A.K.A. The Roaring Twenties on the Picket Lines
The strike is eight weeks old as this article hits the virtual newsstands (internet, interwebs, hellish landscape—whatever you want to call it), and it’s been an interesting experience as a writer who weathered the last strike not long after joining the Writers Guild of America West in 2007.
I walked the picket lines back then in the pre-iPhone era. (Yes, the Jurassic era. No cameras on our phones and texting was—let’s just say, tedious.) It was exciting and scary, and although I met a few writers who became friends during that time, I was not eager to repeat the experience. The picket lines were full of the usual suspects—forgive the cliché—but the poorly postured, out of shape, often pale creatures rarely exposed to sunlight that “look” like cliché version of a screenwriter, right out of Central Casting.
The times, they are a changin’. At least according to Screenwriter Twitter. From what I was reading, it seemed like one could delete their Hinge, Bumble, Tinder, or Grindr account and find what they’re looking for on the picket lines.
As someone in a committed relationship, I wasn’t seeking anything. As a writer and therefore amateur anthropologist, I was curious. After all, we are coming out of a global pandemic, just like the Roaring Twenties from the previous century (after the devastation of the Spanish Flu subsided). Was this going to be East Egg from The Great Gatsby, representative of a new ‘Roaring Twenties’ on the picket line? Or merely another Twitterstorm, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?
So, I ventured out to the picket lines the following Monday with a new goal. Observe and report. AirPods in, a friendly (but not too friendly) smile and avoiding my usual studio haunts.
The first thing I noticed was, unlike the angry drivers I faced during the previous strike, we’re getting “positive honking” (still getting used to that, to be honest); thumbs up from the vast majority of drivers entering and leaving the lots, and general support from local merchants. (This writer has eaten more artisan donuts in the past four weeks than in the previous ten years. Luckily, walking 10,000-20,000 steps per day has eased the metabolic pain.) I don’t know if there’s a larger awareness that big business is not exactly the friend of the working person among the general populace or that people learned to fully appreciate the film and TV they were consuming during the pandemic—but the support has been genuinely refreshing.
The second thing I gleaned is that the Central Casting version of what a writer looks like seems to have changed. While it's not as if six pack abs have completely replaced the physiques of typical writers, they are—for lack of a better description—more diverse, attractive, and representative of this country. (Fortunately, no MAGA caps have revealed themselves … yet.)
This particular change hasn’t gone unnoticed. As previously mentioned, there were immediate Screenwriter Twitter threads about the picket lines being a good place for single writers to meet.
Each lot seemed to have their own particular type—perhaps reflecting which shows had been shot there. Paramount for the Trekkers; Warner Bros for singles—perhaps a residual effect of Friends shooting on the lot for almost a decade; others more basic—fit but somewhat older Westsiders sticking with Sony, Amazon and Fox.
One thing was clear. There were definitely more smiles among the picketers than during the previous strike. A nice mix of baby and elder statesmen writers, with a smattering of pre-WGA writers. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure the moniker fits, considering there are technically 7.9999 billion pre-WGA writers on the planet, even though I applaud the basic concept and am very grateful for their support.
There were many old timers on the line, meaning people who have been in the guild since the last strike. They were easy to spot as they were wearing the OG WGA (gray or red) shirts versus the blue ’23 designs. For the most part, they were a bit more serious than the younger writers as they understood that the AMPTP’s unwillingness to negotiate in good faith is an existential threat to the screenwriter profession.
As a refresher, in 2007, we were fighting for what the studios called “New Media” residuals. It was pretty simple. The WGA had asked the studios to pay a percentage of the profits they made from shows and movies they put on their websites. This was before Netflix, smart TVs, and prior to the term “streaming” became commonplace.
The response was basically "we’re not making any money.”
