Working in film and television might seem fancy and glamorous, but it isn’t always so for the people writing the shows we watch. We spoke to James Hart, a screenwriter for 46 years, and part of the writers guild since 1982, who explains why writers are striking and why it’s important.
Why are people striking?
Writers are striking because their Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA), which is renewed every three years, has expired. The contract dictates how writers will be compensated and how they interact with the producing companies and producers.
“We did not come away from that negotiation with a fair settlement,” says Hart. “Our income has dropped 25% in the last five years. Even though the employment of writers is up, they are earning less.”
Due to low pay, many writers can no longer afford healthcare and other benefits and younger writers who are just starting out are working as “gig workers.” Rather than having one, long-term writing job, they have multiple short gig jobs. Rather than being allowed to write 22 episodes, most writers only get six to eight episodes. The employment time is shorter and the writing rooms are smaller.
Hart has been through five strikes throughout his career and says that each strike has represented a shift in the business. Currently, it’s streaming that has changed everything.
“I’ve been through five strikes. We were on strike for video cassettes. We fought for residuals on that. The company said ‘We have a new market, but we don’ t know what that new market is.’ But we fought for it and it turned out to be a very lucrative market. DVDs were the same thing, they did not want to give us residuals for DVDs” he says. “Now with streaming, you can watch it 24/7. You can have thousands and thousands of views of your work over and over again and not be compensated.”
What is the strike impacting? Will my favorite show be impacted?
Currently the writer’s strike is impacting production on numerous shows. However, many streaming services will still have shows that were written and produced months ago. There are some shows that rely on writers weekly, such as the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. For shows like that, audiences will be seeing a lot of reboots. The strike won’t impact a show until several months down the line.
“Production being shut down puts people out of business [for example] it shuts down their catering or equipment rentals — that is a problem for a lot of us. We know [the strike] is impacting other jobs,” Hart says. “This has been my mantra for a long time: no one has a job in the business until a writer types the script. Our scripts are what get people hired. If you watch the credits of a show, every one of those people got a job because the writer typed the script first. This is what the strike is about.”
What are some misconceptions about the strike?
“[A big misconception] is that writers are all rich and live in Beverly hills and drive big cars. I just lost my health insurance because I didn’t make enough money in the short quarter to qualify for the first time in 40 years. Most writers are working for scale or less, entry-level writers are barely making $30,000 to $40,000 a year.”
While there are many screenwriters that have made a lot of money, not everyone has that same luck. The average member of the Writers Guild makes less than $100,000 a year. In order to qualify for healthcare you need to make at least $40,000 a year. Recently, many writers have lost their healthcare.
“We provide a service that is part of a lifestyle — watching television, getting involved with the characters and their lives, gives the audience an emotional connection to a world that is either imaginative, real and, instructive or inspiring. and there is value to that,” he says.
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