When I got the New Yorker’s Michael Schulman on the line I had one big question for him—I wanted him to tell me how big of a deal it is that Hollywood writers seem to have eked out a new contract with their studio bosses, potentially putting an end to one of the longest strikes in Writers Guild history. Schulman told me, “They have gotten much of what they wanted. And it was a really long, hard, taxing, emotional fight.”
All summer long, Schulman has been calculating the cost of that taxing, emotional fight. Visiting Los Angeles, he said, he felt the “total exhaustion” of TV writers who have been striking all summer. But the writers weren’t the only ones feeling the pain—Hollywood bosses, like Disney’s Bob Iger and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, were staring down losses of as much as $1.6 billion at the box office. Early on, those same executives had talked a big game, calling the guild’s demands “unrealistic.” One exec told a reporter they were prepared to let striking workers “bleed out”—lose their homes and apartments—before sitting down and coming to an agreement.
In the end, that nearly had to happen. In the past few weeks, strike funds were reportedly overwhelmed with requests as largely middle-class writers started running out of money, after five months without income.
On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, we talked with Schulman about whether the end of the writers’ strike has put a wrap on the drama in Hollywood. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Can you tell the story of one of the writers you profiled that explains why this writers’ strike was necessary?
Michael Schulman: At the very beginning, I talked to this young writer named Alex O’Keefe, who wrote on the first season of The Bear, and yet he was never on set. He was never physically in a room with his fellow writers. It was a short job that left him, at the end, with nothing next. And when the show won a WGA award for the writing staff, he had to buy a bow tie on credit.
You said he had a negative bank account, right?
He had a negative bank account. Last I spoke to him, he was getting ready to work at a movie theater to have some income during the strike. I think he was a great spokesman for how precarious that job is. What really struck me, as someone with a lot of writer friends who moved out to Hollywood 10 years ago because there was this gold rush to take part in the glorious era of prestige television, is how this cool, lucrative-seeming job had really degraded over the past decade and how the streaming economy had made it a very unpredictable, rocky way of making a living.
You talked to not just people who are new to the industry, but people who had really clawed their way up and done interesting and good work and started showrunning. And even those people were frustrated with where things had landed.
Oh, yeah. Everyone was feeling it. Obviously the junior writers were having trouble making a living. But even showrunners were telling me that, because studios are not allowing them to hire writers and then bring those writers onto the set for production, they’re then having to do this all alone. Yes, there are some showrunners who love doing it all, like Mike White for The White Lotus, Taylor Sheridan for Yellowstone—
They just sit in the room and, like, spit out a season.
Yeah. But that is traditionally not how television works. It’s a collaborative medium with a writers’ room, where each person takes a different episode and they all come back. I think one of the things that had disappeared, also, was the ladder that you traditionally could climb, where you could learn how to be a showrunner by doing, by being on set, by seeing, by being in post-production and understanding what this job entails. And so that meant that a lot of people were being elevated to showrunner who just didn’t have the experience to even know how to do it. They hadn’t built up those muscles.
In the stories you’re telling, you can kind of see the impact of COVID: People aren’t getting together in person, and then there’s the financial pressure of doing things faster with fewer people.
COVID meant that this was a remote job now, and it kind of remained mostly a remote job. So there were not a lot of people just sitting around in an office with each other. Writing for a TV show can often be very personal, and people need to feel that they can be vulnerable if they have a story from their own life, and to put that out there without really knowing your colleagues, it just kind of drains that feeling of mutual trust. That was one of the things that has made it a less fun job. I don’t know if that’s something that the resolution of the strike will fix. The resolution of the strike also probably won’t fix the larger issues in the streaming economy that were feeding these problems. The era of peak TV has peaked, and a lot of these streamers are cutting costs, reining in the amount of—sorry to use this word—content they are making. There aren’t going to be as many TV shows as there were five years ago.
So the party’s over, no matter what.
Yeah. I think these CEOs need to figure out how to make money off of these streaming platforms, and they haven’t. Everyone raced to copy Netflix, and that left people with this new economic model where it’s a lot harder to make money. But for the writers who have jobs working in television, they now have a lot more security and can make a decent living off of it and are not going to just be replaced by A.I. and spend a year having to live off of the no residuals that they get from their hit show.
