Striking Thoughts

on the state of Hollywood labor

Westy Reflector
19 min readMar 3, 2024
“Runyon Canyon Love” // 📸: Westy Reflector // Los Angeles, CA // 2012
“Runyon Canyon Love” // 📸: Westy Reflector // Los Angeles, CA // 2012

My wife Catherine is a celebrated Film & TV Costume Designer (Kill Bill, Grey Gardens, 27 Dresses, The Flight Attendant, The Proposal, Mr. Robot, Homecoming, Whip It, The Matador…), and a member both of IASTE Local 892 (Costume Designers Guild, Los Angeles) and IATSE Local 829 (Costume & Production Designer Union, New York City). Neither of us are Hollywood writers or actors, but with ardent enthusiasm we supported her WGA and SAG-AFTRA union brethren’s and sistren’s right to strike last year. With demands for fair compensation, job and wage protections, and long-term benefits security, from a workers’ rights POV, the walkout’s lines were clear.

But then, the strikes went on. And on. And on. Catherine spent most of 2023 not working, and there’s a not-so-outside chance she will spend the first half of 2024 out of work. The industry has yet to (and may never) recover to a full pipeline of projects (NYT gift link). To top it off, the IATSE and Teamsters unions each have contracts in need of renewal by June, so there’s also a not-so-outside chance of more strikes this year disrupting the entertainment production ecosystem.

Danger, Will Robinson!

Unsung Heroes

Westy’s First Job // The Cowboy Way set // Manhattan Bridge, NYC // October 1993
Westy’s First Job // The Cowboy Way // Manhattan Bridge, NYC // October 1993

The unsung heroes on a set are craftspeople and tradespeople comprising “below-the-line” workers: Carpenters, Electricians, Hairstylists, Costume Designers, Costume Supervisors, Star Dressers, Office Coordinators, Production Designers, Art Directors, Prop Masters, Seamstresses, Makeup Artists, Grips, Camera Operators, Caterers, Locations Managers… The “line,” btw, refers to the macro-division in a production budget between writers, producers, directors, and actors (collectively “above the-line”) and the rest of the crew.

For a couple decades, I’ve had a front row seat to Hollywood back lots. In the 1990s, prior to taking a left turn to earn an MBA, I spent 10 years post-college as a Film & TV Locations Scout and Manager on the East Coast. Locations specialists find all the IRL places for a production to shoot, and then provide logistical and creative support during filming for every department on set.

Through my Locations tenure, I learned how every idea and dollar flows through a film set. Some of the production process has changed since my first gig in 1993 on The Cowboy Way. For example, I shot scouting photos on 35mm film and assembled and pasted panoramas by hand in legal manilla folders, whereas now there’s iPhones and clouds. On the support end, on that gig I had to buy Woody Harrelson’s grass on the street, whereas now there’s a smoke shop on every other city corner.

The core jobs and challenges on a film set, however, remain the same. Days are long, often starting before sunset and ending well after sundown, and progress day-to-day is glacial. Basic needs for crews, often hundreds of people, need to be met. Among a host of challenges on any set, bathroom set up, parking clearance, and trash pick up are at the top of a location manager’s purview.

With layer-on-layer of politics, egos, finance, and logistics, the synchronization of work required to produce even one minute of programming is a miraculous feat. Everything you’ve ever watched in any medium (pre-AI, of course) results of pure magic.

Filmmaking up until now has been a physical, collaborative, exhausting, and rewarding adventure. In many ways, entertainment is one of the last things that America actually still manufactures. Shows, however, are increasingly produced elsewhere, because studios always chase the cheapest labor, lowest rents, and largest tax incentives.

Shareholders gotta sharehold, you know?

Going forward, there’s scant hope the American entertainment industry will ever again provide the 100-year run of careers and robust employment we enjoyed up through the early part of this century.

The strikes last year were poignant. Entertainment workers still have no choice but to put their faith in a system that demands their loyalty while dismissing the value of their labor. This is not a problem specific to Hollywood, of course. The gap between management and the factory floor has never been greater in almost any endeavor these days.

