Although most people probably haven’t noticed yet, there is a currently a writers strike happening in Hollywood. For the time being, the main programs affected have been late night and daytime talk shows (apparently, there are actual writersfor The View). If the strike continues, more productions that more people care about will be affected. Many insiders are predicting that this strike has to potential to last months and cause ever larger disruptions in the entertainment industry.
Upon hearing this, most people still might shrug. With so many options coming from all over the world, it’s difficult to imagine any significant change to scripted entertainment today. In many ways, the striking writers are simply experiencing what many other workers have experienced as a result of globalization and automation. Whereas film producers had no choice but to work with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) in the past, they can now outsource or automate much of the work done by union members—even screenwriting.
It also doesn’t help that many of the writers have become excessively political and lazy with their stories. In too many cases, bad writing was a major factor in bringing down formerly popular franchises (like Star Wars, Marvel, or DC), turning it into shameless left-wing propaganda and/or sloppy formulaic pablum that even fans can’t bring themselves to watch. In the effort to correct the old stereotypes of macho men, damsels in distress, and young people learning from their elders, they have overcompensated with new, far more annoying stereotypes like the man-child, girl bosses, and progressive youths schooling their elders. As for character and plot development, it is either predictable or nonexistent, as special effects and pushing a woke message take priority.
However, it’s important to realize that the diminishing quality of certain movies and television shows doesn’t reflect all productions, and much of it is not the fault of the writers. In fact, there are many well-written TV series and movies that have come out in the past few years. Speaking for myself, I finally moved away from the old sitcoms that I used to uncritically consume and instead decided to watch new shows like Silicon Valley, The Expanse, Tulsa King, Waco, Queen’s Gambit, Kaleidoscope, and Under the Banner of Heaven. All these shows had great writing, and I didn’t feel like a loser for watching them as I did when I was watching reruns of The Simpsons, South Park, or Frasier.
Understanding this, it becomes possible to appreciate why the writers are striking and how a strike might be resolved in a way that results in better quality entertainment. It’s not simply the money—though that’s certainly a part of it—but the conditions for writing, which have become restrictive and encourage mindless content creation. True, some of this has to do with changing formats (these are the days of streaming) and global competition (Korean and Indian cinema in particular have come a long way), but more of it has to do with blockheaded producers who hope to exploit the current media landscape to cheap out on their writers.
This is why much of the debate centers on the use of mini-rooms and artificial intelligence. In the case of mini-rooms, producers hire a skeleton crew of writers and ask them to sketch out a season of shows or a movie in a few days. These writers are paid the minimum salary for those days and then are promptly let go after the first drafts are done. As for staying on the project, making alterations, working with the director and actors, and simply learning to be a more competent writer—as was the case for writers in past decades—this doesn’t happen anymore. In conjunction with this, writers are often forced to comply with “one-step deals,” an arrangement where producers are “paying a screenwriter for only their first draft of a script and then deciding afterward whether to retain them for future drafts.”
This process effectively distances the writers from their creations and discourages them from taking risks. Their goal is less writing an original story that is logically coherent and develops organically and more writing a generic outline of a story that suits whatever works for the producer. This can still result in a decent final product, but more often than not the quality of the writing suffers. Moreover, from the writers’ perspective, it makes it close to impossible to make a comfortable living. As one representative from the WGA put it: “the companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union work force, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing.”
Not surprisingly, under these circumstances, most producers have come to see their role as investors looking to profit from a business venture than patrons funding the work of artists. Their overriding goals are reducing risk and maximizing efficiency. This means adapting well-known franchises, spending more on special effects and marketing, playing off the audience’s nostalgia, and sticking with formulas. Hence, audiences are treated to absolute dreck like She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Peter Pan and Wendy, and Velma. When writers are tasked with hammering something out in a short amount of time for shortsighted producers who have no imagination, such mediocrity becomes inevitable.
All this virtually guarantees the use of AI-generated screenplays. After all, if producing a movie is now effectively the same as producing a widget on an assembly line, the human element can be dispensed with. And if something weird or demonic comes out of it, some minimum-wage intern can do quality control. So long as someone famous is in it and there’s already a built-in fanbase, success is assured—until it isn’t.
Writers have every reason to oppose this, and audiences who care about quality should oppose it, too. Producers need to understand that good writing is fundamental to a project’s success and popularity. Although it may seem counterintuitive for the WGA to strike at the current moment, perhaps they are sensing the frustration among audiences along with a newfound willingness of producers to come to the table and rethink their business strategy.
That said, it would be a mistake to try to go back to the way things were. Anyone who believes that this writers strike will end up like the last one 15 years ago—with the WGA mostly getting what it wanted—is doomed to disappointment. The days of large studios hiring a large team of writers to churn out 20+ episodes for a year-long season of a moderately popular TV show are over.
Television and movies have changed—and more importantly, so have audiences. What used to be known as “Peak TV”—quality dramas and thrillers that worked like epic-length movies (e.g., Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire)—has now become something of a baseline. Audiences have many choices, including the whole catalogue of movies and television from past decades. They won’t watch a show simply because it’s on during primetime and there’s nothing else on the other channels. It’s easy now to research a show, find the streaming service that provides it, and start watching. For younger generations, there are also popular YouTube critics who will tell them if something is worth watching or not.
Therefore, in order for this latest writers strike to be successful, both the producers and writers need to flex with the times and keep quality storytelling at the heart of their negotiations. For producers, that means treating their writers like professionals by paying them fairly, encouraging their artistic development, and keeping them around during filming.
For writers, they need to keep their standards high and avoid agendas that compromise those standards. While it’s admirable to be more inclusive with casting, especially when serving global audiences via streaming services, and to explore stories that shed light on the plights of marginalized groups, it’s boring and usually counterproductive to do this when it doesn’t fit the story they’re telling and obvious it’s merely virtue signaling of a sort. If people want propaganda, they can watch the news.
Assuming both sides can come to the table and reach an agreement, it’s quite possible that American cinema can be revitalized. Filmmaking can return to being a true art form that intellectually and emotionally elevates audiences. Producers might be surprised just how hungry today’s audiences are for quality entertainment with good writing (see Top Gun: Maverick). And writers might be surprised at how much power they wield and what’s possible in today’s media landscape. The potential is all there. Let’s hope that this is the moment it’s finally realized.