With the massive caveat that most details haven’t been released yet, can you tell me what we do know about what’s in this deal and how it would address some of the concerns raised by the people you’ve been talking to?
The things that have been at the top of the priority list seem to have been met—a minimum number of staffers on shows, some kind of compensation for a show that’s a huge hit.
Even if it’s streaming.
Yeah, that is one of the issues you could have with someone like Alex on something like The Bear: That show just took off like wildfire, but it doesn’t translate into a windfall for him. This has been a problem with actors and writers in streaming because the residuals model that has traditionally kept people afloat in the network TV model didn’t exist in streaming, and suddenly people are not getting the spoils of having worked on a big hit show and having done something great. So that will change in some way. I’ve also seen that there will be some kind of transparency on viewership data, which is tied to that. So much of the struggle to know what you’re worth has to do with not knowing how many people are watching these shows on streaming.
Right. There’s no Nielsen for streaming.
Exactly. That has really thrown off the traditional way of doing business. And then I think there will be basic salary increases, which is a big part of any contract negotiation. I’m really curious to see what was resolved with artificial intelligence, because that is such a tricky topic that there’s been a lot of interest in.
Artificial intelligence wound up being one of the final sticking points for the guild, right?
As I’ve talked to people, both writers and actors, it has become so clear that this is a real threat that people were really freaked out by, especially when they got a whole lot of nothing from the studios on A.I. guardrails. It’s so tricky because A.I. is so new and we don’t know how it’s going to be used in TV and movies, but it’s clear that something’s going to happen with it. I think both the writers’ and the actors’ guilds were smart enough to know that the time to set some ground rules is now, not when it’s ubiquitous in three or six years.
Because we don’t know everything about this deal, we just know the bare-bones basics, the thing that stands out to me the most is the fact that we saw the union releasing a celebratory statement about what just happened, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of the studios, were just like, yes, a deal was reached. Very straight.
I’m sure the studios are happy, but the victory is really the guild’s because they’re the ones who got them from an absolute “no” to a “we’ll go far enough to satisfy you after these five months in the trenches.”
So the WGA has a deal now, but they still have to formally approve it. It goes for a vote. What does that process look like? How fast will that go down? And is there a chance that members say no?
So there are a couple of formalities that this deal has to go through. They are still “dotting the i’s,” as the union said. So we don’t have the actual contract language, which is going to be codified and probably released on Tuesday. Then it has to go through the board to be voted on, to authorize a ratification vote for the membership. Then it goes out to the membership to vote on. From all indications, the writers will vote to ratify it. We also don’t know quite yet whether they’ll be able to return to work during the ratification vote or if they have to wait for it to be totally done. But, as of this moment, they are still on strike, although they are not being asked to picket anymore. In the meantime, the WGA leadership is encouraging people to go support the actors on their picket lines. For the writers, it’s a moment of relief and victory and taking stock of just how exhausted they are, but they’re going to keep going until the actors have a deal, as well.
What does it mean that the Writers Guild is settling its contract, but the actors aren’t? Because part of the strength here was both of these unions striking at the same time.
I don’t think it’s that surprising that the writers got a deal first because they’ve been on strike longer. Hopefully, whatever was worked out in the negotiations with the writers will help set the stage for the actors. They have a lot of overlap in their issues, but they’re not quite the same. SAG-AFTRA is bigger than the WGA. And I think the fact that they’re all still on strike is still going to be felt, in terms of the industry getting up and running again, even if the writers are able to start writing. Production is going to be shut down until the actors come back.
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When will we know, at the end of the day, if the strikes have been worth it?
I think members will tell you it was worth it right now. They went from a hard no to a yes with probably some asterisks because they went on strike for five months and felt this pain. So I doubt that you’ll find any WGA members complaining that it wasn’t worth it. But is TV writing now a sustainable career in a way that it wasn’t five months ago? I don’t know. I don’t know when that answer reveals itself. Certainly it’ll be a better way to make a living than it was at the beginning of the year. Is it ever going to get to the gold rush level of peak TV? Probably not in the same way, because places like Netflix are not spending gargantuan amounts of money on as many scripted shows as they can make. There is a contraction in the streaming economy; that will be felt. But for people who are working on those shows, and especially those who work on a big hit show, it’s going to be better.