Like their TV siblings, screenwriters know how to gather in solidarity, as Friday’s well-attended westside picket at Fox Studios demonstrated.
The picket drew a solid mix of screenwriters and Guild newcomers, as well as veterans, who turned out to show they were in step with the WGA’s fight for a fair contract that will benefit all writers. For the screenwriters walking the lines at Fox, that hopefully equates to things like guaranteed two-step deals, the curtailment of endless free work while paychecks are held up, and weekly pay.
Or as WGAW member and Joy Ride writer Teresa Hsaio put it, “It’s all about showing us the money.”
“But it’s also about respect for our work,” said Hsaio, who is also the co-creator and showrunner of Awkwafina is Nora From Queens. “I think back to the strike 30 to 40 years ago where we actually got residuals. That was a really monumental moment and it feels like we’re in that kind of a moment now where we’re fighting for the future of our business.”
Zak Penn, who formerly served on both the WGAW Board and the WGA Negotiating Committee, and has worked in both film and TV, has charted the challenges faced by screenwriters as the industry has changed.
“We have to win this fight. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re writing a movie or a TV show,” said Penn, whose credits include The Avengers, Ready Player One, and Free Guy. “The screenwriting business is still more difficult, but it’s still at least somewhat based on the idea that if you write a movie and it does well, you will do better with the studios. That’s one of the last vestiges of a fair system that we have.”
Two-step deals and weekly pay would help screenwriters get what WGAW member and The Hitman’s Bodyguard writer Tom ‘O’Connor calls “a basic level of fairness and predictability.”
“The working conditions are not anywhere near what they need to be to have a regular life and a predictable income,” said O’Connor.
The free work boondoggle is familiar to Joelle Luman, a longtime producer and aspiring screenwriter who became a WGAW member shortly before the start of the strike. Luman, who came through the Universal Writers Program, understands that newer writers will face hard work and competition, but some of the situations she has experienced have been demoralizing.
“Look, I’m a team player,” she continued, “but at some point, I need to keep moving forward on things I’m passionate about and that I can see going somewhere.”
Even Eric Roth, the Academy and Writers Guild Award-winning screenwriter of Forest Gump and The Insider, finds the move to one-step deals “very problematic.”
“You’re waiting for notes from the producers. They could be good notes, but it takes forever and you’re not getting paid,” said Roth a WGAW member since 1969. “That’s always been a beef of mine.”
Whether they were new to the Guild or longtime WGA members, the screenwriter picketers at Fox said they were happy to march alongside fellow Guild members and to see that, four months into the strike, the union is as strong as ever.
“We’ve basically won this strike. We know how this is going to end,” said WGAW Board member Dante Harper, who co-wrote Alien: Covenant. “We have to wait for the AMPTP to admit to themselves, to each other and to their shareholders that they have to make a deal now."
“They’re losing money, we are tough, and we are strong,” Harper continued. “So now it’s just a question of waiting for them to wake up and smell the coffee.”
Everyone Has a Roll to Play on Dungeons & Dragons Day
“Make some noise if you’re a part of the Bard class!” shouted Brennan Lee Mulligan, legendary Dungeon Master best known for Dimension 20 and Dropout TV. He called through the crowd, urging each group to cheer in turn: The Cleric class, Fighter class, Rogue class, Wizard class.
And then: “Make some noise if you’re a part of the working class!,” causing the hundreds of people who had gathered at the NBCUniversal Citywalk gate for a massive game of Dungeons & Dragons to go wild.
The inspiration for the special picket originated with WGAW member Daphne Miles (Batwoman, Legends of Tomorrow), who initially had the idea for a D&D-themed picket day. Miles floated the concept to fellow WGAW members Lindsey Allen (Agent Carter, Emergence) and Lauren Muir (The 100), and they eagerly jumped aboard. All three writers are self-proclaimed nerds and tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) players who were excited about finding a way to gamify a picket.
They aimed for a fun and interactive event, with a raffle to raise money for the Entertainment Community Fund (ECF) and hopefully draw people in with prizes. When they put out a call for volunteer Dungeon Masters (DMs) and donations for the raffle, the army of people within this community responded in such force, it was almost overwhelming.
Over 500 people showed up to demonstrate their support and participate in the event. There were multiple food trucks, including Tacos 1986 sponsored by Dropout, Sure Good Soft Serve sponsored by the Dungeons and Daddies podcast, and fan favorite Dean’s Coffee sponsored by Critical Role.
