Writers on the Line

On the Line
Roars, Honks, and a Bad Turkey Sandwich
Joe Syracuse says "no guts, no glory" after a run-in with salmonella, SAG-AFTRA and WGA members roar at Disney and Paramount, and a Honk Party at Amazon
Friday, July 7, 2023

A Picketing Break? Not for Joe Syracuse

Joe Syracuse at the WGA Strong Rally.

In retrospect, it was probably the worst turkey sandwich Joe Syracuse had ever eaten.

The sandwich was the last remaining lunch item on the supply table at Netflix. Guild staff estimated that, although wrapped in cellophane, it had probably been sitting in direct sunlight for two hours. The strike captains cautioned him not to eat the sandwich. Syracuse’s wife and writing partner Lisa Addario counseled him not to eat it.

Syracuse ate the sandwich anyway.

“I believed, ‘Oh, nothing will ever happen to me. I’m a superhero guy who rides my skateboards around everywhere,’” said Syracuse, a screenwriter and director whose credits with Addario include the films Parental Guidance and Amateur Night.   

That evening, he started taking medicine for an upset stomach. He returned to the Netflix picket line the following day, but by that evening, the pain had intensified. By day three, he was in the emergency room at Glendale Adventist in agonizing pain. The doctors originally thought Syracuse might be suffering from gall stones or perhaps a ruptured appendix. Then they thought he might have cancer.  

Syracuse went into surgery. The surgeon cut through his stomach muscles, pulled out his entire intestine, examined it and put it back. The original cancer theory was changed to a diagnosis of salmonella. The surgeon removed a portion of Syracuse’s small intestine that had become badly infected. He also took out Syracuse's appendix.

Syracuse spent six days in the hospital, and Addario carried back news and updates to the friends they had made on the line at Netflix. Syracuse came home from the hospital the afternoon of Tuesday, July 4. By July 6, he was back walking the lines again.

“All my friends are out there,” he said. “I wanted to show my scar.”

For some people, undergoing major surgery would be enough to keep someone from marching with his fellow striking writers. Not Syracuse.

“I don’t think I was risking my health,” he said. “I have to get walks in anyway. That’s part of the deal with recovery. And we have developed camaraderie over at Netflix. We’ve made some decent friends, and I wanted to show them that I was up and about and fine. Some people made cards for me. The camaraderie is part of what brought me back.”

A Guild member since 1999, Syracuse and Addario walked the picket lines during the 2007-08 strike. He has also served as a credit arbitrator for the WGAW. Asked about some of the issues of the current strike, he and Addario point to residuals from streaming content.

“We wrote a movie called Parental Guidance, and we’re still to this day getting residuals from it, and that has kept us going through the many ups and downs of this crazy business that we’re in,” he said. “So many times, you have a good year, and then you have no job for two years. That’s when residuals allow you to remain a professional writer and keep coming up with ideas, and keep writing screenplays. Without that, we would have been gone a long time ago.”

From his odyssey, Syracuse has learned a couple of key lessons. Maybe don’t eat the sun-exposed turkey sandwich and that he ended up in the right hospital when a crisis struck.

“If you have to go get surgery, Glendale Adventist is the cleanest, friendliest place on earth,” said Syracuse, “besides Disney.”

The "Roar" of the Crowd at Disney

WGA and SAG-AFTRA members after their flash mob performance of Katy Perry's "Roar" at Disney. 

As the clock struck 10 a.m., a group of performers hit the streets outside of Disney’s Alameda Gate for the best kind of mob scene - a flash mob-style performance of Katy Perry’s 2013 hit single “Roar.

The performance was organized and choreographed by Diane Yang Kirk and Angela Relucio, two members of SAG-AFTRA, who spent about a month putting it together. More than 50 performers from multiple entertainment disciplines, including some WGAW writers participated.

“Somebody was talking about doing a spoof video or something, but then Angela said, ‘Why don’t we do it for real,’” said Kirk. “A mutual friend connected us. We’re both former professional dancers, and I thought this is a bucket list thing for me. I’ve never done anything like this before.”

With the WGA already on strike and SAG-AFTRA going down to the wire in its contract negotiations with the AMPTP, the street performance was an act of solidarity among union members who are collectively seeking fair wages. Perry’s rousing anthem is a song about speaking your mind and getting up again after you’ve been knocked down.

“I’ve been working in this industry for a long time,” said Kirk, a SAG-AFTRA member since 1985. “I book a lot of jobs, but I don’t always make my health insurance, which is really sad. We’re flash-mobbing because we’re hoping the negotiations team comes up with something good so that we can get all of our demands met.”

After their Disney performance, the flash-mobbers reprised their “Roar” at Paramount.  

“We also chose Paramount because it is the oldest lot here in Hollywood, so we wanted to show up there and say like, ‘Hey, we see you, and hopefully you see us.’”

Flash mob performers get their "Roar" on. 

When a Honk is a Party

Picketers gather at Amazon for the end of the day Honk Party.

As the day winds down at the Amazon Studios picket line, all remaining picketers collect their signs and their bullhorns and move toward the intersection of Washington and Ince for the ceremonial end of the day Big Honk.

That is exactly what it sounds like. For 15 minutes, Amazon picketers do everything they can to get all of the motorists at the intersection – stopped or moving - to sound off. They use “honk” signs, hand gestures, talk and joke with the drivers, anything they can to elicit a beep.

“It became a way to take those end-of-the-day tired feet, and kind of send people home feeling energized and ready for the next day,” said Amazon strike captain Nick Geisler. “We have a whole game. Teslas count double. Mini Coopers are actually the bane of our existence. They never seem to honk.”

Washington and Ince is kind of a crazy intersection. Between signals, turn-arounds and entryways to parking lots there are eight different spots for cars to come and in and out. That usually makes for plenty of stopped and passing motorists to cajole into joining a symphony of honks. Semi-trucks, buses, police vehicles…everybody joins in.

The honk tradition began at just before 5 p.m., and has since shifted to before 2 p.m. with the new picketing schedule. Honk organizers originally thought to encourage sustained honking for 30 minutes but, out of consideration for people in the neighborhood, dropped it down to 15 minutes.

“What has been really cool for me is that it hasn’t died down,” said Geisler. “I really expected it to get old for the community, but every day it still happens.”

Whatever the time, whatever the duration, people love it. An employee at the nearby Trader Joe’s requested early time off from work so he could go to the roof of an adjacent parking structure and shoot the throng of honk solicitors from above. Dogs have been known to join the racket with great enthusiasm.

And the end-of-day honk has a special booster, 6-year-old Arya Sharada Kilpatrick, the daughter of Lit Kilpatrick who regularly pickets at Amazon.

“She comes most afternoons or after school. She named it the Honk Party,” said Geisler. “It kept us going because she kept demanding we come out here to do it. It was her favorite part of the day.”

See photos from the picket lines July 5-7

Why We Strike

Throughout this negotiating cycle, writers have been speaking up about our personal experiences working over the past several years. These stories highlight precisely why we are on strike and why our proposals are so critical to the future of this profession.

February, 2016, we pitched a production company on a book their studio wanted to adapt. After four months of development with the production company, we pitched a lower level studio executive in June and then pitched the president of production in July. In August, 2016, we made a deal in principle with the studio only to discover that the studio hadn’t locked down all of the book rights.

Read the full story here.