Black WGA’s striking writers say they’ve increased streamer diversity but aren’t reaping the rewards
As the Hollywood screenwriters’ strike enters its third week, black picketers see the push for better wages and contract terms as a way to shore up hard-won gains they say aren’t generating enough returns for the creators of color.
The Writers Guild of America launched its strike on May 2, shutting down much of the entertainment industry after failed negotiations sparked the first walkout in nearly 15 years.
For weeks, thousands of writers have campaigned for pay raises and changes to a streaming-based business model that many say has jeopardized their livelihoods. Members of the Black Guild see the fight as tied to one another: Improved representation in television and film, they say, has come at the cost of lasting careers for the very writers who are at the source of this progress.
After mass nationwide protests over the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, streaming operators such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video have joined a wave of major companies that have publicly pledged to improve racial equity in their ranks and products.
Since then, streamers have, in some respects, scored higher for diversity than their mainstream counterparts: Minority writers were credited in 20% of movies streamed last year, compared to 12.4% of releases in theaters, according to UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report.
But some in the industry say work on the streaming side in particular is becoming more precarious and less rewarding.
“They’re not really giving the shows a chance to find an audience in the same way they used to,” said Kyra Jones, 30, a Los Angeles-based writer and actor.
The last two projects Jones wrote for — “Queens,” a musical drama airing on ABC’s broadcast network featuring R&B singer Brandy and rapper Eve, and “Woke,” a comedy airing on Hulu about from a cartoonist on the verge – were canceled after one and two seasons, respectively.
Jones said his work on “Queens” earned him at least $16,000 in residuals, or compensation for content syndication or streams, compared to just $6,000 on “Woke.”
Among the WGA’s demands is that studios reconcile pay disparities between broadcasting and streaming like the one Jones pointed out. The guild also says streaming shows are being canceled more frequently, creating less stable schedules for creators as entertainment giants continue to lean into their streaming deals.
What’s missing is how much writers’ pay has changed with the new era of television.
—Charlene Polite Corley, Nielsen
A recent WGA survey found that the median weekly salary of writer-producers has fallen 23% over the past 10 years when adjusted for inflation.
“What’s missing is how much writers’ compensation has changed with the new era of television,” said Charlene Polite Corley, vice president and head of various insights and initiatives at Nielsen.
A spokesperson for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major media companies in negotiations with the WGA, referenced earlier statements on the strike, saying the hiring quotas are “inconsistent with the creative nature of our industry” and that “writers have only recently begun to see” a 46% increase in streaming residuals after 2020 contract negotiations.
NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News, is a member of AMPTP.
Jones said she began development on a show about black cowgirls which she recently sold to Freeform, an ABC multiplatform channel aimed at young viewers, but the strike halted that work. Her savings — and her parents — will help her “stay alive” in Los Angeles, she said, even if she has to find a new apartment with a roommate. In the meantime, she got a second job at Northwestern University as a virtual advocate for students affected by sexual violence.
The latest WGA strike, which began in late 2007, lasted about three months and left dozens of shows shortened or canceled. The popular Tracee Ellis Ross-directed comedy “Girlfriends,” for example, ended abruptly without a series finale in early 2008. Black social media users have recently speculated whether other shows featuring racial minorities could meet the same fate this time around.