Romen Borsellino is a 2008 Roosevelt High School graduate. He is the son of Rekha Basu and the late Rob Borsellino. Romen has worked on various comedy television shows in Hollywood for the past six years. His most recent writing gig included being involved in President Biden’s remarks at the Washington Correspondence Dinner. I asked Romen to write an explanation to those of us who will find some of our favorite television shows disrupted to explain what the strike is about. Watch this space for future stories and columns about former Iowans. Romen will be a Potluck Zoom Lunch guest on Monday, June 5. Subscribers will receive a link to the call.
Romen Borsellino, on the picket line for the Writers Guild of America.
By: Romen Borsellino -
As a proud card-carrying member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) West since 2021 (I say this figuratively since it’s been at least half a year since I misplaced my card), calling this strike disruptive to my life and those of my coworkers would be putting things mildly. But as with any strike, we hope our actions will disrupt your life (I swear, it’s nothing personal!).
WGA - the labor union representing writers in television, film, radio, and digital media – is facing off against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), made up of Netflix, Universal, Amazon, and pretty much any large corporation that produces content. They’re the bad guys.
As with any semi-complex issue these days, there’s a lot of noise, confusion, and a seemingly endless number of acronyms that still confuse even those of us who are in the thick of it (see: WGAW, WGAE, AMPTP, GPT, etc.). While I can’t claim to hold any position of influence in this strike beyond “out of work protestor with a semi-clever picket sign,” I want to provide the broad strokes of why we’re on strike, what our challenges are going to be, and why I am confident that we will ultimately prevail.
And if my writing isn’t good enough to succinctly explain those things, you can take solace knowing that I’m out of work.
Why we’re striking
First and foremost, this is about making a livable wage.
Opponents of the strike are doing their best to portray Hollywood screenwriting as a glitzy profession where we drive around in Teslas and live in Hollywood Hills mansions. My severely dented 2014 VW Jetta, shared housing situation, and Obamacare application beg to differ (don’t line up all at once, ladies!).
Yes, a very small number of Hollywood writers have achieved wealth and fame. But the rest of us are mostly just fighting to be in the middle class.
We’re asking for fairness in pay that we can attain through working conditions that don’t exploit us, including a reasonable writer’s room size, contracts that grant some semblance of job security, and a wide variety of similarly reasonable demands. One of the tentpoles of these negotiations surrounds residuals.
Writers’ salaries have always depended largely on residuals. Residuals are not bonuses or handouts; they are a core part of the salary we consider when accepting a job. You write for a show, and when it gets re-run, you get a check. This makes sense for various reasons, including that writers’ rooms ultimately don’t last very long. The reruns ensure at least some income for the remainder of the year. My first writers’ room, a late-night show on NBC, wrapped in May of 2021. While it would be months before I landed another gig, NBC reran every episode of the show that summer, and the residual checks - still relatively modest - were enough for me to afford the rent for my shared three-bedroom bungalow and gas for my severely dented 2014 VW Jetta. To be clear, I cannot blame the AMPTP for the dents. Those were on me.
Here’s the current issue with residuals:
It’s no secret that media is hardly consumed in the way that it once was: families gathering around to watch their favorite NBC sitcom at 8 pm on a Wednesday night. We now stream our favorite shows when we feel like it: on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Apple+, Paramount+, etc. But there is no residuals system in place for streaming. In fact, streaming platforms don’t even share their viewership numbers. I could write for Netflix’s most-watched show - people could be watching an episode I wrote repeatedly - and I wouldn’t get a dime in residuals. We need our wages to keep up with the changing media consumption landscape. But the AMPTP refused to make a counteroffer on our demand for a fair residual system.
Then there’s another major focus in our demands: AI.
As one of the funniest picket signs so far declared, “ChatGPT doesn’t have childhood trauma,” a hilarious yet accurate indictment of the humanity that Artificial Intelligence, a threat to all writers, lacks. ChatGPT is just one of many new AI systems, all of which seem like they sprung up overnight. This new technology, which feels like it gets smarter every day, can create realistic photos, jokes, essays, and, as is our concern, scripts. We’re concerned that studio executives will use this technology to replace writers. We need safeguards in place before it gets to that point. But The AMPTP won’t even make us a counteroffer on our demand that this technology not be used to exploit us.
This is an uphill battle.
The big challenges
The WGA last went on strike in 2007, which lasted approximately 3 months. But this strike poses challenges that didn’t necessarily exist then. For example, back to the issue of streaming:
Watching reruns in 2007 still more or less required viewing them on cable or network TV, owning a DVD box set, going to Blockbuster, or getting a red Netflix envelope in the mail. Viewers didn’t have anything remotely resembling the access to old shows that they have now. That means that while our strike will delay the creation of new content – Abbott Elementary, Hacks, Cobra Kai, etc. - it won’t affect the access to the tens of thousands of reruns that viewers have at their disposal.
