Diary of a TV writer on strike
''On a personal level, I can't stop fixating on the toll this is taking on my life and career,'' worries our insider about joining his colleagues on the picket line
I am a television writer and I am on strike. I’m still getting used to saying that. To me strikes have always been the province of autoworkers and miners and teachers, groups that were either criminally underpaid or socioeconomically disenfranchised. The most deprived I’ve ever felt is when we run out of peanut M&Ms in the writers’ room.
That said, I’m not one of Hollywood’s elite. I’m not a showrunner or a seven-figure script doctor or a multi-hyphenate writer-producer-director with a three-year studio development deal. I find work season to season, and for the last couple of years I’ve been on the staff of a mid-tier basic cable drama. In short, I’m one of the WGA’s rank-and-file. Which means that according to the union’s rhetoric, I am the person for whom we’re all striking.
Does that fill me with happiness/pride/lofty feelings of working-class fervor? Not really. Don’t get me wrong: I know the issues we’re fighting for and I support the union and my fellow writers and I’ll stand with them until the bitter end. Theoretically. On a personal level, I can’t stop fixating on the toll this is taking on my life and career. First off, there’s the simple and immediate issue of money. If this strike goes on for months (some colleagues have even suggested a year), I’ll be financially crippled. I haven’t been doing this long enough to have any kind of cushion. And unlike the more famous names out there, there’s a good chance I won’t be able to find work when this is all over. Kiss my career momentum goodbye.
There are also the more mundane dilemmas we writers face that don’t get as much notice. For example, the WGA’s Strike Rule 8, also known as the Script Validation Program. The union wants us to turn in all of our unproduced work so they can make sure no one is doing any unapproved writing during the strike. So the script I recently finished for the show I work on should go to the WGA’s monitors. However, the studio that produces the show has said — via a firmly worded letter to my agent — that my script belongs to them, so don’t even think about sending it to the Guild. Do I listen to the folks who are fighting for my interests now and in the future, or to the people who have been writing my checks (and who I hope will be writing more of them when this is over)? Keep in mind, both sides wield significant power. It’s like being a child caught between feuding parents during a divorce.
The studio can, and most likely will, produce the episode I’ve written. I won’t be there for it, though — doing so would require crossing the picket line — and that just about kills me. I’m new enough to the game that I have yet to be jaded by the process. To me, it’s still a small miracle that a few weeks after I tap out the words, ”EXT. NEW YORK STREET ? NIGHT,” I can watch as hundreds of crew members swarm a soundstage in order to create from scratch the perfect boulevard of my imagination.
So I’ll miss the prep meetings and the tone meetings and the tech scouts and the table reads and, of course, the actual shooting. A non-writing executive producer friend has quietly suggested that I could be there for all of these events, as long as I refrain from making any creative comments. I wouldn’t admit this to the folks I’m shoulder-to-shoulder with on the picket line, but I’m tempted to do just that. After all, they’re going to shoot my episode whether I’m there or not — why shouldn’t I go and just observe? If I’m a silent bystander, am I really betraying the cause? Who knows where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing when this strike ends. What if this is the last opportunity I get to see one of my scripts turned into a living, breathing creation?
If that turns out to be the case, I’m certain of one thing: I’ll miss more than just the peanut M&Ms.