Anonymous Strike Diary: Why Protecting the Writers Room Is Good for Studios’ Bottom Line

This is part of a series of frank accounts of the strike from Hollywood writers at different levels in their careers.

Day 110 and the karaoke’s still going strong — so is trivia and celebrity-spotting. The TMZ bus swings by Paramount like clockwork now, with even the tourists cheering in solidarity. Also, food trucks. Lots of food trucks. Infinite thanks to Dean’s coffee for all that iced java, every day.

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If anything, Friday hit a high note when Latin Hollywood flexed its muscle, swamping Warner Bros. in a Tacos 1986-fueled block party. Mr. Stand and Deliver himself, Edward James Olmos, was there, invoking the spirits of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to keep the fires burning. Not even a hurri-quake will keep this labor action down. Although, thankfully, we got Monday off to recover from all the frantic texting to Florida friends about how to use a sandbag properly.

The point is, we will do this as long as it takes.

Not that anyone wants to. After that hilariously predictable “meeting about a meeting,” the AMPTP has at least commenced talking. (Granted, only after Wall Street yelled at them. Several times.) Remember all those issues that were “off the table” when the strike kicked off? Well, they’re on the table now. Funny that, clearly, they never had any intention of negotiating back in May. (Though it certainly sounds like that hasn’t been lost on the FTC …)

Now comes the real fun part: the sausage-making. Or in our case, guessing how the sausage is getting made. Technically, there’s a media blackout — which means rumor-mongering, leaking and second-guessing are the order of the day. I guess that’s not too surprising for an industry built on passive-aggressive communication, where the only unforgivable sin is being direct.

This leaves one to parse the tea leaves of the trades and Writer Twitter.* Cross-referencing the two, the negotiation feathers seem most ruffled over the writers room. Maybe because the studios think the guild’s request to preserve what has been a hallmark of TV production for decades is either a hair-brained scheme or a fast-times grift. (Or, at least, that it’d make a great wedge issue to divide the guild.) But judging by all the digital ink spilled about it, maybe the C-suite just doesn’t get the writers room, period. Surprisingly, considering that’s TV’s secret sauce.

As a public service announcement, let’s try to educate them.

The writers room is where the magic happens. Protecting it is not a red-herring demand. It’s not a cynical grab for cash. It’s not a request to pay people to sit around and do nothing all day. It is the heart of what’s made TV good. If you’re at all feeling a slight decline in the average quality of TV, it’s not cause we’re not trying hard. It’s not because we got lazy. We love this job. We love doing it well. We just haven’t been allowed to. It used to be that writers stuck around as a show was shot and divvied up the infinite tasks that ensure quality. Many brains made for better product: more writers paying attention to what’s being made. Now most of us are forced off shows we love** by studios that don’t want to pay us — before the cameras even start rolling. And we can see where this “efficiency” train is headed: eliminating the writers room altogether.

It started with mini rooms. Then, writers weren’t going to set. Everything fell on a showrunner. Sometimes producers or directors step in, but they weren’t there fighting the dragons when the story was cracked. So, they’re always playing catch-up. As for writers, instead of becoming devoted disciples of a show, we became masterless ronin, going from gig to gig.

This left overburdened showrunners to try and remember all that shit we talked about in the room, and why we talked about it, when scripts actually went into production a year or more later. It left them to deal with countless studio notes alone, to struggle to remember all the things we’d already thought about. It made a mess of things. It’s an impossible task for one person or even two people. I’ve heard showrunners give me the same advice over and over: When you’re in this seat, you’ve got to learn to delegate. But that only works if there’s someone to delegate to. 

Cutting the writers room and not sending writers to set might look like a good idea on paper, which is all a business affairs exec thinks about. But reality is another question. In that room, we game out countless plots, have thousands of arguments (philosophical, practical, bizarre), come up with good ideas, bad ideas and crazy ideas. We talk about our lives, our beliefs, our dreams. Out of all that, a good show can emerge. Collaborative social intelligence is not only a real thing, it’s why our species clawed its way to the top of the food chain.

Of course, it’s naïve to expect quality to count for anything in this town. It should, and it does in the long run, but “should” and “the long run” rarely win a business argument in our ADHD era. However, if one can somehow get past the quarterly earnings-obsessed blinders of the CEOs, there’s also a clear business reason to protect the writers room: dollars and cents.

In the age of peak TV, budgets have exploded exponentially (although not, curiously, writer budgets.) While there are a million reasons why, there’s one thing that always costs too much money: reshoots. Sometimes it’s inevitable, but truth be told, sometimes it’s ’cause of fuckups. The kind of inevitable fuckups that come from not enough eyes on the ball and the temptation to “fix” said fuckups in post with costly VFX.

Which is just a variation on that same theme: asking one writer or two to oversee the crazy Rube-Goldberg machine that is a show.*** Shit tends to happen when those who helped draw up the battle plan (i.e. the scripts) aren’t around for the battle. That’s not to mention the cheapest way to fix unforeseen problems — and all shows have unforeseen problems — is to keep hands on deck to rewrite quickly. A piece of paper costs nothing compared to a standing set.

When you’ve eliminated the room, you’ve eliminated a key budget-saving mechanism. And, given how paltry writing budgets are compared to what they used to be, the savings are at best penny-wise, pound foolish. Is it any coincidence that show budgets soared just as the writers room got squeezed? I highly doubt it, but office-bound executives don’t seem to have realized the connection. It doesn’t fit in a spreadsheet. And if bullshit AI is shoved down our throats in the name of “efficiency,” they’ll try to convince themselves that all it takes is one writer and a fucking chatbot. You think TV’s going downhill now? Just you wait …

If all this still isn’t landing, Netflix, I’ll make it even simpler. You know what show had a writers room?


*Sorry, Elon, I can’t bring myself to call it X. I’m past that point in puberty where that sounds like a cool name for anything.

** Sometimes writers were paying to go to set.  Buying airfare, paying for hotel rooms, just to protect the stories and characters they’d slaved over. That’s how much we care about this job.

***Before you say the words “Mike White,” I’m pretty sure he’d be happy to have a couple of hands on hand to bounce ideas off of. Aaron Sorkin was famous for wanting to write everything himself, and he still had a writers room.

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