Novelist, screenwriter, and Writers Guild of America member Benjamin Percy joins co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss the Hollywood writers’ strike, which began May 2. Percy talks about several WGA contract proposals tied to streaming services’ rise in popularity, and reflects on how streaming has upended the traditional 22-episode television season, causing writers to scramble for work every ten weeks.
He explains how writers end up doing unpaid labor before shows are greenlit and highlights how a lack of transparency regarding streaming viewership numbers leads to writers being underpaid. He also analyzes why the WGA wants to limit the use of artificial intelligence on its projects. Finally, he talks about his own experiences writing screenplays, including his recent movie Summering. The group listens to the trailer and Percy recalls the genesis of the film, as well as how being on a set changed his understanding of the economics of movies.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Anne Kniggendorf,
and edited by Han Mallek.
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: This is the first time in 15 years that the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has been on strike. Last time, in 2007, streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, and Apple TV barely existed, and the WGA’s central demand was for better pay. The same is true today—writers want better compensation. But, now, a lot of that demand is tied to the existence of streaming, which has totally changed the landscape of television and film. Could you talk about what the WGA’s demands are, especially in relation to streaming services?
Benjamin Percy: There’s the broad, basic way to talk about this: wealth is concentrated at the top, and people aren’t being compensated properly. That’s a very American story. So, to give you some particular examples that underscore that, let’s say in the olden days—and the olden days are actually not that long ago—you had a movie come out.
You wrote a feature, it was at the multiplex, and for every ticket that was sold, that money would find its way back to you. And the same could be said about DVD sales, right? Well, what if you’re writing a movie for Netflix, for Hulu? For Prime? It never shows up in the theater. Residuals, as a result, don’t really exist anymore.
The same could be said of a television series. Let’s say you wrote an episode of Friends, or an episode of M*A*S*H, or Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, or whatever, that would air on NBC. And then maybe there’d be a rerun and then another rerun and then maybe it would get picked up by the USA Network or TBS in syndication. Well, every single time that that happened, there would be compensation, there would be residuals.
Let’s say right now you write something that appears directly on Netflix or Hulu. Five hundred million people could watch that and it would make no difference. You would have been paid. You’re not making any more money. It doesn’t add up. There’s no math involved in this situation. All of the benefits belong to these streamers and not to the talent that’s creating the shows.
WT: But they get paid something, right? They’re paid upfront, one time.
BP: Yeah, you’re paid upfront, sure.
WT: You don’t get this other payment for when it airs again on a different network or something else happens? It goes into syndication—what a fabulous, wonderful old word that we don’t talk about anymore.
BP: Yeah, I mean, there was an Abbott Elementary writer who was interviewed the other day, and she was talking about how if there was a rerun on network TV, it would have amounted to… I think it was $17,000. But the only residual check that you would have received when it pops onto the streaming platform would be $700.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: That’s outrageous.
WT: So if they said, “Okay, we’re gonna show this again in the summer,” or whatever, you get paid again, right? But Netflix, it’s one time and then they can show whenever they want. They don’t have to have a rerun fee or anything.
BP: Right. And it’s not just about people being able to earn throughout their life or being compensated for the work that they’ve done. It’s about the erratic nature of a writer’s life in that, oftentimes, especially if you’re writing for Hollywood, there are long dry spells between gigs and, as result of that, these residuals carry you through. And now, people might not be able to pay their rent. I know that sounds maybe a little ridiculous to some who are tuning into this, but it’s very true. And it has to do, too, with the way that earning works in general.
I mean, let’s say you made a big chunk of money. Just to give us a flat fee, let’s say it’s $100,000 that you earn for a feature. That’s a very nice check, most people would say. But it’s not just the taxes that come off of it. It’s the management fees, the agency fees, the lawyer fees, all of these people need to be involved to close the deal in Hollywood. You’re probably going to see, at the end of the day, $40,000 of that $100,000. I’m not exaggerating the slightest when I say that.