Picketers began their day at check-in, where they were enthusiastically greeted Sam Riegel and Liam O'Brien of Critical Role. The first 120 people who arrived were given a free set of dice (courtesy of DiceEnvy, Dropout, and Critical Role), and the first 250 people could also choose a modified character sheet (art designed by JP Coovert) to play in the day’s events. These Bards, Clerics, Fighters, Rogues, and Wizards were ready for battle.
Next, participants were sent to one of the many smaller Universal gates for a mini-encounter with an experienced DM, and while they waited for their turn to play, they walked the picket line. The incredible volunteer DMs – writers Jose Molina, Rick Budd, Dave Metzger, and Hero Workshop’s Executive Director Scott Stevens – each prepped their encounters themselves, and led picketers through fun, inventive five-minute challenges. Upon success, adventurers won a boon, represented by themed erasers, that would give them an advantage in the final combat at CityWalk.
Which is where participants ended the day: gathered at the CityWalk gate as Mulligan led a classic Dungeons & Dragons combat with hundreds of players at once. Picketers were grouped by their character class and led by a volunteer to take turns rolling dice and swinging at their collective enemies which included a multi-headed dragon known as the AMPTP.
People watched from every available vantage point – even the bridge above CityWalk was full of spectators. There were many modified mechanics, but one that stands out was “Union Power.” When any player rolled a natural 20 (the most powerful roll in D&D), Union Power was activated, and every single class took a shot fighting in unity to deal damage to the enemy. And in a moment that truly felt like fate, Union Power dealt the final blow to defeat the AMPTP dragon.
The victories didn’t stop there. The raffle -- assembled with the tremendous help of WGAW member and Disney Lot Coordinator Carlos Cisco and helmed on the day by volunteers Bragg, Casey Fisher, and Nancy Kiu – had nearly 150 prizes. They included things like signed Critical Role paraphernalia, Dropout's Box of Doom, hand-painted miniatures, various books and bundles, along with gift cards to nerdy bars and experiences in LA. On the day of the picket, the raffle raised $4,000 for the Entertainment Community Fund. Later, when Mulligan shared the day’s fundraising page online and offered to match additional donations, that number continued to climb to unbelievable $16,500 for the ECF.
Union Power, indeed.
Puzzling It Out
Since the beginning of the strike, WGAW member and Amazon Lot Captain Patrick Meighan has been game to help.
In the early days of the strike, he brought board games like Jenga and Scrabble, Chutes and Ladders, and Connect 4 to Amazon. The games would be set up on a table in the open area near the WGA check-in table – occasionally with a WGA vs. Jeff Bezos overlay – and picketers could pause during their march to drop a checker, or remove a tower section as the case may be.
“Nobody has to explain the rules to you. You can just casually come by, do it for 30 seconds and kind of keep moving,” Meighan explained. “It was something for the end of the day because we’re all walking the same lines, back and forth.”
After he started running out of board games, Meighan got puzzled. Literally.
He found an illustration of Teamsters Local 399 Secretary-Treasurer Lindsay Dougherty created by fellow Amazon regular and fellow WGAW member Alston Ramsay and had it turned into a jigsaw puzzle, which he brought to the line. After picketers had their fun with that, Meighan created puzzle #2 out of a meme of interlocking arms clasped in unity, under which he put WGA and SAG-AFTRA. Signs from both unions can be seen in the background. Next up will be a collection of images from the Amazon picket line.
During normal times, when he’s not puzzling alongside fellow striking WGA members, Meighan is an executive producer on Family Guy, a series he has worked on for nearly 20 years. The long-running animated series was originally non-union before a group of writers on The Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama, The PJs and King of the Hill and other animated Fox series organized and won WGAW coverage of their show.
Having worked for so many years on a network show and received network residuals, Meighan counts himself as “one of the lucky ones.” The streaming residuals earned by many newer WGA members amount to a fraction of what writers who work on network and cable series receive.
“It makes me angry,” Meighan said, “Because those residuals weren’t given to us beneficently by the studios, and they could just take it back whenever they want. They were hard-fought and won by striking writers and actors in 1960 who made sacrifices to win that for us. And the only condition that came with that gift is for us to pass it forward to the next generation. If I don’t do that, I’m an a-hole, and I don’t want to be an a-hole.”
The legacy established by striking writers and by the writers who won Guild representation for some animated series are part of the reason Meighan is a proud WGAW member and captain.
“The life of me and my family is completely different now because of the WGA minimums and residuals and health insurance and pension,” Meighan said. “So there is just no possible way for me to ever repay the bravery of those writers who took that stand.”
“So jigsaw puzzles are a very poor substitute for that sort of repayment, but that and walking every day is what I can do right now,” he added.