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Our View: Spare screenwriters from gig economy

Signs from strikers on the Writers Guild of America’s picket lines say it all. It’s obvious where the sparkle magic comes from in creating films and award-winning series for U.S. and global audiences. Some favorites:

“Our therapists keep saying we have to stand up for ourselves, so here we are. Sorry.”

“You’re gonna be the villains in the limited series about this.”

“Writer: ‘I have a family to feed.’ Studios: ”Who told you to have a family?’“

“I like your offer as much as you like an angry female lead.”

“Let’s replace studio execs with AI.”

“No pages without fair wages.”

“We’re asking for 2% from the 1%.”

“Don’t make writers do math!”

“’Here’s looking at you, kid,’ was not written by a producer.”

“Chat GPT doesn’t have childhood trauma.”

One striker simply wore a mask that read, “No words.”

Good humor aside – for now – the WGA, which represents 11,500 screenwriters, went on strike on May 2 after contract negotiations failed with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that bargains on behalf of studios, streaming services and networks.

This is an important fight over labor rights and the devaluation of writers who create lucrative intellectual properties. But mostly, writing as a profession is at stake and the ability to build – and hold onto – a middle class in this country. We hope the gig economy doesn’t swallow this profession.

In the Southwest, we know too well the difficulties in patching together jobs without benefits and protections, resulting in scattered schedules and lives. Even with multiple gigs, living expenses can be unaffordable.

Screenwriters are the builders of imaginary worlds on screens. They come before the actors, the directors – also on strike – stage hands, producers, caterers, drivers and every other worker who has a job after a script is greenlit. Screenwriters should be paid livable wages.

Writers make studios rich. But writers can’t afford Los Angeles and New York City, where they’re expected to develop scripts in writers’ rooms.

Streaming-era practices upended the profession, making it unsustainable and unstable. Netflix, for example, has “mini-rooms,” small groups of writers hired to map out a season before official approval. Because it isn’t a formal writers room, the pay is less. Mini-room writers work for 10 weeks, then scramble to find another job. Now, studios are offering to only pay by the day.

Under these conditions, paying rent becomes sketchy. Forget about trying to own a home.

Despite increasing profits for studios, writers are paid less to do the same work. They receive lower residuals, or royalties – if any – for their work once a show re-airs. Before streaming, creative contributors received residual payments when a show was licensed for syndication, an international deal or DVD sales. Global services such as Netflix and Amazon have been reluctant to license their series, so distribution channels were shut down.

And the oncoming train that is artificial intelligence is a threat no matter how poor the content. Studios have not countered with any kind of protection, so the riff with WGA widens. WGA’s requests come to $429 million a year; studios’ current offer is $86 million. Last year, heads of the eight major studios had a combined salary of $773 million.

Alex O’Keefe, a writer for FX’s “The Bear,” about a young star chef who returns home after a family tragedy, won Best Comedy Series at the WGA awards in March. Having a negative bank account, O’Keefe wore a borrowed suit and charged a bow tie to wear to the awards ceremonies. During the strike, he’s applying for jobs at movie theaters. How unfair is this?

Writing jobs dismantled into gig work is bad news with industry professionals living hand to mouth. As it is, there’s no path forward for young writers to do what they love, what they have aptitude for and live in cities where shows are produced.

Journalists have endured these experiences and we don’t wish them on anyone.

The strike is a risky move. We’re rooting for screenwriters to be spared from the gig economy. The picket signs, at least, get everyone’s attention.

Comedian, “Reservation Dogs” actor, and Native rights and climate activist Dallas Goldtooth said, “If we can laugh at our oppressors, it takes away the power of our oppressors.”

We hope it works. Otherwise, we’ll miss out on much creativity and writing as a real job. And all that good humor.