Sometimes, you have no recourse but to walk off the job. For writers and actors last year, the future depended on it.

The Ash Pile Below (the Line)

DALL-E2 PROMPT: “hundreds of writers carrying picket signs in front of the Hollywood Sign, instagram post”
DALL-E2 PROMPT: “hundreds of writers carrying picket signs in front of the Hollywood Sign, instagram post”

In October and November 2023, the simultaneous WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes resolved, but with no long-term endgame, or any true appetite for reconciliation among any parties. The damage to our household was deep, as the work-stoppages turned our production-fueled life here in NYC inside out.

The strikes’ timing couldn’t have been worse for anyone who makes a living creating films and television shows. The walkouts came on the heels of pandemic production disruptions, and inside a macro-economy teetering not just on the brink of disaster, but also of full-on American Empire dissolution (which is closer than ever, and, without simultaneous Federal, State, and Municipal spending and priorities course-correction, more and more inevitable).

Colleagues had to sell their homes to raise cash. Still others depleted savings, put away for years with diligence and discipline, earmarked for buying first homes. Last year’s strike also caused more than a few despairing craftspeople to take their own lives.

The stoppage has forced Catherine and I, now handcuffed after exhausting our savings, to consider selling our Brooklyn condo and leaving our 30-year home of New York City altogether. We’re still in that mode as of this writing. Destination TBD, but no matter where, it will be sunnier and fennel bulbs will def be less than $5 each.

Last year’s labor dispute took place solely “above-the-line,” between factions whose leaderships do not fret over the cost of fennel bulbs. The strikes laid bare that “below-the-line” workers’ losing livelihoods will always be acceptable collateral damage to stars, scribes, and studios. Don’t take me wrong — writers and actors weren’t selfish for striking. But walking a picket line necessitates a bit of callousness for the picketing’s consequences beyond the line.

That said, the majority of callousness on display last year came from studios. The C in C-suite can stand for cold-hearted. Studio executives never need much conscience over the ripple effects of strikes, as they’re always in control. I mean, like any labor-driven enterprise in the U.S., boardrooms always have the nuclear option of firing everyone (see: air traffic controllers in the 1980s), or not hiring anyone by pretending Canada is New Jersey (see: too many shows now to count).

In any event, unfortunately, both sides in any above-the-line labor dispute can scream “See what you’ve done?!” with equal senses of moral high ground at each other, while pointing at an ash pile of below-the-line professional lives.

Undermining bluffs, all around.

Undermined // 📸 Westy Reflector // Montauk NY // July 2015
Undermined // 📸 Westy Reflector // Montauk NY // July 2015

In March 2023, Catherine started work as the Costume Designer on the 2nd season of Amazon’s The Peripheral, a show based on William Gibson’s 2014 novel of the same name. Her second day on the job, the WGA walked off, and pre-production was suspended.

Flash forward to around the 100th day of the writer’s strike, and the megamall-cum-streamer cancelled the show, citing the ongoing strikes forced their hand. The Hollywood Reporter even coined a new phrase for what happened to the show: an “un-renewal.”

Delaying the grand expensive sci-fi saga starring Chloe Moritz wasn’t worth the risks for Amazon. Compelling, entertaining, and as well received as it was, the show hadn’t aired since 2022, so its marketing (often a larger expense than production) would have had to start from time zero.

The Peripheral’s cancellation, though, also felt tactical. Is there a better means to threaten striking workers (and those supporting them) than taking away their post-strike security? The cynic in me raised every hackle on seeing the news.

The strikes proved a convenient excuse for studios to shed weight. Better always for a financier, even in the best of times, to take losses and absorb sunk costs than to have ongoing jeopardy on the books. For instance, during the strike and until they cancelled The Peripheral, Amazon paid in full to hold the show’s stage space at the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Steiner Studios, so as to launch right up without delay when the strikes ended. No doubt some Prime accountant deep up Jeff Bezos’s rectum breathed a sigh of relief on the show’s “un-renewal.”

