- The Writers Guild of America’s strike against Hollywood studios has entered its second week.
- Both sides — the writers and the entertainment companies — seem entrenched, which could prolong the battle.
- Insider spoke to Ali Schouten, the showrunner behind Paramount+ series “iCarly,” about what’s at stake.
Last weekend, I was engrossed in a vivid discussion with a unionized public school teacher about the 10-day-old writers’ strike roiling Hollywood, as the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers face off over a new contract for the creators who dream up the stories that fill our big and small screens.
This person’s questions generally boiled down to one central theme — incredulity about the reasons the writers are striking in the first place. After all, he suggested, with the entertainment industry’s trademark glitz and glamour, surely the writers working for hot streamers like Netflix, Prime Video, or Apple TV+ must be doing just fine, while workers everywhere else suffer from rampant inflation and widespread layoffs. Right?
This teacher saw far less upward mobility for himself, certainly in terms of compensation, than screenwriters developing TV shows and movies might expect to experience throughout their careers.
But I shared a story I’d recently reported about a writer who sold a pilot to the ABC-owned network Freeform in 2019 for $100,000 — earnings that, after taxes and commissions, dwindled to $40,000 for a three-year deal. That’s hardly a living wage — and it’s an example of a problem that writers from coast to coast have pointed to as their strike shuts down late night shows in New York and suspends productions in Los Angeles.
Since May 2, picketing has been underway at entertainment campuses across LA, including at Paramount Pictures’ lot on Melrose Avenue, as well as some production studios in New York. On Thursday morning, picketers outside Paramount are set to receive a group of at least 15 reinforcements — writers for the Paramount+ sitcom “iCarly,” along with a few of the show’s cast members and at least one director.
The “iCarly” writers will link up with the picket line outside the lot where the show is filmed, according to Ali Schouten, the series’ showrunner and executive producer. (Spokespersons for Paramount did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Hollywood’s writers are striking over issues like stagnated wages, dried-up residuals, shorter seasons of streaming shows and practices like so-called “mini rooms” that have bitten into their income.
But from across the negotiating table, the AMPTP companies have shot back at the WGA’s positions, saying last week that the writers are pushing for a “hiring quota that is incompatible with the creative nature of our industry,” and that the studios’ proposed minimum wage increases equate to nearly $97 million per year. (The WGA says the raises represent less than half that amount.)
‘It’s corporate greed. There’s just, like, nothing else to it.’
The strike has erupted as the release of “iCarly’s” third season approaches, and comes as Paramount Global announced layoffs of 25% of staff — making it the latest in a bevy of media companies to implement sweeping headcount reductions in recent months.
Meanwhile, the WGA’s negotiating committee has asked guild members to withhold promotion of their new projects as part of the strike, even while AMPTP companies like Disney warn showrunners that they’re “not excused” from their duties outside the writers room.
For Massachusetts-born Schouten, the journey to Hollywood wasn’t exactly straightforward. After arriving in LA during the aughts, she tutored and worked at a bakery during the height of the cupcake craze while decamping to coffee shops on days off to write. She became a member of the WGA nine years ago but said the industry’s changing economics over the past decade have only magnified the obstacles that early-career writers face while trying to break in.
“A lot of people have talked about the door closing behind them — having a job that was really steady and then seeing this next generation of writers come up much less steady,” Schouten, 36, told me in an interview on Wednesday. “I feel like I was kind of slipping in at the tail end of that door.”
Schouten and I met in 2021 when we worked together during the first season of the series, which stars actress Miranda Cosgrove. It’s based on a previous sitcom of the same name which ran for six seasons on Nickelodeon. I’ve played the role of Nevel Papperman, the show’s resident diabolical supervillain, for nearly 16 years, wreaking havoc for the first time during its inaugural season in 2007 — the same year the last WGA strike, which lasted for 100 days, began.
Ahead of the “iCarly” writers’ picketing on Thursday, I spoke with Schouten to understand what she and her colleagues are fighting for. She shared her views on topics including the startling rise of artificial intelligence, the future of the Hollywood scribe, and how people watching the spectacle unfold from afar may view the writers’ efforts.
The WGA says the IP created by its members has helped supercharge the entertainment industry’s profits to some $30 billion per year. Even so, the union is encountering steep resistance from the studios in reaching accords on key sticking points. When I asked Schouten why that was, her answer was simple and swift.
“Greed,” she said. “It’s corporate greed. There’s just, like, nothing else to it.”
My interview with Schouten has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What do you say to people who are perplexed by what’s playing out in Hollywood and assume that writers on films or TV shows must automatically be financially comfortable, if not outright wealthy?
