Less than two weeks ago, 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike. When they put down their pens and closed their laptops, some also put their careers and ability to support their families on hold. It was a risk they were willing to take in a struggle that has threatened to boil over for years.
On daily picket lines outside studios and production facilities in Los Angeles and New York, television and film writers have been hoisting placards and chanting in unison, hoping to force the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to heed their demands for what they regard as fair compensation and better working conditions in an industry that has been radically reshaped by streaming.
As the contract between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers expires, a strike has been called.
But for writers, the effects of the strike are already being felt, measured in shrinking bank account balances, hours of sleep lost to anxiety and profound uncertainty about the future of the art form.
All writers have their own stories of how the strike is affecting them — and of why, despite the hardship, they are determined to persist. Here are five of those stories.
As a TV writer who’s the mother of 2-year-old identical triplets, Overton monitored the negotiations between the WGA and the studios with a bad feeling in the pit in her stomach. Now she finds herself juggling picketing outside Warner Bros. and Walt Disney studios with pediatrician appointments and preschool tours, worried about the future of her family and the career she has built over 15 years.
“I always say to my girls when I’m going to work, ‘Mommy’s going to write,’ because I really do love it,” Overton says, choking back tears. “Before kids, it was always hard when you’re out of work. But now I just don’t want to let down these people who depend on me. And that’s what we’re really all fighting for. We’re fighting for survival.”
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Raised with her identical-twin sister by a single mom in a small town on the Gulf Coast of Texas, Overton arrived in Los Angeles in her 20s with wide-eyed dreams of making it as an actress. She soon pivoted to writing, scoring her first break in 2008 when she was accepted into the coveted Warner Bros. Television Writers’ Workshop. From there, Overton landed jobs on the CBS drama “Cold Case,” Lifetime’s “The Client List,” Freeform’s “Shadowhunters” and the CBS All-Access series “Tell Me a Story.”
In a good year, Overton could make $150,000 for writing and producing before her agent, manager and lawyer took their cuts. But that money would also have to stretch through the lean times when there was no work. “I’d have two great years and then I wouldn’t work for a year or a year and a half,” Overton says. To supplement her income, she began writing crime novels — she has published three — and teaching script-writing. “Sometimes I’d be in the writers’ room all day, and then I’d have to come home and work for three hours on a book to meet a deadline,” she says.
When she became pregnant, Overton — whose husband, David Boyd, works as a tennis coach — relied on her guild health insurance, coverage she and her family could lose later this year if she doesn’t earn the union’s required minimum. “I’m incredibly grateful to the healthcare plan because I had a very high-risk pregnancy,” she says, adding that two of her triplets had a long stay in the neonatal intensive care unit. “One of my daughters had open-heart surgery at 4 months.”
Daughter Annie is doing fine now, but Overton’s stress came surging back this year when, with the strike deadline approaching, she wrapped work on the second season of the CW sports drama series “All American: Homecoming.” Now she finds herself in limbo, unsure of whether the show will return for another season.
Compounding their concerns, Overton and her husband bought their first house in West Hills last year, a goal that had long seemed unattainable given her inconsistent earnings and the rising cost of living; according to a recent study, the annual income needed to buy a home in Los Angeles skyrocketed past $220,000 in 2022. “The only reason we could even buy a house is I have three careers,” she says. “If I was just counting on my TV money, we would be renting still.”
Overton is doing whatever she can to shield her daughters from her worries. “I sound way too L.A., but last week, when I was so anxious about what was going on, I did this Reiki healing,” she says. “It actually helped. It gave me a more Zen feeling of, ‘OK, this is stressful but I can get through it.’”
This summer, Overton’s husband will be teaching tennis in the Hamptons, N.Y., to bring in money while she cares for the triplets. “When I’m with the girls, it’s a lot easier to shut out all the noise; they want to play, they’re biting each other, they’re pulling each other’s hair,” she says. “With my husband gone, I just get to spend time with them, so in between going to the picket line, I’m going to try to remind myself, ‘Let’s do some fun stuff.’”
