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Writers’ strike: Hollywood scribes picket studios for better pay. ‘It’s not sustainable’

Just hours after a midnight deadline to reach an agreement with major Hollywood studios on a new contract expired, thousands of striking members of the Writers Guild of America set down their pens, stepped away from their laptops and took their fight to the streets on Tuesday.

Forming picket lines outside more than a dozen studios and production facilities in Los Angeles and New York, including the headquarters of Netflix and Amazon Studios, writers hoisted placards and chanted in unison to demand what they regard as fair compensation and working conditions in an industry that has been upended by the rise of streaming.

Months of mounting tension over negotiations between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios in labor relations, exploded into public view, with Hollywood writers walking off the job for the first time in 15 years.

Outside the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, Ashly Burch, who has been working on the Apple TV+ series “Mere Mortals,” spoke of the unprecedented challenges today’s writers face, even amid the studios’ and streamers’ seemingly insatiable demand for content.

“If you’re beginning staff, like a story editor, it’s not sustainable to live off of this profession anymore,” Burch told The Times, as passing cars honked in support. Fellow strikers wielded signs bearing slogans including “Never Give Up! Never Surrender!” and “Because TV Needs More Than the Kardashians.”

“I was at a WGA meeting before this, and so many people there had second jobs because they couldn’t afford living off their writing,” Burch said. “No one should struggle to pay rent or their mortgage while they’re writing on a show.”

The protests represented a show of force for the guild’s 11,500 members, 98% of whom voted last month in favor of a strike authorization, as they push the AMPTP to address the steady erosion of their pay caused by Hollywood’s shift toward streaming, which has radically transformed the way entertainment is financed, produced and consumed.

Despite the streaming boom, writers are finding themselves working longer hours for less money, with residuals for reruns and home video sales drying up. According to a recent WGA survey, the median weekly pay for writer-producers has declined by 23% over the last decade when adjusted for inflation.

Many people striking Tuesday recalled walking similar picket lines at the last writers’ strike in 2007, which lasted 100 days. Some even remembered the 1988 strike, the longest in the guild’s history at 153 days.

In New York, Felipe Torres Medina, who writes for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” was among the approximately 200 WGA members and supporters who formed a picket line that ran for a block along Fifth Avenue. They marched outside of the venue that NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service had booked for an advertiser presentation.

“It’s really important that we protect and have minimums for late-night writers for streaming because we don’t have them right now,” Medina said. “Currently, our shows are on TV networks, but that can change at any moment.”

As an immigrant to the U.S. from Colombia and a person of color, Medina, whose wife also works on “The Late Show,” said a better deal for the union is the route to improving diversity in writers’ rooms. “This is about protecting everyone who looks like me who might be joining the union,” Medina said.

The WGA has demanded a range of improvements to its contract to address its members’ concerns, including increases in minimum pay, better residuals for streaming and higher contributions to the union’s health and pension plan. The union estimates that these proposals would gain writers an extra $429 million a year.

Major studios such as Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. Discovery and Netflix counter that they are facing their own pressures to cut costs in the face of huge debt levels, a possible looming recession and general uncertainty about the future of the streaming business.

While writers say the stakes for their livelihood are existential, the entire entertainment industry, which is still struggling to rebound from the pandemic, stands to take a hit if the strike drags on for weeks or months.

The strike has already caused late-night talk shows, including “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” to pause production, and scripted TV series like HBO’s “Hacks” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which are currently shooting, could be close behind.

A protracted shutdown in production could hurt not only those who work directly in film and TV but also the many others who help service the entertainment industry, including drivers, dry cleaners and caterers. By some estimates, the last writers’ strike cost the local economy more than $2 billion.

“Los Angeles relies on a strong entertainment industry that is the envy of the world while putting Angelenos to work in good, middle class jobs,” Mayor Karen Bass said in a statement Tuesday. “I encourage all sides to come together around an agreement that protects our signature industry and the families it supports.”

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, two council members lent their voices the striking writers’ cause, while others tweeted their support.

“I’m rising to stand in solidarity with all the writers,” Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martínez said. “So if you like ‘The Sopranos,’ if you like ‘Abbott Elementary,’ ‘Insecure,’ all the content that we watch and we enjoy, well, that’s because it was built by the writers.”

Soto-Martínez, a former labor organizer who represents a district that includes Hollywood, said studios were using “the streaming model to undercut the writers of the industry” and urged his council colleagues to join him on the picket lines.

The WGA also has the support of the other Hollywood unions, including SAG-AFTRA (which represents actors), the Directors Guild and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents crews, though it’s possible such solidarity could begin to fray as the strike grinds on.

Times staff writers Stephen Battaglio, Meg James, Mark Olsen, Stacy Perman, Jonah Valdez and Julia Wick contributed to this report.

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