VVG: No, I’m sure you’re not. Also, to put some other numbers on this—back in my youth, long ago, a TV season would often be 22 episodes. Streaming seasons are often eight to 10, so there are fewer episodes. The other thing that I understand from reading about this is that there’s very little transparency. One of the ways in which there used to be a rerun would be if there were a midseason hiatus, and then they would actually rerun an episode from earlier in the season. Syndication is something even past that—essentially, the Law and Order channel, which sort of exists.
BP: And it’s not just about those reruns—you just said something really important. These seasons are now eight episodes or six episodes. It used to be that you could rely on a show… that’s your year, right? That’s your employment, you’re taken care of throughout the calendar year. Now, you’re looking for a new job every 10 weeks.
VVG: Right. Before, the breaks would be… it would almost be like an academic year. You would wait, you know, like a little kid, for the season four premiere of The X-Files, and you’d say, “Ah, it’s Fox! It’s September! I’m excited!” And you also knew when the reruns were on. But the other thing about these streaming services is that they’re keeping tallies of how much we’re watching stuff.
BP: But they’re not sharing that information.
VVG: Right. So there’s no transparency.
WT: Is that part of the negotiation? Is the Writers Guild asking for those numbers?
BP: There’s a lot on the table. I can’t speak to the granular takeaways of all this, but more transparency is absolutely something that people are asking for. And, again, it has to do with… let’s say 100 million people watch your show. There should be compensation for that. But nobody knows what the numbers are. You’ll get abstract data, like “this was the number one show on Netflix.” And that’s all you know.
WT: I understand you’re not there in the room negotiating, and that all this is fluid and it’s all being proposed now, but have there been concepts floated that might solve this problem, theoretically, to replace the income that would have come from syndication and multiple episodes?
BP: I mean, there’s a lot to tackle here, and I am not part of the negotiating board. But what I think that I can say on behalf of most writers is that we’re not alone in this. SAG, the actors’ union, is up for renewal. And the DGA, the directors’ union, is also up for renewal. And everybody’s concerns are similar. The residual argument that I just put forward applies to them as well. And it’s not just that, it’s the concern over the brevity of a season. An actor’s employment or director’s employment window is much briefer. And it also has to do with AI, which I’m sure we’re going to talk about soon.
VVG: We are, and I was going to wait until later to bring this up. But I just want to let our listeners know that if you want to get really granular there has been a chart going around social media that is about the negotiations. On the left hand side of the chart you can see the WGA proposals and on the right hand side of the chart you can see the AMPTP offers in response. So, for example, streaming—the question that Whitney just asked.
The WGA proposed that streaming features with a budget of $12 million or more receive full theatrical terms, including better initial compensation. So a better upfront fee and residuals. And the AMPTP said that made-for-streaming video on demand programs that are 96 minutes or longer with a budget of 40 million or more receive a 9 percent increase to initial compensation and there is no improvement in residuals. That’s their response.
• “The last writers’ strike, when streaming was new and Conan grew a beard” – By Sonia Rao and Michael Cavna, The Washington Post • Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU | The American Reader by Carmen Maria Machado • Story by Robert McKee • Save the Cat by Blake Snyder • Screenplay by Syd Field • Near Dark, directed by Kathryn Bigelow • Chinatown • William Goldman • The Princess Bride • All the President’s Men • Quentin Tarantino • Drew’s Script-O-Rama • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 6 Episode 17: Chatbot vs. Writer: Vauhini Vara on the Perils and Possibilities of Artificial Intelligence • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 2 Episode 11: Brit Bennett and Emily Halpern on Screenwriting’s Tips for Fiction • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 1 Episode 11: What’s It Really Like to Have Your Book Made Into a Movie? • WGA proposal • “You’re Not Making Jet Engines, You’re Making Art” | The Distraction: A Defector Podcast • “2023 Writers Guild of America Strike: What You Need to Know” – The New York Times • Writers Guild of America West: Mini-Rooms Are Writers’ Rooms. Period. • “These are the TV shows and films affected by the Hollywood writers’ strike so far,” by Ananya Bhattacharya, Quartz • “Writers strike: What TV shows are being affected” by Brahmjot Kaur, NBC • “WGA strike 2023: Hollywood’s writers walked off the job. What happens now?” – Vox • “Conan lauded for his support of writers in old video amid new writers strike: ‘Man is a legend,’” by Aditi Bora