By Nadira Jamerson | Word In Black
(WIB) – Waiting for season two of “Wednesday” to hit Netflix? Thanks to an ongoing strike between writers, actors, and TV and film execs, it could be a while before you’re able to catch up on the latest Addams Family adventures. In fact, production has been halted indefinitely on many fan favorites, including “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Emily in Paris,” and “Stranger Things.”
The WGA called a strike of its over 11,000 members in May after the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers rejected the WGA’s proposals.
For every one Shonda Rhimes, there are 9,000 writers in my guild who are struggling.TONY PURYEAR
In July, the writers were joined on the picket lines by the 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists after AMPTP refused to bargain in good faith with the actors’ demands, which overlapped with those of the writers in several key areas.
“For every one Shonda Rhimes, there are 9,000 writers in my guild who are struggling. It’s a working-class job. There’s a reason we have a union — because we need it to defend our rights, to fight for us, to get us healthcare and pensions,” says Tony Puryear, a 32-year veteran Writers Guild of America member.
Indeed, the strikes reflect growing labor demands for a bigger share of profits from streaming platforms that have disrupted Hollywood’s traditional business models. With streaming viewership surging, writers and actors are seeking deals that boost residual pay for projects on Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services.
The current labor dispute is also the first time writers and actors have joined forces to strike since 1960 — and they don’t plan on stopping until their demands are met.
“Power never gives you anything because you ask nice,” Puryear says.
He’s written everything from the screenplay for the $242.3 million grossing Arnold Schwarzenegger action film “Eraser” to Netflix’s hit show, “Queen Of The South,” and says Hollywood studios need to see “that you can’t make a TV show or movie without writers, and you can’t make them without actors.”
The Impact on Black Actors and Writers
The outcome of this strike could have far-reaching implications, especially for Black actors and writers.
From Taraji P. Henson receiving only $40,000 for her Oscar-nominated role as Queenie in the $300 million-grossing “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” to “Abbott Elementary” writer Brittani Nichols tweeting that she’d see no additional compensation after her episode earned record views, Black writers and actors have historically been — and continue to be — at a disadvantage in the TV and film industry.
Diane Ademu-John has served as a writer and producer for a slew of hit shows, including “Empire,” “The Originals,” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor” — and she’s the writer and executive producer for the upcoming series “Dune: The Sisterhood.”
“When I first started, I was the only person who looked like me in most of the writer’s rooms that I was in,” Ademu-John says.”
While some things have opened the door for [diversity], it’s also now kind of choking those very people that it has let in the door.DIANE ADEMU-JOHN, WRITER AND PRODUCER
In the past, writer’s rooms would typically have 10 to 15 people. “All of the seasoned veterans were kind of old white guys, and then all of the up-and-coming people were young white guys,” she says.
Ademu-John overcame numerous barriers as a Black woman in Hollywood, but now she fears other Black writers and actors won’t get the same chance.
“It’s now become a job where you literally have to have a bank account that can support you through very lean times and very small paychecks and signing contracts that have you making what you’d normally make in a month in six months,” she says. “While some things have opened the door for [diversity], it’s also now kind of choking those very people that it has let in the door.”
What’s keeping Black people out? The decline in residuals — due to the shift to streaming — is a major issue.
Smaller Residual Checks
The days of renting a DVD are long gone and movie theaters are still recovering from dwindling audiences brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Streaming services have taken over the world of TV and film. However, with streaming, residuals for actors and writers stay the same regardless of a show’s viewership.
“Box office figures come in every day, and everybody knows. On streaming, it’s a mystery,” Puryear explains.
WGA and SAG-AFTRA members say their residuals should match the success of the streaming shows and movies they contribute to. Currently, streaming companies won’t reveal numbers on how well a movie or show is performing to the actors and writers who helped bring it to life.
“We asked them to open up their books and show us — they flat out refused. We asked them for a different residual structure — they flat-out refused. We asked them to pay us more money on streaming deals, and they gave us a really [low] offer,” Puryear says.
