Column: In the teeth of the WGA strike, Chicago-based screenwriters talk about pay issues — and artificial intelligence

·9 min read

Now in its third week, the Writers Guild of America strike affects its 11,500 members and, more and more, the work you’re watching on one screen or another, and the work you aren’t.

The WGA strike has shut down production on an increasing number of shows, Showtime’s ”The Chi” being the most recent Chicago example. Filming sites have been disrupted and, in more and more cases, shut down by strike actions; creators of projects in postproduction have halted work for now, in solidarity. And unless an 11th-hour solution can be reached and the WGA issues a modified strike waiver, there won’t be a Tony Awards show televised this year on June 11.

When negotiations reached an impasse last month between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), representing more than 350 film and television companies, the standoff acquired an industry nickname in many quarters: “the Netflix strike.” The streaming giant reportedly has dug in the deepest regarding writer compensation, residual payments and other economic challenges for working writers, or writers who used to work. Also, there’s the looming unknown known of artificial intelligence tools used for story development and the kind of writing that used to be done by humans. The human writers want some guardrails on AI; the human-run studios, less so, evidently.

As “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” screenwriter Michael Gilio says: “It hurts me where I eat. And it feels pretty bleak for our culture.”

The other day Gilio, his fellow screenwriter and Northwestern University School of Communication associate professor Brett Neveu and Columbia College cinema studies and screenwriting associate professor Karla Fuller got together for a discussion about this strike and the issues behind it. Neveu and Gilio serve as strike captains in Chicago, Neveu as part of the regional WGA East, Gilio as part of WGA West.

The last WGA strike, in late 2007 and early 2008, lasted 100 days and cost the industry an estimated $2 billion. Last month, as the latest strike loomed, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos said in an earnings call: “We really don’t want this to happen.” But, he added, “we do have a pretty robust slate of releases to take us into (the near future).”

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Phillips: Here was my threshold of revelation when it came to the last WGA strike, in 2007 and 2008. I’m sitting there watching the James Bond film “Quantum of Solace” in 2008, trying to figure out why it wasn’t better. The script was just sort of janky. Rickety. Then years later I read about how Daniel Craig and the director, Marc Forster, ended up rewriting the script on the set as they went, because the script was not ready to go and the strike prevented actual writers from doing the work. As Craig said: “I writer I am not.”

This was the realization for me: that the writing is not necessarily done when the alleged final draft is delivered, in this case, actual hours before filming began.

Neveu: Right. The non-writer should not have been writing. Mike (Gilio) and I talk about this a lot; we’ve been commiserating a lot since he moved back from Los Angeles. With a script, ideally, there’s development happening in preproduction, there are conversations around selling the script, sometimes you’re punching up character descriptions when you’re trying to sell it, and all the while you’re working with the director and the producers. This isn’t always the way it happens, but when it does, it’s great.

On “Eric LaRue” (Neveu’s screen adaptation of his 2002 play, premiering in June at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival), I was lucky to have producers who wanted me there. And Michael Shannon (making his feature directorial debut) wanted me there. I was there for the whole shoot, a month and a half, changing things. Working.

Gilio: I just went through two vastly different experiences. On the “Dungeons & Dragons” movie, once the directors came in, it was basically “See you at the premiere!” Now, that was to be expected; it’s a giant tentpole movie, and the directors that came on were writers in their own right. On the other hand, I did a horror movie, “Dark Harvest” for MGM (due this fall), and the director wanted me there for every part of the process. Which is rare.

Phillips: What sort of conversations have you had with your students about the strike, and the issues behind it?

Fuller: For now, we’ve kept our AI panic to the area of essay writing (laughs). The students are just starting to think about their careers as writers. But we have talked about streaming, the shorter seasons for so many shows. We had a panel with Mark Stegemann (co-writer of “Somewhere in Queens” and a Columbia College alum) and he talked about how, for him, the strike is all about the residuals (or payments for the reuse of a writer’s work). As working writers, it’s gotten so much harder to make a living.

Neveu: The fear, I think, for my students as well as for me, is the AI question. It’s messed up. Here’s a theoretical example but it’s realistic, I think. You have a book that doesn’t have copyright protection. Let’s say it’s “The Count of Monte Cristo.” The studio feeds the AI a few things to learn, and the AI writes a screenplay based on “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Then the producers hand it to a screenwriter to “punch it up.” Turn it into something “good.” And the price they pay for a rewrite, a punch-up, is much lower than they’d ordinarily pay. It’s scary.