Until the strike ends, though, there’s no escaping the constant undercurrent of fear. “Luckily we’re in a position where, at least for the next few months, we’re OK with whatever savings we’ve created,” Overton says. “But I don’t know what’s coming. At some point, you just have to trust that you’re capable and you could do something else. But I think about that all the time: What other job will I have to do if this goes badly?”
Bill Diamond, 61
Driving from his home in Venice to picket at the Sony Pictures lot on the first day of the WGA strike, Bill Diamond realized he had “buried a lot of memories, and they all started rushing back to me,” he says.
“You know, walking a picket line back and forth doesn’t sound all that hard,” Diamond says. “But mentally it takes a toll because you’re not working. That’s the thing I think the younger members don’t quite realize yet. The daily grind of walking literally in circles gets to you. It’s really a marathon.”
Originally from Boston, Diamond moved to Los Angeles in 1988, in the midst of yet another writers’ strike — the longest one in the guild’s history, stretching 153 days. Having initially planned to go into journalism, he knew little about the workings of Hollywood. But his timing proved fortuitous.
After landing work on the ABC sitcom “Anything but Love,” Diamond and his then-writing partner Michael Saltzman moved on to the NBC hit “Wings” and then the CBS series “Murphy Brown,” on which Diamond worked his way up over five seasons to executive producer and showrunner. As TV writing careers go, he grabbed the brass ring: financial comfort, creative fulfillment, the glory of working on an Emmy-winning show, the rush of riding the zeitgeist.
“We didn’t know how lucky we were,” Diamond says. “We had landed in town at a boom period. There were a lot of comedies on the air — mostly network shows, 22-episode orders. You could make a nice living. And it was easier to get a job because there were just many more jobs to go around.”
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In that era, a showrunner on a popular prime-time network series could make about $30,000 per episode or more, not adjusted for inflation, plus script fees. For those with an overall deal, annual income could easily hit seven figures.
“The economics of the business now are just so radically different,” Diamond says. “You’ve got short orders. You’ve got pre-greenlight rooms, where people are being hired at the minimum to create episodes but then their connection to the show is cut. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to earn enough money to support yourself.”
When he was coming up in the business, Diamond says, a writer could stay on a series for years, learning the ins and outs of everything from casting to editing and building the skills to become a producer and showrunner. That sort of on-the-job training has become largely a thing of the past in today’s fragmented and constantly churning TV landscape, with writers shuffling from one short-term gig to another, often taking on second jobs to make ends meet.
“By the time I became an executive producer, I had learned all the pieces that went into running a show,” Diamond says. “That was the system, and I took it for granted. It wasn’t a perfect system by any means, but it spit out people with enough experience to keep the whole machine going. And now the studios are destroying that.”
It pains Diamond to think how much harder it is for younger writers — particularly women and people of color who finally broke into what was long a very white, very male business — to chart the kind of path he did.
“There have been many days where I’ve driven onto a studio lot and thought, ‘God, I would pay them for this experience,’” says Diamond, who is working with three partners to try to start an independent, writer-friendly studio. “I know how fortunate I was. I wish everyone could experience what I experienced. ... Unfortunately, we’ve improved the diversity in the guild at a time when finding work is hardest.”
Although Diamond has the financial resources to ride out a protracted strike, he knows that’s not the case for so many writers coming up behind him. It is ultimately for those next generations — and for the continued viability of the craft he loves — that he finds himself trudging each morning back to the picket line, just as he did 15 years ago.
“I’m sure over the next weeks and months, there will be moments where you lose all hope that this is ever going to end,” Diamond says. “But if we don’t get what we need out of these negotiations, I don’t see myself recommending this career to anybody. It’s in danger of disappearing. And that would be a real shame because it’s a wonderful way to make a living.”
Jackie Penn, 40
The road to becoming a TV writer is rocky — often paved with low-paid assistant gigs and plenty of empty promises about your resume being passed along. You’re told that getting staffed in your first writers’ room will be the hardest part, but what if that turns out to be not true?