Since the strike began, writers and actors have been sharing photos of their residual checks across social media. In the often unstable world of Hollywood, many actors and writers rely on money from residual checks to help them make ends meet in between being hired for new projects. Some of the residual checks shown on social media are for less than $1.
What kind of value do you put on people? To me, that’s what the strike is about.MARCUS FOLMAR, ACTOR
“We are literally people with like five jobs needed to pay the bills,” Ademu-John says. “We are not all living in mansions, and you can take a picture of my room. This is not a mansion, and I’ve been at it for 25 years on the biggest shows on the planet. I’m not hurting, and I can hold out for a long time, but I can’t hold out forever.”
Actor Marcus Folmar, a 30-year SAG-AFTRA member who has appeared in popular shows like “Frasier” and “Criminal Minds”, says he still has to work extra jobs.
“My residual income accounts for about 50% of my income,” Folmar says. “I coach actors as well.”
Show Us the Money
Hit shows and movies often make millions of dollars, so where is all the money? Writers and actors say it’s sitting in the pockets of CEOs.
According to reporting by LAist, in 2022, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts made $32.1 million, and Netflix’s co-CEOs Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos were paid $51.1 million and $50.3 million, respectively. In comparison, it takes $26,000 a year in earnings on SAG-AFTRA jobs to qualify for health insurance, and 87% of members don’t qualify in any given year. Additionally, over the past five years, when accounting for inflation, screenwriter pay declined by 14%.
While studio bosses are making enough to buy yachts, the vast majority of WGA and SAG-AFTRA cannot even afford to go to the doctor. Folmar believes the pursuit of profit should not make the AMPTP devalue human life.
“What kind of value do you put on people? To me, that’s what the strike is about. In this society, the bottom line can’t always be dollars and cents,” Folmar says.
AI Could Push Black Writers Out of Hollywood
The insurgence of artificial intelligence could mean checks to actors and writers could get even smaller in the near future. Experts predict that 300 million jobs could be lost or degraded by AI in the coming years.
With AI, TV and film execs now have the capability to quickly develop original scripts without the help of human writers and to generate performances by actors without the actor even having to physically be there.
“If we allow it, the first draft will be written by AI for free,” Puryear says. “The studio will have it for free. Then they’ll call me up, and they’ll say, ‘Tony, can you come in for a couple of days and make this ‘Blacker’ because we don’t know about the street language.’ Now, suddenly, me — a union writer for 30 years with a pension plan and everything else — suddenly now I’m a gig worker. Suddenly now, they only need me to come in for a day to ‘Blackify’ this script.”
Just know all of that entertainment value started in the brain of a writer, and it’s that person who is just trying to live.DIANE ADEMU-JOHN, WRITER AND PRODUCER
The studios have declined AI safeguards sought by unions, raising concerns among writers like Puryear that Black creatives will be disproportionately displaced as writer rooms shrink.
“Black writers are last hired and first fired,” Puryear says. “Black writers have a harder time getting in because we don’t have the old boys network. Writer’s rooms are getting smaller, terms of employment are getting shorter. If they’re only going to hire four to five people, they’re not even going to include that diversity hire.”
Actors and Writers Need Your Support
To create a more equitable industry, actors and writers say they need community support. Folks are invited to join their movement by pledging solidarity with SAG-AFTRA and signing the WGA’s letter of support for the guild’s contract negotiation. People can also donate to The Snacklist, which is delivering food, drinks, and other necessities to strikers in the Los Angeles area.
People also need to speak up and say “that we value human talent, that we see that it’s unfair for these corporations to profit more than the people who are doing the work, the artists,” Folmar says.
For now, WGA and SAG-AFTRA members aren’t asking fans to boycott their favorite shows and movies.
“If you have nothing to do with the television and entertainment industry, it’s OK to keep watching and enjoying. Keep watching Netflix,” Ademu-John says. But just know all of that entertainment value started in the brain of a writer, and it’s that person who is just trying to live.”