel Jackson calmly asking a young man whether or not he has knowledge of the English language? Maybe you are more of the romantic type. How about Andrew Lincoln holding a series of cue cards outside the home of a woman he is clearly harassing in one of the most iconic love scenes ever? If you want something closer to the present, how about Jason Sudeikis explaining to a cynical reporter how it is not easy to bring the best out of people, “but so is growing up without no one believe in you”.

All these scenes, all these series, all these movies, everything that makes you laugh and cry came from a professional scriptwriter’s brilliant, creative mind. All those hours of entertainment result from the hard work put in by crews of TV and cinema professionals, from directors to camera operators. A writer is an integral part of that machine, and here’s the thing: They would like to get paid, thank you very much.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) announced last week it was going on an indefinite strike following the collapse of negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) over their demands. The union, numbering over 11,000 members, is now refusing to participate in any creative process, effectively halting the production of every film and series indefinitely. But what does WGA want?

Eliminating ‘mini rooms’

Let’s say you are a studio that just bought the rights to a book or a TV pitch. You want a pilot script, an outline for the first season, and a general direction for future seasons. Committing resources is risky. What comes next is hiring a showrunner and setting up a writers’ room, usually consisting of six to 10 people, depending on the size of the budget. The writers are paid union wages and hired for a set amount of time to complete the work (usually 10 weeks). When the show is greenlighted, they are hired on a more long-term basis.

Studios are bringing in young writers, demanding they give them their best ideas and in exchange, they get minimum wage and the non-binding promise that they may get hired. With the rise of streaming came a need to rush content to build a library for each platform. Thus, the studio came to be rely on ‘mini-rooms’, a writers’ room consisting of usually four younger writers being paid less and initially tasked with coming up with a rough outline for the pilot. As time went by, the demands of the studio grew to the point ‘mini rooms’ have now effectively replaced the regular writers’ room.

WGA demands a staffing requirement of 6 to 12 writers per show and a minimum working period of 10 weeks, which the studios outright rejected and refused to discuss. Turns out that borderline slave labour of young people is popular among the CEO community.

Stream vs Broadcast

There are still wage differences between stream and broadcast, primarily because of residuals. The WGA offered an update on residuals for the streaming industry that is expected to increase the AMPTP’s writers’ budget to about $250 million per year. The studios counteroffered an increase of $86 million, ‘take it or leave it’. Just so you know, the entertainment industry reported $28 billion in revenue for 2022, projected to increase at a rate of 10 per cent for the following years. So yeah, they have the money.

Use of AI

The WGA also requested a ban on using AI to deliver scripts. The studios rejected that, saying they were willing to hold “annual meetings to assess advancements in technology”. To be fair, though, even if the studios wanted to battle AI, I don’t know how they would go around doing it. Stopping scripts from leaking online is impossible, so there’s nothing stopping programmers from using those scripts to train their AI. Suppose we find ourselves at the point where AI has achieved sentience and can mimic human creativity and imagination. In that case, we won’t have time to watch TV as we would be far too busy working on the human battery farms, serving our robot overlords.

How does it affect you?

For now, not so much. As the strike was a long time coming, studios ramped up production and got enough content to see them through for now. But if the strike continues into the summer, there is an excellent chance studios will blow off their fall season, which will be devastating.

The WGA’s requests are reasonable, and they have good standing to make them. Until this situation is resolved, this lowly reporter stands in solidarity with them and their fight. Plus, I wanna see that final season of Stranger Things.

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