I understand there’s certainly a perception — and I think, sometimes, a reality, but definitely not always — that writers are in their mansions and drinking Champagne and eating caviar all day. Maybe that was a reality — but certainly not in terms of what my peers and I are seeing.
What we’re fighting for are middle-class salaries. We feel like, looking at CEOs’ salaries, looking at the massive profits that the companies are making — to put someone down to a day rate and have them wonder if they’re going to get fired every night and have no idea if you’re going to have insurance this year because you’re cobbling together all these jobs that only work a few weeks — it’s a huge stress.
Some years you might do really well, but to know that that can turn on a dime and that there’s no protection from that happening is really scary.
Do you worry about the resilience of companies like Paramount, which recently announced deep layoffs, or more broadly that the wider industry is going through a period of financial turmoil?
I’m not worried about the company — a very profitable company with lots of investors. I am worried about the people who are losing their jobs. I am worried about this cost-cutting that affects human beings.
I’m worried about people who work hard and don’t get to participate in the profits. I’m not worried about the health of our industry. I’m worried about the ability for people within the industry to have careers.
I’ve worked on shows largely for streamers like Netflix, Disney+, Paramount+, and Hulu. I have felt the squeeze of having a good, steady, weekly gig — but because it’s a low budget streaming show, it dpays much lower than even the kind of numbers that are generally being talked about.
A major concern for writers is the sudden rise of artificial intelligence. Writers worry about the potential for AI tools like ChatGPT to replace them or heavily cut down on companies’ budgets. How much do you worry about that threat, specifically for screenwriters?
AI is terrifying because it does feel like, if writing — which is such a human and creative process — can be taken over by AI, there’s really no job that’s safe from it.
It’s so anti-human. It just really makes my blood boil that they want to give us one meeting a year on this and call it a day. It’s really short-sighted to me. If we want to keep creating art that reflects our present and our future, you can’t do that by aggregating a bunch of scripts from the past. You can only do that by a person reflecting on the world that they’re living in.
The last writers’ strike resulted in $2 billion worth of losses for the California economy, and some experts predict the impact of this work stoppage could be even greater. This week, the WGA announced it’s raised more than $1.7 million to help provide relief for other industry workers. Have you donated to that fund, and what are your thoughts on the financial toll the strike will take?
I have contributed to those funds, and I have also let my departments heads from “iCarly” know to reach out to those funds or to let their teams know to reach out, because the writers are very aware that this is a team effort and we need to support the other guilds as much as they’re supporting us.
Nobody wants this to go on forever, but I feel like we all are really empowered by the support that we’ve gotten from the other guilds. We are doing everything in our power to return the favor, because we know that people are hurting. We know that, in order to get our demands met, we do need to shut down productions, and that does affect our peers in the industry.
The writers are very good at putting their money where their mouth is and helping people out. These are all the same issues for everybody working in entertainment. We’re fighting for streaming residuals. We’re fighting for our jobs not to be taken over by AI. It’s all of us together.
When the strike finally does end, will all these issues really be put to bed? Threats like automation or dramatically shortened seasons in the age of streaming won’t vanish the next day. Is the strike just postponing an inevitable reckoning for the industry?
The last time there was a strike, the writers knew that streaming was going to become a thing. The writers saw YouTube and said: “This is the future. We know this is where TV and films are going to go.”
I think that’s what’s happening here. We have a good sense of what’s a threat to our livelihood and what is important to fight for.
Are we going to get everything we want? I hope. I’m sure that we’ll have to compromise as well. But I trust our negotiating committee to really have our backs and see what the big, important issues are, and that’s why I voted for the strike authorization in the first place. I saw what the demands were, and they were very reasonable.
The other night, I actually got to sit in and speak to a USC pitching class and hear their final pitches. They’re graduating at a time that’s really tough, but I was blown away by the people there.
I understand there must be a lot of fear, but the talent is there. We just need to provide them with the support and the infrastructures so it’s possible to break in.
In an alternate universe where Carly Shay and Nevel Papperman are participating in this fight between the WGA and AMPTP, what are they doing right now? What parts are they playing in this story?
Oh, my God — you know Nevel is trying to do AI for everything. Nevel is the chief negotiator for the AMPTP.
Carly Shay is definitely supportive. She is for sure on the picket line. But I feel like she would make a sign that says something she didn’t quite realize it said, and it would go viral. Maybe she’s even in a union of content creators in the show that we just haven’t seen yet.
Nevel — he’s got a power hose that he’s turning on the picketers.
Do you work in the entertainment industry? How is the writers’ strike impacting you, your business, or your family? Insider wants to hear from you — contact this reporter via email at email@example.com, or SMS/the encrypted app Signal at (561) 247-5758.