That’s been the experience of Jackie Penn. She went from carrying equipment for student-made short films — of the “we can’t pay you, but we’ll give you gas money” variety — to working as a set production assistant for NBC’s fantastical police procedural drama “Grimm,” to eventually becoming a production secretary, then an office PA and later an assistant to a successful line producer.
Penn finally landed a job as a writers’ PA for ABC’s Marcia Clark-produced legal drama, “The Fix,” and again for the Netflix dramedy “Ginny & Georgia.” In early 2020, she realized her dream of getting in a writers’ room when she was hired on for the Disney+ comedy series “Turner & Hooch.” That gig lasted three weeks in person before COVID-19 hit and the room moved to Zoom, where it stayed until Penn’s contract was up in August.
Penn started that job as a staff writer, making $3,400 per week. Her pay eventually rose to $4,200 weekly. She paid out 10% to her agent, 10% to her manager and 5% to her lawyer.
“And then I didn’t work for eight months,” Penn says. “So that was really tough because I did all this work to get the first job, and then sometimes the second job is harder.”
The second job did finally come, on the CW sci-fi drama “4400,” which was canceled after a single season. Both of the showrunners on that serieswere people of color who Penn said had also worked their way up, and they fought to bump her from staff writer to story editor. Her pay went up to $7,249 per week. After she paid her reps, the check was $4,929. Taxes chewed up an additional 25% to 33%, she says.
That job lasted from April 2021 to November 2021, and Penn has not been staffed since. Her first residual check for “Turner & Hooch” came close to a year after she stopped working for the show, and it was decent — a little more than $10,000 — but those quarterly checks have since dwindled significantly. Her residuals made it so that she continued to qualify for her WGA health insurance, but if she doesn’t get another job soon, her benefits will run out in October.
Penn’s husband of 12 years is also on her health insurance as he works to get his hours to become a licensed therapist. In the meantime, Penn has made ends meet by working as an English and Spanish tutor for $25 an hour through a tutoring company that contracts with the Los Angeles Unified School District. The couple rent a two-bedroom apartment in North Hollywood for $2,300 a month.
“We can’t plan at all,” Penn says. “We haven’t even thought about buying a home because it’s not even something that’s feasible right now.”
“I do see a lot of writers of color who are bottlenecked,” Penn says. “So they get that first staffing job, maybe they get the second one, and then it stops.”
The culprit of these bottlenecks? Mini-rooms, Penn says, in which a minimum number of writers — say, five, instead of the usual 12 or so — fleshes out the scripts before a series gets the green light for production. Fewer writers get work, and even those who do land in the room are often getting paid for fewer episodes per season — while still being contractually prevented from writing on other shows. Everybody in the room gets paid the same flat weekly rate rather than their usual scale. The dwindling opportunities, Penn says, hits the up-and-comers the hardest.
“If you can get a writer who is more experienced than me for the same rate, you’re not going to hire someone at my level, you’re going to hire the upper-level writer who has more years of experience,” Penn says. “So yeah, this time I’ve been writing so much, trying to get new samples, like, maybe that’ll be the answer. But it’s hard when you’re not even being read because of where you are.”
Katie J. Stone, 37, and David Daitch, 38
Writing team Katie J. Stone and David Daitch are not complaining. They are keenly aware that they make a solid living by most standards. They’ve been selling a pilot to a network every year for the last four years. That breaks down to about $250,000 for each sale.
But the economics are getting tighter. When the writers don’t have one of their own pilots to push out, they staff others’ writers’ rooms, and the rate they get as a team is about $12,000 a week. That looks impressive on paper, except TV seasons have been reduced from 22 to 25 network episodes to maybe 12 cable episodes or maybe six to eight episodes if the work is on a streamer. Including residuals, the team earns on average a little more than $300,000 annually.
Many slices get carved out of that pie. First, the pie is sliced in half — split evenly between the two college friends and writing partners. From there, each writer pays about 25% to their respective reps — agents, managers, lawyers. Then there are taxes of about 20% to 30%. They also pay an accountant and their guild dues, which can add up to about $7,000 annually.
