The 2023 writers’ strike, the second longest one in Hollywood history, ended on September 27. As writers struggled to make ends meet, studio tourists turned to join the picket line, and spectators replayed their old favorite show, the 148 days of solidarity finally resulted in an agreement between the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which represents Hollywood’s writers, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), an association of the industry’s biggest studios and production companies.
Given the history of writers’ mistreatment in Hollywood, this is a moment worthy of celebration. While the streaming age has brought substantial revenue boost to studios and tech giants, writers are left out. In 2021, 12 of the top media and entertainment executives received close to $1 billion in total compensation, while half of writers were paid on the Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA). A decade ago, only a third of writers had to live on the minimum compensation. This problem is partly caused by poorly structured streaming residuals, royalty payments for screenwriters that allow them to continue reaping the benefits of their labor when a show is re-aired. Under the previous residuals scheme, writers could not fully partake in the success of their show, even if it becomes an international hit overnight, on a major streaming platform.
The trend of streaming also contributed to job insecurity. Unlike traditional broadcast shows which typically have 22 episodes or more, most shows on streaming have far shorter seasons which typically consist of only 8 to 10 episodes. The temporal gap between seasons is also longer on streamers — years compared to months for a broadcast show. This new setup means that writers are constantly scrambling to find the next gig just to make ends meet. Even streaming showrunners, which are high-level positions in charge of the creative direction of a show, are only making 46% of their broadcast counterparts despite working roughly the same hours.
Movie writers do not fare better. Median screenwriter pay is the same as it was in 2018; with inflation factored in, it has declined by 14%. Less experienced writers are more likely asked to complete more unpaid rewrites of a script in order to receive the full pay that was originally promised to them. Streaming has not been kind to them either, as those who write movies destined for streaming platforms are paid on movie-of-the-week (MOW) rates, which are significantly less than for a theatrical film.
Another major cause of the writers’ grievances is the notorious “mini-room.” In contrast to the traditional writers’ room, mini-rooms hire fewer writers to work on a number of episodes for a show before it’s even officially picked up for production. They pay writers less, make them more disposable, and disrupt the typical mentorship and training structures that pave the way for writers’ career development.
The good news is that most of these concerns, if not all, are addressed in the new agreement. It improved the compensation structure for writers, including weekly pay increases and premiums for mini-rooms or pre-greenlight rooms. It also increased foreign streaming residuals and introduced a new streaming bonus based on viewership. To further democratize the streaming model, the agreement provides that the studios and entertainment companies will share viewership data with the Guild, including the total number of hours streamed both domestically and internationally. Although access to this data is subject to a confidentiality agreement, the Guild may further disclose information to the membership in aggregated form.
Perhaps more interestingly and importantly, the agreement also ponders the future and includes AI provisions that (hopefully) will protect screenwriters from AI encroachment. For example, it provides that any AI-generated material will not be considered source material under the MBA, meaning that a writer’s credit or separated rights cannot be undermined by AI writings. It also requires full disclosure of any AI-generated materials but at the same time grants writers the right to use AI when performing writing services should they choose to. Companies can create AI policies for writers to follow but cannot force writers to use AI software.
These AI provisions may seem one-sided, but they are actually mutually beneficial in many ways. Under the new guidance issued by the US Copyright Office, AI-generated materials cannot be copyrighted, which worries studios and entertainment companies which typically own the copyright on materials from writers based on work-for-hire agreements. Therefore, they likely want to shield themselves from potential copyright complications by making sure that human writers are involved in any writing process that also includes AI. But this trick may not work as intended, since the guidance also makes clear that full disclosure of AI involvement is required and that AI-generated materials may be severed from other protectable human elements in a copyright registration.
On the other side, the WGA understood that the trend toward artificial intelligence is not reversible and thus never sought an outright ban on the use of AI. Instead, the Guild fought for writers’ piece of the AI pie by ensuring that they can use AI to increase their productivity while still receiving the same pay as if they had written the piece from scratch.
However, the threat of AI takeover still looms large for writers in Hollywood. Although the Guild emphasizes that it “reserves right to assert that exploitation of writers’ material to train AI is prohibited by MBA or other law,” whether the use of copyrighted materials for AI training can constitute fair use is a heated debate that will have to be drawn out in court someday. Moreover, there are ways to circumvent the use of copyrighted materials entirely in training large-language models. Many major studios with international content franchises are already entertaining the idea of building their own version of ChatGPT based on existing materials of which they own the copyright. Therefore, as we celebrate the Guild’s historical victory today, tomorrow remains uncertain for the writers.