America’s storytellers need to tell their best story yet
LOS ANGELES, CA – MAY 3: Members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and its supporters picket outside of Universal Studios on May 3, 2023 in Universal City, California. Writers Guild of America members have gone on strike in a contract dispute with studios and streaming services over lowering wages, residuals and the future of AI in entertainment. (Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)
When the unions representing movie and television writers announced they would go on strike last week, my instinct was to join their side of the fight. Hey, I write, right?
I didn’t even know what the dispute entailed, but I wanted to join my writing sisters and brothers to fight The Man. You know the one. He’s the cigar-smoking mogul, squeezing valuable art out of starving artists, so he can afford the ascots he wears and limos he rides to and from his Beverly Hills mansion every day.
I’m sad to report that some small-time writer from Indiana can’t just join the Writers Guild of America. Even though the guild has 11,000 members, joining it usually requires an invitation. It may sound like a big club, but it is exclusive. Most Americans don’t know the names of WGA members, even its most accomplished ones. But we should.
TV and film writers have always occupied a strange place in the universe. What we see on the screen are their ideas, imaginations and jokes, but they aren’t the stars. They aren’t the investors either, so their lack of fame is matched only by their lack of income. That isn’t new.
A changing system
The challenge of the moment is that distribution has changed so drastically in recent years as a result of streaming, the structure of how the content creators are paid must change with it. While many assume the problem is the threat of artificial intelligence replacing creative writers, that’s not the issue at hand.
Primarily, writers who once spent most of a calendar year writing for a network-based, 24-episode season on a show like “Friends” or “West Wing,” are now writing an 8-episode, weekend-bingeable series on Netflix, and then looking for another job. Even if that show is a hit, it doesn’t end up in syndication which once paid writers a residual income to supplement their already low base pay. So, their employment time has shrunk, and their ongoing income has all but disappeared in the new distribution model.
The old model was no gold mine to begin with, but now the threat to the craft is being described as “existential.” As a writer, that word’s recent overuse has begun to make me cringe, though it appears appropriate this time.
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is one of my favorite shows. It won the 2023 WGA Award for Best Comedy/Variety Talk Series. There were fifteen writers listed for the award. Most reports indicate that shows like this one, and all of the other late night comedy shows will go dark first as a result of the strike. Most other genres will have a longer lag time before they disappear.
But that’s just the short-term problem. The bigger problem is the threat to storytelling in general. Stories are more important than entertainment. They are the vehicles humans use to establish meaning in their lives, to document history, to learn and grow.
More than video
As our culture grows more reliant on video to tell its stories, it is important to remember the undeniable truth that the writers are still the storytellers.
Zach Stentz, a screenwriter, wrote in a guest essay for the New York Times on April 30, “One of my biggest thrills is walking onto a soundstage where grips are banging together a set and realizing that hundreds of people and millions of dollars have been marshaled to bring to life a scenario that once existed only in my brain.” Thrills aside, that brainchild generally creates millions for someone else.
In 2015, I was lucky to spend some time with Lewis Black, a comedy hero of mine, just before the Pixar film, “Inside Out” was released. Black was aptly cast as the character, “Anger.” He told a group of us that night about the merchandising that would accompany the film. I couldn’t help but ask my hero what I thought was an obvious question: “What if the movie sucks? It’s kind of hard to sell action figures from a story no one likes.” I will never forget his answer.
He said, “that is not possible.”
He went on to describe the elements of the team that were involved in developing the story that eliminated any chance of failure. It is safe to assume that most of that team of storytellers are or were members of the WGA.
I don’t know how we, as the audience, can play a role in the current compensation dispute. I do know that as our favorite existing shows slowly shut down and new ones grow more scarce, it will be important to understand why.
Everyone wants to be a storyteller these days. It’s important to value those who we know already are.
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