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Anonymous Strike Diary: Why protecting the writer’s space is good for studio bottom line


This is part of a series of candid stories about Hollywood writers’ strike at various levels in their careers.

Day 110 and the karaoke still continues, as does trivia and celebrity spotting. The TMZ the bus now swings past Paramount like clockwork, with even the tourists cheering in solidarity. Also food trucks. Lots of food trucks. Infinite thanks to Deans coffee for all that ice-cold Java, every day.

Friday hit a high note on Friday as Latin Hollywood flexed its muscles and Warner Bros. flooded in no time Tacos 1986– refueled block party. Mr. Stand and deliver himself, Edward James Olmos, was there and invoked the spirits of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to keep the fire burning. Not even a hurricane quake will stop this workers’ action. Though luckily we had Monday off to recover from all the frantic texting to Florida friends about how to properly use a sandbag.

The point is that we will do this for as long as it takes.

Not that anyone wants that. After that hilariously predictable ‘meeting about meeting’, the AMPTP has at least begun to talk. (Granted, only after that Wall Street screamed with them. Several times.) Do you remember all those issues that were “off the table” when the strike started? Well, they’re on the table now. Funny that they clearly never had any intention of negotiating in May. (Though it sure sounds like it that wasn’t lost on the FTC…)

Now comes the real fun part: making sausages. Or in our case guess how the sausage is made. Technically, there’s a media blackout, meaning rumours, leaks and doubts are the order of the day. I guess that’s not too surprising for an industry built on passive-aggressive communication, where the only unforgivable sin is directness.

This leaves one to dissect the tea leaves of the trades and Writer Twitter.* Comparing the two, the bargaining feathers seem most ruffled in the Writer’s room. Perhaps because the studios think the guild’s request to keep what has been a hallmark of TV production for decades is either a figment of the imagination or a fast-paced rush of time. (Or at least that dividing the guild would be a big deal.) But judging by all the digital ink spilled over it, the C-suite might just not get the writers’ room. Surprising considering this is TV’s secret sauce.

As an announcement of a public service, let’s try to educate them.

The magic happens in the writers’ room. Protecting it is not a question of diversion. It’s not a cynical grab for money. It is not a request to pay people to sit around and do nothing all day. It’s the core of what made TV good. If you’re already feeling a slight drop in average TV quality, it’s not because we’re not doing our best. It’s not because we got lazy. We love this job. We like to do it right. We’re just not allowed. In the past, writers would stick around while a show was being taped and divide the never-ending tasks that ensure quality. A lot of brains made for a better product: more writers paying attention to what’s being made. Now most of us are being forced to leave the shows we love** by studios that won’t pay us – before the cameras even start rolling. And we can see where this “efficiency” train is headed: eliminating the writers’ room entirely.

It started with mini rooms. Then writers did not get to work. Everything fell on a showrunner. Sometimes producers or directors step in, but they weren’t there to fight the dragons when the story was cracked. So they are always playing catch-up. As for the writers, instead of becoming devoted disciples of a show, we became masterless ronin, going from gig to gig.

This left the showrunners overloaded and having to remember all that shit we talked about in the room, and why we talked about it when the scripts actually went into production a year or more later. It left them dealing with tons of studio notes on their own, and struggling to remember everything we’d done already thought about. It made a mess. It is an impossible task for one person or even for two people. I’ve heard showrunners give me the same advice over and over: When you’re in this chair, learn how to delegate. But that only works if there is someone to delegate Unpleasant.

Scrap the writers’ room and not send writers to power Look like a good idea on paper, and that’s all a business director thinks about. But the reality is another question. In that room we play out countless plots, have thousands of arguments (philosophical, practical, bizarre), come up with good ideas, bad ideas, and crazy ideas. We talk about our lives, our beliefs, our dreams. A good show can come out of all that. Collaborative Social Intelligence isn’t just a real thing, it’s why our species is working its way to the top of the food chain.

It is of course naive to expect that quality counts for everything in this city. It should, and it does in the long run, but “should” and “in the long run” rarely win a business argument in our ADHD era. However, if you can somehow get past the quarterly earnings-obsessed CEOs, there is also a clear company reason to protect the writers’ room: dollars and cents.

In the era of peak TV, budgets have exploded exponentially (although, oddly enough, writers’ budgets haven’t). While there are a million reasons why, there is one thing that always costs too much money: reshoots. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but the truth is sometimes it’s because of mistakes. The kind of inevitable fuck-ups that come from not having enough eyes on the ball and the temptation to “fix” said fuck-ups afterwards with costly VFX.

That’s just a variation on that same theme: Asking one or two writers to oversee the crazy Rube-Goldberg machine that is a show.*** Usually something happens when those who helped create the battle plan ( i.e. the scripts) are not there for battle. Not to mention the cheapest way to deal with unforeseen issues — and all shows have unforeseen issues — is to keep hands on deck for quick rewrites. A piece of paper costs nothing compared to a standing set.

When you’ve eliminated space, you’ve eliminated an important budget-cutting mechanism. And given how meager writing budgets are compared to what they used to be, the savings are “penny wise, pound foolish” at best. Is it a coincidence that show budgets skyrocketed just as the writers’ room came under pressure? I highly doubt it, but office-based managers don’t seem to have realized the connection. It doesn’t fit in a spreadsheet. And if bullshit AI is shoved down our throats in the name of “efficiency,” they’ll try to convince themselves it only takes one writer and a damn chatbot. Do you think TV is going downhill now? You wait…

If none of this still arrives, Netflix, I’ll make it even simpler. Do you know which show had a writer’s room?

To take.

*Sorry, Elon, I can’t bring myself to call it X. I’m past that point in puberty where that sounds like a cool name for whatever.

** Sometimes writers were pay to start setting. Buying plane tickets, paying for hotel rooms, just to protect the stories and characters they’d toiled over. That’s how much we care about this job.

***Before you say the words “Mike White,” I’m pretty sure he would love to have a pair of hands on hand to exchange ideas. Aaron Sorkin was known for wanting to write everything himself He still had a writer’s room.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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