Rally at the Rock- WGA Protests

Story posted May 24, 2023 in

NEW YORK CITY, N.Y.- “Live from New York, it’s writers on strike!” read one of the hundreds of witty signs on display during the Writers Guild of America’s Rally at the Rock.

The WGA East had an organized protest dubbed “Rally at the Rock” on May 23 at W 49th Street outside the iconic 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

A symbolic location that houses NBC shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers” which have all gone dark this month as a result of the strike.

On May 1, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) announced their negotiations with the WGA had ended without an agreement.

Due to the stalemate, the WGA moved to strike and began to protest in cities across the country with daily protests in New York City and Los Angeles.

The guild is “fighting for a contract that improves pay and residuals for the content we create. We are also seeking protections that will guarantee that writing remains a sustainable career for current and future writers,” according to an information sheet protestors were handing out to those at the event.

This sheet also listed many shows which had been halted due to the strike such as fan favorites, “Stranger Things”, “Abbott Elementary”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Emily in Paris”, “Wednesday”, “Hacks”, “Sex Lives of College Girls” and so much more.

On Tuesday, May 23rd from 11-2, WGA members were joined by the support of roughly 1,000 people, including several unions, like SAG, PGA, IATSE and Teamsters, along with friends of the guild and gawking spectators.

“I’m here to support my union, fight for the survival of our craft and the arts and what we do,” comedy legend Wanda Sykes said. Sykes was one of just many notable WGA members at the event.

The deal the WGA initially attempted with the AMPTP would cost 343 million annually across major studios. A number that sounds big until revealed to only be .026% of the studio's total revenues.

Each day the writers continue to strike is estimated to cost studios 30 million dollars, which means the strike has become more expensive than the proposed contract. On this sheet handed out to protestors, it stated, “The studios can end this now by offering writers a fair deal” and that is all they want. Nothing unreasonable, just fair pay.

“It’s not such a challenge,” a writer who sold shows to Hulu, Apple TV, and Netflix, who wished to remain anonymous, said. She added, “Would maybe shareholders get a slightly less dividend for a quarter or two, yes, but at the end of the day, TV and movies are the things we turn to at the hardest points of our lives, so maybe the compromise is worth it.”

There is more to the strike than just payment. The WGA is fighting this battle to ensure the best quality of work and opportunities for young and future writers.

Concerning trends such as shrinking writer's rooms and not allowing writers on set paired with Artificial Intelligence's threat to these creative careers are all part of the negotiations between the WGA and AMPTP.

“People need the support, and when you’re creating a show, you want the people helping the showrunner and the vision of the show,” Sidney Karger said, a writer with credits like “SNL.”

He notes that shrinking the writer's room only hurts the end product, “The numbers are what’s important for ideas and diversity.”

It isn’t just the smaller rooms with less time allotted that negatively affect writers and the future of their careers but access to the set as a writer.

The same anonymous writer notes that the best outcome doesn’t come from working to the bone, with no sleep but the moments riffing with actors on set. Recalling memories of studios refusing to let her on set even when she offered to pay her own way.

There are few actors that are as revered at improv as “SNL” alumni Rachel Dratch. The SAG and WGA member emphasized the importance of having writers on set for projects.

“There are times when this scene isn’t really flying like we want it to, and the writer comes in with four more jokes or whatever,” Dratch said. “That’s really helpful because some actors improvise and some actors don’t.”

Dratch also noted a conversation she was having with a fellow writer about young writers “They no longer have a place to cut their teeth anymore because they’re not being put in these positions on set or in the rooms for a long time, so there’s not really this open door for new writers.”

The most trendy conversation surrounding this strike has been AI and its future in these creative fields.

AI is a confusing and evolving technology that even members of the WGA don’t totally understand. Dratch laughed at the visualization of “a giant robot trying to do all our jobs.”

Another writer who asked for anonymity said, “Studios are using AI as a scare tactic so we can take what we can while we can.”

Writer Alex R. Johnson laid out the WGA’s stance they’re taking with this evolving technology. “AI can’t write scripts, we’re not going to be paid to re-write scripts that AI wrote and they can’t use our scripts to teach AI how to write,” Johnson said.

He theorized that studios want to use this technology to AI generate a script in a particular writer's voice and then pay that writer a much smaller rewrite fee to humanize it. “We are not going to do that,” Johnson said, noting that AI can’t do anything other than create, “repetitive old stories told worse.”

If the WGA and their supporters could make one thing clear, it’s that writers aren’t the elite fighting for more money; the fight is for liveable wages.

One of the event's guest speakers, Busy Phillips, emphasized this sentiment. She asked the crowd if any of them owned a boat or private plane and was met with silence. When she asked if the most expensive thing people owned were the computers they wrote on, a thunderous roar took over the crowd. 

“I used to depend on residuals. I haven’t been a TV writer, so my writing experience is mostly from the feature side, but I can’t make ends meet anymore in New York City, and that’s just my own personal story,.” Greg Matolla said, known for directing projects like “Superbad” and “Adventureland.”

“Maybe I should move to a cheaper city but that’s the story you keep hearing,” he said.

Matolla continued by saying the trend of people moving out of Los Angeles and New York continues as these jobs no longer offer the same kind of middle-class lifestyle they once did. 

Johnson said he believed around 50% of the WGA make the minimum, which isn’t much. He recalled a time a studio stretched out his rewrite time so long that he wasn’t paid enough to qualify for health care that year.

Despite the almost dystopian nature of this fight, the energy at the protest was optimistic and determined. The speakers were passionate, funny and engaging. Pedestrians cheered on protestors, and passing vehicles often honked their horns which were met with applause from the crowd.

For college students that feel inclined to support the WGA and lack access to major cities to join/support protests, guild members and supporters agreed that social media support goes a long way.

“Social media’s the best way for that, but also just getting people informed and talking,” “SNL” cast member Heidi Gardner said.

Gardner, a SAG member, continued, “There’s people back at my hometown that don’t know this strike is going on, so just continuing to talk about it is a great tool.”

Sykes continued this sentiment by saying, “Send support, send messages to the networks, to the streamers for the programs you enjoy and want to see continue. Look at all the diversity we have now with programming and all these great stories being told and the different perspectives. If you want that to continue, let them know.”

Another writer cited the boos and chants Warner Brother’s CEO David Zaslav was met with at the Boston University graduation, saying that it meant a lot and was something special.

Of those interviewed, they were delighted with the overall support they’ve seen from the general consensus online. Something that wasn’t as present in strikes of the past.

As Matolla said, “I think just the fact that people are thinking about it and seeing that it’s a symbol of a bigger income discrepancy than just the general inequality from the 1% and the rest of America, that this is symbolic of. It’s our particular version of it.”

The last WGA strike took place from 2007-2008 and lasted 100 days. As more and more shows have to halt production due to this strike for fans of television and film, it’s hopeful that an agreement will be met soon.

As the strike continues and the likelihood of SAG striking becomes more and more realistic by the day, the future of the entertainment industry hangs in a state of uncertainty.

For the WGA, this is a fight they are fighting for more than just themselves. As Sykes says “It’s more about the young people, the staff writers, the starting positions, that’s the only way we can sustain what we do… it’s to make space for young people to look at this profession as something where they can actually have a career.”

Sophia D’Ovidio is a second-year majoring in digital and print journalism. To contact her email, sgd5184@psu.edu.

Jack Freiser is a third-year majoring in telecommunications. To contact him email, jef5614@psu.edu