Easy Math

DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a writer carrying a picket sign in front of the Hollywood Sign, instagram post”
DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a writer carrying a picket sign in front of the Hollywood Sign, instagram post”

You could see the strikes coming from a pandemic away, and while the walkouts were noble and necessary, the deals they made are good for only 3-years, which tinges the stoppages now with retroactive absurdity. Everything will be up for grabs again 30-months from now.

Of all the issues in the negotiations, writers room staffing minimums were arguably the least sticky sticking point, because at least arguments could be parsed with actual costs and direct employment effects.

Pre-strike minimum scale for WGA writers on a 30-week show was $7,412 a week (=$222,360 minimum 30-week salary). On 2023 August 11, the AMPTP (“studios”) offered the WGA a 15% increase to $8,524 per week (=$255,720 30-wk salary). For development writers rooms (i.e. shows not yet “green-lit” for production), studios floated 10-week minimums with a salary increase of 43.8%, from $9,888 per week to $14,214 per week (=$142,214 minimum 10-wk salary).

Easy math usually leads to easy resolutions.

Labor negotiations for salary increases, at any level, in any industry, always occur on concrete margins. Hire x-number of writers, pay y-amount of salaries. Management and workers then find a spot where everyone saves face (“win-win”), and gets on with their lives.

In any event, the WGA rejected the offer, resulting in another 8 weeks of stoppage.

On the heels of that impasse, Amazon cancelled The Peripheral, and thus cost each of the show’s writers at minimum $220,000 income (and our household ~100K). Will those writers or Catherine ever make that back? Doubtful. How often can you find an extra 8 months of work in this business?

Looking back, it all feels, well, idealistic.

You Are The Rosetta Stone Is You

DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a writer carrying a picket sign, posing for photographers on an Academy Awards red carpet, instagram post”
DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a writer carrying a picket sign, posing for photographers on an Academy Awards red carpet, instagram post”

The uncharted use of Artificial Intelligence in scripted entertainment was the issue fraught with the most unknowns, and the negotiations around it proved to be the deepest muddy track. Even now, post-strike, every argument about AI’s potential use and disruption to creative processes (and to society in general) arrives from the abstract, from a place of either fear or reverence for the future of human-machine interfacing. Depending on to whom you talk, the robots either walk on water or drown us, with no in between.

Writers are still the front line of the battle against automated creativity, because they are most threatened by current levels of AI automation (viz affect artists, animators, and musicians are close runner-ups). Writers’ vulnerabilities to technological shifts stem from their having used AI and AI analogues longer than any other craft. As a result, the machine knows more about how to write than any other fine art discipline.

DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a writer carrying a picket sign about weekly wages in front of a film studio, instagram post”
DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a writer carrying a picket sign about weekly wages in front of a film studio, instagram post”

Programmers’ forebears are writers. Computers run on “scripted” code evolved into “languages.” AI is instructed (i.e. “trained”) to write itself, and eventually makes the programmer irrelevant.

In essence, AI is taught to create (and procreate).

ChatGPT, for all intents and purposes, is a writer.

The first time humans wrote or drew on rocks to preserve and communicate stories and shopping lists, we were doomed to enslavement by our tech.

Inasmuch as AI is today in its infancy (i.e. its ancient age), DallE-2 and Midjourney produce cave paintings, and ChatGPT writes Dead Sea Scrolls. Fwiw, this analogy casts us as AI’s Rosetta Stone.

The irony would be delicious, if only it was more sweet than bitter. We feed Artificial Intelligence our real knowledge, and are in the process of giving over to it all our knowledge. Yet we deride its output as “artificial.” Go figure.

Left to its preternatural logical extreme, AI makes humans not just anachronistic, but inanimate.

At some point, AI will achieve an omniscient objective state, where it will wonder if it’s actually real, or what “real intelligence” even means. Begs the question: If an “artificial” machine has an existential crisis, will it ever choose to turn itself off?

The WGA’s and SAG’s aligned positions on AI were, in essence, a fight with the AMPTP over a remote control for the future.

Quixotic? You bet.

Admirable AF, tho.

