Writers’ Fear of Joining the ‘Gig Economy’ Fuels WGA Picket Lines
Let the gig economy debate begin.
One of the most contentious issues in the writers strike that erupted May 2 is the assertion by the Writers Guild of America that screenwriting is in danger of becoming part of the “gig economy.” The WGA’s proposed solutions — mandatory staffing minimums and guaranteed weeks of employment — are equally dividing labor and management.
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Now that contract talks between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers have cratered, complex issues are being chewed over by writers who are fired up, walking in circles (literally) and wound up about the long-term employment picture for Hollywood scribes.
“I am the example of why we’re striking,” says Cindy Chupack, a two-time Emmy winner for her work on “Modern Family” and “Sex and the City.” Chupack has scrambled for the past few years to assemble enough writing jobs — a few mini rooms, a pilot script and feature script or two — to keep her income steady. But her bigger concern is the fate of the younger less experienced writers that she’s worked with in mini rooms all over town.
“What we’re trying to do is ensure that there will be a future in writing and the next generation will have the chance to make a good living in the way that I have had,” Chupack says. The twin problems are low pay for mini rooms — an alternative to traditional pilot and series development where a small group works on multiple scripts — and the short duration (six to eight weeks) of many work assignments.
The guild’s remedy is to implement staffing minimums of at least six writers on a series that runs six episodes, with one additional writer to be hired for every two episodes beyond the initial six. It also seeks to establish guarantees on the duration of that job.
The AMPTP balked, saying the proposals would add enormous costs when production budgets are already staggeringly high. According to WGA data, a typical writer on a streaming show works 20 to 24 weeks. The studios point out that a staff writer working at minimum would earn $90,920 over 20 weeks. At the writer-producer level, 20 weeks at WGA scale is worth about $150,000. Writers also earn fees per script.
WGA members say those averages mask the real-world pressures on younger writers to work at union-scale rates on a treadmill where they’re always hunting for the next short-term post.
“It’s great that we’re bringing all these young, diverse writers into the [mini rooms] but we haven’t made it possible for these people to stay in the job long term,” Chupack says.
Nikita Hamilton has the ambition to become a showrunner, but she has had little experience in production beyond writers’ rooms with small staffs. “The only time I’ve ever been to set was on my first script as a co-writer, and I was still an assistant,” Hamilton told Variety as she picketed May 5 outside Amazon Studios in Culver City. “I’ve worked on four shows since then.”
The term “gig economy” has become a lightning rod in the public policy and legal realm. It typically refers to employment that is entirely freelance (think Uber and DoorDash drivers), often on a day-to-day basis, without benefits or other protections that full-time employment provides. The WGA strategically invoked the phrase in much of its strike-related communications to its 11,500 members.
Of course, employment for writers in Hollywood has largely been handled on a project-by-project basis for decades. In this context, “gig economy” felt like a loaded term to industry insiders — until writers by the dozen began sharing their personal stories.
Amid seismic structural changes in TV and film ushered in by the rise of streaming, writers on the picket lines their option to secure a financial stake in a production and a say in decision-making is under attack. The changing job landscape is coming into sharp relief at a time when profit-participation pacts are disappearing, thanks to those same shifts.
The WGA doesn’t deal with profit-participation issues — those are wrangled on an individual basis by agents and lawyers — but guild members feel the loss of income. WGA-negotiated residual fees paid to scribes for repeat airings of TV programs and movies were also a means of giving all writers skin in the game over the long haul. But residual-fee rates have shrunk in the streaming era, even as the volume of residual payments has risen with the TV boom.
Patrick Meighan, a longtime writer-producer on Fox’s “Family Guy,” has a short answer for how studios can absorb the costs of the WGA’s staffing proposals — namely, start by trimming at the top of the studio pyramid.
“How can you afford to pay [Warner Bros. Discovery CEO] David Zaslav $245 million in a single year but you can’t pay six writers?” says Meighan, referring to Zaslav’s stock grant-inflated pay package for 2021. “How is it that you used to be able to pay 12 writers on a staff when the show was on broadcast TV. But now that it’s streaming, six is some ridiculous number? I don’t think the math adds up.”
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