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This time last year, Hollywood writers were on strike. Now, many can’t find work

Striking Writers Guild members picket alongside SAG-AFTRA members outside Netflix studios in September 2023.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
Striking Writers Guild members picket alongside SAG-AFTRA members outside Netflix studios in September 2023.

This time last year, Hollywood writers were picketing outside the offices of major studios and streaming companies. Throughout their nearly five month-long strike, writers often convened at Bob’s Big Boy, where TV host Drew Carey often picked up the check.

“I remember eating a lot of hash browns, and then if it was dinner, they’ve got a good soup situation,” says Taylor Orci, who recently returned to the Burbank diner to reminisce with writer Bill Wolkoff.

“It saved us,” Wolkoff nods. “It was a vote of confidence that ‘I believe in writers.’ Thank you, Drew Carey, for that.”

Wolkoff writes and produces the series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Last year, when the show took a pause, he was a Writers Guild of America strike captain outside CBS Studios in L.A. Thanks to the union’s new contract, he’s looking forward to getting higher streaming residuals with each hit season.

“That’s going to be a noticeable difference in my life,” Wolkoff says. “And the AI protections too. I mean, we got in our contract language that ensures that AI will not replace writers. That’s huge.”

But, he admits, he’s one of the lucky few Hollywood writers still working these days.

Like many others, Taylor Orci still struggles. One writing job fell through recently, and they’re still living on loans, with max’d out credit cards and a baby on the way.

Writer Taylor Orci outside Bob's Big Boy, a diner in Burbank.
/ Mandalit del Barco/NPR
Mandalit del Barco/NPR
Writer Taylor Orci outside Bob's Big Boy, a diner in Burbank.

“I knew it was gonna be slow, but I thought I’d have a job,” they say. “It’s tough right now to find work, especially if you didn’t have a job before.”

'We needed a sea change'

Across town in Encino, Lannet Tachel says that the union’s gains are helpful, but, “in the long run, you still have to be one of the lucky few to get in so that help applies to you.”

Her writing partner Corey Grant agrees: there’s not much production these days.

“It was hard before the strike. It’s even harder now,” he says. “I think it’s a backlash because of the strike. I think they’re trying to … shore up their pockets a little bit, but it’s less TV, less episodes getting made, tighter budgets, half the shows got canceled.”

 Lanett Tachel and writing partner Corey Grant.
/ Mandalit del Barco/NPR
Mandalit del Barco/NPR
Lanett Tachel and writing partner Corey Grant.

NPR reached out to eight major studios and streamers for a response. They didn’t get back to us. But the president of the WGA West, Meredith Stiehm, says those production changes started before the strike, not because of it. She says there had been a boom, with streaming companies ordering a glut of new shows. But in 2022, so-called “peak TV” went bust.

“Netflix announced that they'd lost subscribers. Streaming was not profitable for anybody. It was kind of a failed model. Everybody started retreating. At the same time,” she says, “our contract was untenable and we needed a sea change.”

The WGA spent nearly five months on strike last year starting in May. Actors and performers in the union SAG-AFTRA also went on strike last summer. The writers union reached a tentative deal with studios in September, with new residual models in streaming, new minimum lengths of employment for TV gigs, more guaranteed paid work for feature films and other protections. Then, SAG-AFTRA reached their own tentative agreement in November.

“When we all returned to work, the decline continued, meaning not as much content is being ordered,” Stiehm says. “And it seems that the studios are sort of regrouping, and writers are feeling the post-Peak TV pinch.”

During a recent earnings call, SONY Pictures Entertainment CEO Tony Vinciquerra said his company was hit by more than just the streaming revolution.

“We had to go from a pandemic where production was severely limited, to a strike, where there was no creative work being done for literally seven or eight months,” he said. “It had to restart. And that's what you're seeing right now.”

The industry continues to transform, with shrinking ad revenue and layoffs at just about every entertainment and media company. Last month, Netflix announced it would produce more non-scripted material, like reality shows and game shows. Disney said it will offer even more live sports through ESPN over the coming years.

Nick Geisler got his first writing job in Los Angeles in 2018. He was a strike captain outside Amazon Studios last year. After the strike ended, he says, he returned for a few months to the writers room for the Disney show Bunk’d: Learning the Ropes. But he says he hasn’t had much luck with other studios.

“There’s just no appetite for risk,” Geisler says. “And there's a lot of requests for rewrites. A lot of them are free. There's a lot of, ‘Hey, we're so, so close. Can you just make these changes and get it over the line?’ ‘Hey, we're turning it into our higher ups tomorrow. Can you do this in three hours?’ I don't think that's really changed much. Because of the climate we're in, there’s a lot of ‘Well, I’ll just get this done because there’s not a lot going on.’”

Now, he says, “I'm actually working on a short film for a writer that I met on the picket line.”

'This time feels different'

Things are tough for those who’ve been in the business for decades, too.

“I reach out to my agent and he tells me it’s really bad out there. Hopefully it will turn around,” says Jon Sherman, who hasn’t had a writing assignment for three years.

 Jon Sherman began his career in Hollywood three decades ago.
/ Mandalit del Barco/NPR
Mandalit del Barco/NPR
Jon Sherman began his career in Hollywood three decades ago.

He began his career 30 years ago, writing for Bill Nye the Science Guy. He also wrote and produced for the original TV series Frasier. Sherman was a WGA strike captain outside Amazon Studios last year.

“It's been the first time in a long career, for which I'm grateful, that I've had a real long layoff. I’ve reached a point where I'm like, ‘Oh, this time feels different.’”

To pay the bills, Sherman says he was in a focus group for dried fruit and in a UCLA research study on exercise. He’s also now a TV game show contestant. But he sure would still love to write for television.

Note: NPR News staffers are also members of SAG-AFTRA, the union of actors and performers that also went on strike last year. Broadcast journalists are under a different contract, however, and were not on strike.

Copyright 2024 NPR

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.