Special Reports

Story of the Week: Hollywood Writers Are on Strike. What Does This Mean for the Theater?

Could the Tony Awards telecast go dark this year?

Striking members of the WGA picket in front of the corporate offices of Netflix in Manhattan on Wednesday.
(© Zachary Stewart)

One minute past midnight on Tuesday, May 2, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), representing professional writers in film and television, went on strike for the first time since 2007.

Story of the Week will give a brief overview of the issues behind the strike, and what impact (if any) this might have on the theater.

Why is the WGA on strike?

The conflict primarily revolves around compensation and new technology. Streaming services (like Disney+ and Netflix) have created a new way for entertainment companies to distribute and monetize scripted programing, while also contributing to the destruction of older ways, like syndication. Writers might have a great deal when it comes to the licensing of their sitcom to the national broadcaster of Sweden, but if Swedish viewers are watching the show through their Netflix subscriptions (and writers are getting paid much less for it) that deal doesn’t matter.

The WGA showed tremendous foresight in 2007 (the last time writers went on strike) by laying the foundation for how writers are compensated for streaming, which was still in its nascence. Now it represents major business (Netflix brought in $31.6 billion in revenue for 2022) and the WGA wants to make sure its members are getting a fair share of that.

They’re negotiating with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents not only legacy studios like Disney and Paramount, but relatively young streaming behemoths like Netflix and Amazon, neither of which took part in the 2007-08 negotiations. Tech companies have always had a more libertarian culture than the entertainment industry (Amazon has been very aggressive in combatting the formation of unions in its warehouses), and I wonder what difference their presence at the table will make this time around.

One of the more contentious points involves the use of Artificial Intelligence in the creative process. New AI products like ChatGPT have demonstrated a remarkable ability to mimic the style of human writers, and it is not inconceivable that even more advanced versions of AI might be used to complete a writer’s unfinished script, or even craft an entire script with minimal human input. The WGA obviously wants serious guardrails around this technology, while the AMPTP has agreed to continue discussing the issue without making any firm commitments.

You can see a full breakdown of the WGA’s demands and the AMPTP’s responses here (this document was created by the union, so take it with a grain of salt). The two parties seem quite far apart, which doesn’t bode well for the prospect of a speedy conclusion to the strike.

Picketers round the block in front of Netflix corporate offices in Manhattan.
(© Zachary Stewart)

How long will this go on?

The last strike went on for 100 days, from November 5, 2007, to February 12, 2008. And the one before that (in 1988) was 153 days. Both strikes accelerated the natural evolution of American viewing habits, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t happen again if this strike is prolonged.

Like in 2007, the immediate impact will be felt in late-night TV, which relies on teams of writers to crank out jokes and skits for daily production (see this season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for a dramatized example of this). Soap operas (remember those?) will go dark next. Broadcast dramas and sitcoms (shows like NCIS and Lopez vs. Lopez) are mostly approaching the end of their seasons, which means the work is already in the can and will be aired as scheduled. But if the strike goes into the summer, it will disrupt the fall season, which still supports quite a lot of advertising revenue for the networks. Of course, this form of television has been on the decline for a while, and one wonders if the more tech-inclined members of the AMPTP might be happy to drive a stake further into the heart of their undead competition.

The strike will have to last considerably longer to impact high-budget streaming shows (like Maisel, which is in its series finale and will therefore be entirely unaffected). It can take over a year to produce a season, and shows with completed scripts (like the next season of HBO’s House of the Dragon) will continue shooting. Studios have alluded to the arsenal of “content” (a deadly word when it comes to any creative endeavor) they have in reserve. So it could be a long time before casual television viewers begin to notice the absence of their favorite streaming shows.

What’s a striking writer to do in the meantime? Playwright and WGA member Jeremy O. Harris has recently called on his fellow scribes to come back to what he calls “one of the oldest professions.”

Playwright and WGA member Jeremy O. Harris has encouraged striking writers to write for the theater.
(© Tricia Baron)

Could the theater benefit from the WGA strike?

It’s true that writing for the stage is governed under an entirely different set of agreements, with writers retaining ownership and creative control of their scripts in ways that are unheard of in TV land. WGA members are not barred from writing for the stage, which makes the theater an attractive outlet for writers who want to keep creating.

However, any benefit in the form of new plays written by striking WGA members will likely not be noticed for years: It takes a long time to write and produce a play, and New York’s prestigious not-for-profit theaters program their seasons years in advance. Smaller, scrappier, nonequity theaters move much faster, but there’s obviously no money in that — not that there’s much to be had writing for the big theaters.

I often feel like I’m attending auditions for America’s next great screenwriter when I see the work of new playwrights off-Broadway (I have speculated this is the exact reason the film and TV studio A24 recently purchased the Cherry Lane Theatre). And I absolutely don’t judge young dramatic writers for making this career calculation. In my opinion, the most daring dramatic writing in America is happening on streaming television shows like Beef and Succession. Film and TV studios can bring resources to a script that the theater, which by physical reality plays to a much smaller audience, cannot. Unless you’re among the lucky handful of dramatists who write that hit play every regional theater wants to produce next season (or even more lucrative, every high school and community theater for the next 10 years), you’re not going to make the kind of living in the theater that you could writing for TV. All of that makes film and television a more attractive career path for writers — and the strike is unlikely to change that in the long run.

Will Ariana DeBose have to write her own jokes for this year’s Tony Awards?
(© Tricia Baron)

Could the strike affect the Tony Awards telecast?

This is one way the strike could significantly impact Broadway in the immediate future. The jokes, transitions, and intro number for host Ariana DeBose would all normally be written by WGA writers, who won’t cross picket lines for a major event on CBS (a subsidiary of Paramount, one of the major members of the AMPTP). The WGA could grant the Tonys a waiver to go on with the show as normal, although they didn’t do it for the Golden Globes in 2008, which were announced via press conference that year.

Will the Tonys have to downsize in a similar manner? Will the show go on, but with no jokes and cutesy musical numbers shouting out all the nominees? Are the Tony producers actively lobbying the WGA for a waiver? Or are they hoping the whole thing will blow over before June 11? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, and multiple requests for comment from the official spokespeople of the awards went unanswered at time of publication.

As I’ve written on numerous occasions, the Tony Awards are Broadway’s infomercial, selling New York’s latest stage offerings to potential ticket-buyers across America. It’s the reason we put so much emphasis on this event, the cancellation of which would be detrimental to an industry still recovering from the pandemic shutdown.