When it’s all said and done, Stone and Daitch have each pulled down a low- to mid-$80,000s salary, which, Daitch notes, “is a perfectly respectable salary.” But if you break that down to a monthly nut, Daitch doesn’t earn enough to cover his mortgage. Both Stone and Daitch note that they supplement their incomes — Daitch as a naval reservist and Stone as an actress contracted with the Screen Actors Guild.
Stone and her husband — a union musician — live in a rent-controlled, one-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando Valley, and Stone notes that many writers at her level are doing the same. Most are unable to buy a home unless they have money from another source, she says. Daitch says the only reason he owns a home is because his wife is a surgeon and he got a Veterans Affairs loan after four years of active Navy duty straight out of college.
Daitch notes that his mother was a TV writer. In the 1980s, she worked on shows including “Webster,” “Facts of Life” and “The Love Boat.”
“There were a couple of years that her take-home pay from a single year was enough to buy a house in Rancho Park,” Daitch says, adding that she didn’t need a mortgage. Adjusted for inflation, he says, the income he and Stone make is less than 7% of what his mother made. A house his mother could buy in a year, he and Stone would need 30 years combined to buy.
The writers, who both attended USC, met at church, even though they’re both not religious. Daitch’s pursuit of a nice Christian girl and Stone’s presence at the church that day (as a favor to her mother, who asked a well-meaning church-goer’s daughter to look out for Stone in L.A.) resulted in a fruitful professional collaboration. They have grown a solid business with credits including USA Network’s “Shooter” and Netflix’s “Splinter Cell.” The pair also has sold original pilots to Fox, Netflix and ABC.
The success was hard won by both writers, who recall humiliating stints as assistants. Stone worked for a former network boss who took the trash from his pockets — gum wrappers, tissues — and put it into Stone’s hand, rather than walk 5 feet to the garbage; and Daitch went from being a Navy officer to regularly delivering boots to Joey Lawrence’s house in Calabasas, “and he had a lot of boots that needed to go home.” Why boots? “He likes wearing boots,” Daitch says. “And I’m guessing he got them for free.”
But in their hearts, they were always writers, and they made it happen by working in machine-like loops — despite the shrinking rooms, the reduced pay, the dwindling residuals and the burgeoning threat that AI poses to their already precarious livelihoods. They write because, as Stone says, “These are dream jobs. These are the stories we tell that we carry in our hearts. Being a storyteller is a noble profession that has existed since people sat around campfires.”
Plus, they are certain the studios have the money to treat their writers with respect. Daitch notes that 15 years ago Netflix had about 8 million subscribers and its CEO made around $2 million a year. Now writers of Netflix shows are working for a potential audience of 232 million subscribers while, Daitch says, the company’s two CEOs “take home a combined $100 million a year.”
The strike for Stone and Daitch is about setting precedent. During the last strike in ’07 and ’08, the union was working to negotiate around the harm that the rise of streaming was doing to writers’ livelihoods. Today, AI seems poised to do the same — giving writers yet another reason to fight for their future.
Says Stone, “We want to hold the line that writing is a human art, that comes from the human spirit, that needs to be told by people to other people.”
Josh Rottenberg covers the film business for the Los Angeles Times. He was part of the team that was named a 2022 Pulitzer Prize finalist in breaking news for covering the tragic shooting on the set of the film “Rust.” He co-wrote the 2021 Times investigation into the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. that led NBC to pull the Golden Globe Awards off the air while the organization underwent major reforms. A graduate of Harvard University, he has also written about the entertainment industry for the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Fast Company and other publications.
Myung J. Chun has been a photographer with the Los Angeles Times since 1999. He started as a still photographer and then moved to videography from 2007 to 2018. Chun won an Emmy in 2011 for his work on a multimedia project about innocent victims of gang violence. He previously worked for the Los Angeles Daily News, a position he started in 1988 while attending Cal State Northridge.