As the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike enters its third week, many are now probably familiar with the bands of Hollywood writers, actors, and producers protesting outside network studios in major cities across the country. On social media and the daily news, humorous picket signs calling on studio executives for a fair contract and to “Do the Write Thing!” have become staple images. But for many outside the entertainment industry, the nuances of the strike may still be unclear.
In an interview with More Perfect Union outside a New York picket last week, veteran writer and longtime WGA member David Simon broke down the strike and what it means for writers and the future of television as a storytelling medium. Simon is best known for creating The Wire (2002–2008) and his work on several other critically acclaimed television shows.
Drawing on his past experience in the entertainment industry, Simon expanded on how contracts for writers used to run for longer and pay “a decent enough rate” that allowed them to “make a living.”
“You always had to find the gig, but the gig would pay you enough to make it plausible for you to afford a mortgage or for health insurance,” he said.
As television shows moved away from broadcast and toward subscription-based streaming services, television writing has also evolved, transitioning from full-time to gig-based work.
“Now they’ll start a mini-room, and they’ll say, ‘Here’s three weeks of salary,'” Simon said, referring to how studios have been scaling back on staff writers and replacing them with pre-production “mini” teams consisting of just the show-runner working alongside two or three short-term writers. “‘Oh, and by the way, we’re not guaranteeing that you’ll get a script for scripting — just the three-week salary. Just come and give us your ideas. We may make the show, we may hire you. We may not hire you. Then go find another gig.’” From the WGA’s point-of-view, the rising popularity of these mini-rooms has led to a recession in writer pay rates and also made it more difficult for writers to advance in their careers.
Simon also explained how these short-term contracts for streaming series unfairly favor production companies, as they prevent writers from seeking other work and generating income from other writing projects. “And then you got to survive, and you’ve got to raise a family with that. It’s crazy,” Simon said.
Simon also pointed out how cutting writers from shows not only “is destructive to the core of a writing staff,” but it also creates burdensome work for show-runners and will ultimately hurt a show’s longevity. “The writers understand the story better than anybody,” he said. “Actors understand their characters beautifully, better than the writers. Directors understand shots better than writers. But it’s the writers who understand the story.”
Simon continued on about how this “gig economy” for writers also prevents them from learning the necessary skills to become “better writers and better producers.”
“You’re not growing the future,” he said.
Simon also shared some thoughts on AI, a tool that has been a source of contention between creatives and industry executives and a sticking point in the ongoing strike. He said that although the generative technology can be a useful tool for writers in the same way that dictionaries and thesauruses have historically been, wholly relying on a “derivative form” to tell quality stories is not sustainable in the long run.
“That derivative work is never going to break ground,” he argued. “In the short term, you might fool some people into watching 10 episodes of crap, but over time the viewership for that is going to diminish.”
On May 11, Simon shared on Twitter that HBO had suspended his contract “after 25 years of writing television for them.” In a follow-up post, he noted that the suspension was in response to the strike and “not unexpected.”
Deadline previously reported that HBO and other major studios have been sending out suspension letters since the WGA officially went on strike earlier this month.
While suspensions are common during strikes, what many protesters are really concerned about is potential termination under a provision known as force majeure. A clause that allows one or both parties to break their contract in the event that unforeseen circumstances (“acts of God”) prevent them from fulfilling their contractual obligations, force majeure was famously used by major studios to cut producing deals in 2008 during the last Hollywood strike.
Although different studios have different premises for claiming force majeure, many strikers are preparing for potential deal terminations in upcoming weeks.
“I’ve had my run, and it’s fine,” Simon said. “The younger people coming up, they deserve a career.”