I think of it like this: my roommates and I gather on Sunday nights to watch a 60-minute episode of Succession and a 30-minute episode of Barry. But that 90 minutes of new content pales compared to the tens of hours my roommates spend throughout the week watching reruns of Seinfeld, Community, Parks and Rec, Schitt’s Creek, and other sitcoms. Those reruns aren’t going anywhere. The goal of a strike is to cause disruption, but folks like my roommates won’t feel it any time soon.
Plus, production hiatuses due to the pandemic have made us used to waiting for our favorite shows to come out. The threat that the longer this strike goes on, the longer you have to wait until the next season of Stranger Things feels like less of a threat when we already accepted having to wait two years between seasons three and four.
Any writer would lie if they said these weren’t serious obstacles to the strike. But all of that said, we remain incredibly confident that we will ultimately succeed. Here’s why:
The Bad Guys
You don’t have to know shit about ChatGPT, AMPTP, WGA East, or WGA West to understand exactly what’s happening here (I used to think “WGA West” was the name of one of Kim and Kanye’s kids).
But this is the same BS in every industry: corporate executives making hundreds of millions in profits are trying to squeeze their most vulnerable workers.
As one WGA committee member pointed out, the $250,000,000 salary of Warner Bros. parent company CEO could cover the salaries of 10,000 writers under the deal that we’re requesting.
It’s not a matter of their ability to pay us a living wage. They are simply choosing not to.
But the thing about writers is we know how to portray a villain properly. The more we get our message out, the more confident the public will side with us in staggering numbers. And rest assured; we will get our message out.
The WGA makes up just a small fraction of those who deliver the TV shows and movies that bring so much joy. The other unions - Teamsters, International Alliance of Stage and Theater Workers, Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild, Laborers Studio Utility Employees, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Plasterers & Cement Masons, and others are at least as valuable as we are. And they are standing with us, knowing that we will do the same when their contract negotiations come around. This is a united front, and while there are certain things that the AMPTP can accomplish without writers, they don’t seem to realize that a strike means losing more than just writers. For example, Teamsters don’t cross picket lines. We’ve already seen several instances in which striking writers blocking the driveway to production have caused the Teamster truck drivers to turn around and go home. This has caused productions to be delayed and cost the studios thousands of dollars. You better believe we will continue to employ this tactic and others like it.
Thoughtfulness and creativity will win
The signs. Oh my god, the signs. Everything from “Give us a fair deal or I’ll spoil Succession” to “Stream Deez Nutz” are a reminder of the ability to laugh even in the face of darkness. Are funny signs going to get us fair wages? Probably not. But they’re evidence of something larger. The WGA comprises brilliant minds who simply will not cease to think of ways to engage the community. Exhibit A: the strike included a “Singles picket line event” this past week titled Striking Up Romance, which encouraged single strikers to picket outside Universal Studios, followed by a gathering at a local bar across the street. And this is just week two.
In earnest, some friends have voiced their surprise that I don’t seem more panicked about the fact that I and my fellow writers could be out of work for a very long time. It’s a very real and serious concern. But there are ultimately two things that keep me at ease:
1) It’s worth it. If we let studios agree to ax residuals and replace writers with AI, we won’t be around much longer anyway. Suffering now to preserve our livelihoods, in the long run, seems like a fair trade. And I’m often reminded that many of the benefits that we writers enjoy right now were earned in previous strikes.
2) It’s all very inspiring. The funny signs, the singles mixers, the solidarity from other unions, the impromptu picket line concerts, the generous food donations to picketers.
Some executives we’re up against represent the worst examples of corporate greed. But the support for our side has been one of those rare moments that remind me of the best that humanity has to offer. And that’s ultimately what this strike is about. Because of all of the panic over AI, the one thing that technology will never grasp is what it means to be human.
Unless ChatGPT learns how to attend singles mixers. Then you can find me panicking in my dented 2014 VW Jetta.
MONDAY ZOOM LUNCH SCHEDULE FOR SUBSCRIBERS
Mark your calendar.
Monday, May 15: Kathie Obradovich, Iowa Capital Dispatch, and her new education reporter, Brooklyn Draisey. Read about this new effort.
Monday, May 22, Randy Bauer, on Iowa tax policy. He understands the Iowa budget better than most and is highly recommended as a speaker.
Monday, May 29, author Jeff Biggers. He’s been a guest on MSNBC, the Rachel Maddow Show, and other national media. Click for more about this talented writer and observer.
June 5, Romen Borsellino, comedy writer. He had a hand in crafting remarks for Biden during the Washington Correspondents dinner. Will the Hollywood writer’s strike be resolved by the time of this podcast? What is/was it about? Romen is from Iowa and is the son of Rekha Basu and the late Rob Borsellino.
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This was the best explanation I have read about the strike. Thanks for enlightening us!