Gilio: This seemed like a boutique issue going into the strike, and now it’s starting to feel like the issue. Maybe I’m wrong, but … over the last year I’ve been in a couple of situations in which there are references to “the Algorithm” that were new to me. “The Algorithm doesn’t like this. The Algorithm has some issues with that” (referring to computer software trained by previous screenplays to recognize what audiences might like).

Phillips: A little more on that, please?

Gilio: Sure. In development and pitching, the writer discusses plot points, characters, whatever. The executives might say something to the effect of, “Well, the Algorithm has some problems with this.” This happened to me once: One executive told me, “The name of your character — it just doesn’t track well with the Algorithm.”

Phillips: Here’s the WGA proposal on artificial intelligence, in part: “AI can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material; and Minimum Basic Agreement-covered material can’t be used to train AI.” The studios’ representation rejected that, and “countered by offering annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.”

Neveu: Terrific. An annual meeting. I mean, this is a huge, existential issue — this idea of taking existing shows or movies, plugging them into the AI and seeing what happens. The AI pulls from all the material someone may have written over a lifetime. It’s not pulled out of the ether; it’s built on things people have already written. And those people aren’t getting paid for it.

Fuller: Historically there’s always been this thinking in Hollywood that people who are not screenwriters or TV writers can write if they have to, or want to. No respect for the writers. But this AI development is more sinister.

Phillips: So, Mike, what was the character name that (hacked) off the Algorithm?

Gilio: Really?

Phillips: Yeah. I have to know.

Gilio: (laughs) I probably shouldn’t say. Oh, well, I’ll tell you. They said the name “Maria” set off red flags. Nothing specific. But the Algorithm preferred “Jessica.” I ended up having nothing to do with that project, in the end. But a producer friend of mine told me that’s what happened.

I’ve worked pretty consistently for 15 years, and joined the guild shortly after the last strike. But the last few years have felt different. The skill sets don’t matter as much anymore. There’s been so much upheaval. Look what happened to the music business, or retail. There’s just not a lot of interest (on behalf of the studios) to ensure a lasting business here. The thing about residuals — your good years used to pay for your bad years. Residuals helped you weather that, if your work was playing all over cable. We’re asking for a more reasonable portion of that.

Phillips: Let’s talk about this situation of being part of a writer’s room now, as opposed to a few years ago. It can mean so much less both monetarily and creatively.

Neveu: Right. Let’s say you get on a show. You’re probably getting paid minimum. Your agent takes 10%. Lawyer takes 5, manager takes 5, business manager takes a bit, taxes — you might end up with $20,000, $25,000. For a season. And you don’t know when you’re next job is coming.

If you’re a young writer, in what’s called a “mini-room,” you’re basically doing development. Maybe the show gets picked up, maybe it doesn’t. Meantime you haven’t had a chance to move up, because you were never on set. I’ve had a number of friends and former students who ended up Zooming into a writer’s room (on a show), maybe writing one episode. And they haven’t left their house.

Gilio: The TV writers are really getting hit hard. It’s not sustainable. All the models have changed: It used to be 26-episode seasons, and now, with streaming for a limited series it’s maybe six, eight episodes. Maybe you write one. And then they put you on hold for the rest of the year, which means you can’t write for anyone else. This is why you have Emmy-winning writers getting second jobs.

Fuller: So how long do you think this strike is going to last?

Neveu: The last one went 100 days. I think this time, the studios assumed the public would think, “Oh, those greedy writers.” But the support has been so strong. The picket lines this time are jam-packed with young people with signs. They’re there, they’re loud and they’re front-facing. When Mike and I walked in 2007, there were not young people with signs.

Gilio: Right. The last strike was basically the old guard. Now it’s a much younger crowd. The energy’s different. The strike may be long, but we have the resolve and the support of other unions. Netflix has never done this before; it’s their first strike. The Silicon Valley companies just aren’t accustomed to institutional unions the way movies are … people just want some sense of stability and fair compensation.

Fuller: And let’s not forget: This is the generation that unionized Starbucks.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

Twitter @phillipstribune