Syd Elysian Field Trip

DALL·E2 PROMPT: “Hundreds of writers carrying picket signs in front of the Hollywood Sign, instagram post.”
DALL·E2 PROMPT: “Hundreds of writers carrying picket signs in front of the Hollywood Sign, instagram post.”

Every public domain work that can be used freely without citation or license may as well be an AI generated source.

Spellcheck and autocorrect are forms of AI.

The Oxford Thesaurus is less than a stone’s throw from asking an AI, “What’s the right word here?” If he first published today, would Roget have needed human editors?

Word processors are AI. The term “processor” implies an independent, active actor, and in the context of writing and words, something neural and heuristic. “Grammar suggestions” require a machine’s having at least a rudimentary sense of what you’re trying to say. That’s called “intuition” when humans do it, and a subset of higher intellect.

To expunge enough of the “machine” from the writing process for scripts to be considered a pure human creation by the single-card-credit writer, screenwriters would have to rewind to the place where all scripts were written on manual typewriters, with no outside help (no dictionaries, no wikis, no Syd Field guides, no Final Draft formatting automation, no adaptations of prior works…).

A “Writers Room” supporting that single-card-credit writer may as well be an AI process, too. Human writers are carbon-based, of course, but any Writers Room is, in effect, a cognition enhancement for the head writer, parallel to an AI. Give a Writers Room a prompt, close the door, and a few days later, voila! A show.

“Hey, ChatSPLAT, write me a story about a modern-day US President named Jet Lear’s fall from grace, using Shakespeare’s King Lear as your story template… Do not refer to King Lear in your writing.”

“No problem, Westy. Give me a few nanoseconds…”

Adapting a book or some other form of art into a new story or format is in essence to use a pre-conceived template to make a new work. Does it matter if Shakespeare was a human or a machine if you’re using King Lear to model a story about a modern political dynasty?

At this point, everything from our “hero’s journey,” the lead character’s affectations and fate, the rhythm of the story, to all the character interplay — are already all mapped out. No different than an algorithm.

We are crossing Sid Elysian Field, it seems…

A Big Streaming Black Hole

IYKYK - the infamous NYC scab-worker rat
IYKYK — the infamous NYC scab-worker rat

Netflix’s current programming lineup offers a total of 36,667 hours of viewing pleasure. That’s 4 years, 2 months, and 8 days-worth of non-stop bingeing. With sleep, grocery shopping, non-distracted driving, clearing and cleaning dinnerware, etc., there’s probably 12 hours a day where bingeing shows is impossible, let alone inconvenient. So, bingeing Netflix without interruption, while still living a semblance of an IRL life, will take around 8 years, 4 months, and 16 days.

In theory, then, if another strike happens tomorrow, Netflix could probably go a little over 8 years before needing new material from guild writers and actors.

That’s just Netflix.

DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a writer holding a picket sign on an Academy Awards red carpet, instagram post”
DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a writer holding a picket sign on an Academy Awards red carpet, instagram post”

YouTube is the quasar of media-consumption black holes.

If we can trust the analysis of a website called “Wyzowl,” then there are 800 million videos on YouTube, with an average length of 11.7 minutes. It would take 9.36 billion minutes to watch them all. That’s 156 million hours, 6.5 million days, or 17,810 years of consecutive video watching — FREE viewing. This total also assumes that no one ever uploads another video to YouTube again.

The biggest enemy of the entertainment business has never been a dearth of creativity or production talent, but rather, people’s ability to entertain each other for free. Every minute spent on, say, TikTok or Insta is one minute spent supporting content outside the Hollywood union ecosystem. If we’re not careful in this era of “democratized production means,” folks who otherwise would pay in earnest for programming will forget that paid programming ever existed.

Unplugged Lanai Luna // Florida // 2023
Unplugged Luna // Florida // 2023

The only strike that would strike true fear in studio C-suites would be an en-masse “viewer strike” in solidarity with guild workers, where tens of millions just up and cancel their streaming platforms and cable TV subscriptions. “We’re just going to sit on our lanais,” they’ll announce, “watch our dogs sleep, play each other music, make our own films, and tell each other jokes until you play fair with creators.”