Our logical comeback was that they merely needed to offer us a percentage of the profits. If there were no profits, a percentage of nothing would be nothing. Therefore, it would cost them nothing until they started making a profit. The AMPTP stood firm on their initial offer, and we struck for 100 days to get a pittance of what would be the dominant form of residuals in a few years. (I’ll save the proliferation of reality shows in the wake of the strike for another article.)
As a side note, I want to remind my fellow writers that another one of the WGA demands back then was the guarantee that an original screenwriter would be invited to both the table read and the premiere of their film. The fact that this basic right had to be negotiated is pretty telling of where the studios stood in terms of respect for the people who stared at a blank page/screen and created the world. In other words, the more things change …
The 2023 strike is more complicated. Not just because we have the frightening reality of facing A.I. screenwriters, room-size debates, and fighting for seemingly the inalienable right to allow television writers on the set for their own episodes—but because the demographic of the picket line has changed. Perhaps evolved is a better word.
So, between rumors of whether the DGA will settle (as predicted by the vast majority, they acquiesced quite quickly), which bathroom was the closest and cleanest, and discussion of seemingly unimportant details, like the art of screenwriting, I noticed a few signs of burgeoning love (or at least flirtation) as well as discussions about the apparent attractiveness of writers. All genders and sex were subject to scrutiny.
To be fair, it did not seem like the picket lines were the nightclubs of yesterday. Nor a replacement for the myriad of dating apps that provide that service these days. I witnessed friendly conversations, some details exchanged (most Insta), and a few knowing smiles.
At night, I scoured Screenwriting Twitter to see if I missed anything. (This might be the first and only time I used Musk’s social network debacle as a research tool.) Besides a few “missed connection” notices—all at Warner Bros for some reason—the dating frenzy I had heard about seemed to have dissipated. I contemplated going to Warner Bros. to witness the ‘meat market’ at the Barham gate, but two things stopped me.
One: It’s the Valley, and I plan to avoid the 405 until the strike has ended.
Two: June Gloom is apparently over, and I wilt in the heat.
I suspect there might be a reason that the wordsmith love affair has ended. My theory is that it all came crashing down when SAG members decided to join the picket lines, ruining everything with their blatant (and age defying) attractiveness, perfect bone structure, and gym-toned bodies.
The uniform nature of the picket line was forever altered.
Regardless of what happens with the SAG contract (as their contract ends this week), the fabric of the picket lines are forever altered. Between spending eight weeks on the picket lines (building impressive calve muscles in the process), and the evolving nature of the Hollywood writer—which is refreshingly, and exponentially, more diverse than the crowd back in 2007/2008—the makeup of the picket lines are forever altered. We are more representative of the country as a whole and that is something to be noticed and applauded. It’s not as if systemic prejudice is not alive (it most certainly is), but to my eyes, it looks like we’re headed in the right direction.
Back to the title of this article: Sex, Lies, and Solidarity. Let me tackle these in reverse order.
Solidarity: The third piece of the puzzle was very much in evidence. And not just among WGA writers. Teamsters were and continue to be heroes. SAG members literally walking the walk. Pre-WGA members were out in force most days. I even witnessed a police cruiser giving picketers a thumbs up while turning on the siren.
Lies: One only has to look at statements form the studios and the articles in the trades that solely place the blame on the writers. Among other things, we’re apparently causing the janitors to be fired. I guess I’ll need to speak to my accountant and find out about this payroll issue I wasn’t aware about.
Sex: Although I had truly been hoping for the best stories of blooming love when I began my research, I think it was little more than wishful thinking combined with (possibly sultry) smoke and mirrors. In other words, don’t delete your dating apps.
All in all, the picket lines are now an essential part of life for WGA members on both coasts. While we wait to learn the results of the SAG negotiations, we listen to tales of woe and triumph from our fellow writers, express genuine gratitude to the support of other union members, and hope that the studios return to the negotiation table with a respectable offer.
And maybe, just maybe, hope for a smile from the attractive picketer pressing the “walk” button at the Overland gate.
*Feature image from Chief Crow (Adobe)