In that scenario, parlor pianos and door-to-door sheet music salespersons would make quite a comeback.

Maybe then, the studios would perk their ears with alacrity to long-term guild-work stability. For now, though, viewers increasingly keep tuning in to old shows and auto-paying into the streaming ecosystem every month.

Mindless-subscription culture means 30-months from now, when these contracts expire again, there will be even less-to-no incentive for studios to negotiate with workers striking over new content production.

POLLS (please answer in comments):

Would you be willing to cancel your Netflix in support of the next WGA and SAG strikes?
> Y
> N

Would you be willing to cancel your Netflix in support of an IATSE and/or Teamster strike?
> Y
> N

Most people probably would not cancel MAX in solidarity with writers (especially now they know of the 6-figure minimum salaries being struck over). Maybe they’d side with IATSE Costume Designers like my wife, since their weekly minimum scales and benefits are nowhere near the level of writers. But even then, who now has the time to change habits?

Nostalgia is a key driver in a ton of media viewing. Eventually, if the platform that owns the rights to, say, Friends can generate new episodes in perpetuity using AI actors and scripts, and people say, “Holy crap, this is the greatest thing ever!”, then making old shows new again is where all the studio investment will go.

I mean, why would you need to make a new sitcom if a new season of Friends using reanimated actors, never aging past original season 5, offers a plot arc about Rachel finding Joey’s OnlyFans account?

The Value of the New

Big Post-Strike Fear: Studios decide they never have to make another new show.

override strikes.wga.sagaftra () \{
crews.replacement("non-union", "international", "non-scripted", "A.I.")
reruns.forever ()
new."Friends".generated ()
//crashes here.
DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a writer carrying a picket sign in front of the Hollywood Sign, instagram post”
DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a writer carrying a picket sign in front of the Hollywood Sign, instagram post”

The value of “the new” (especially scripted, fictional “new”) tails off in a world where people escape to the familiar. Today’s edemic content libraries swell with old shows laced with nostalgia, while viewers have less and less disposable income to spend on entertainment. Most paid entertainment consumption now is comfort food, not Michelin-star dining.

Studios know the complacent, exhausted, and overwhelmed viewer is their greatest “ally” in scaling back investment in new, untested content. Somewhere in that 8+ years of Netflix programming lies something that someone will settle on watching after a hard-day’s work, or something someone’s willing to watch over-and-over-and-over. What better way to monetize a stale back-catalog than to sit back and make nothing new for a while.

In this way, studios gained a cumulative zero-sum-game benefit over workers every day the strikes went on.

There will be a moment where these companies make viewing their back catalog a subscription requirement — or at least, an incentive. “Watch Battlefield Earth tonight and we’ll knock $0.25 off your monthly bill!”

And don’t worry, fast-forwarding will be disabled, and the show will pause if you look away.

Sonny Called Me “Star Wars”

DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a striking writer in front of a film studio, in the style of a 1950s B-movie poster”
DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a striking writer in front of a film studio, in the style of a 1950s B-movie poster”

When it comes to these strikes, rising tides in Hollywood never raise all boats. That would only happen if there was a true collective bargaining umbrella over the entire world of development and production craftspeople.

For now, though, it’s neither practical nor prudent for writers and actors to ever strike with contingent demands to improve conditions or compensation for Below-The-Line folks, arguably the most exploited, underpaid, talented, and dismissed artisans in the entertainment world.

Catherine is a Costume Designer for 30 years. Her projects have grossed studios over $2B. She sees no residuals, however, because the Costume Designers Guild has less clout among industry trade unions than an Instagram user with a few hundred followers. If she had a penny for every Kill Bill Bride costume worn on Halloween, we’d be above water, and upstream her union wouldn’t ever need to consider striking every 36 months.

Lo and behold, IATSE’s and the Teamsters’ contracts with the AMPTP expire this June. If either or both strike, we’ll see if any actors or writers march alongside them. I don’t think there will be a strike, however, and industry loyalties likely will remain untested, given how little work there’s been.

All that said, Teamsters aren’t known for sitting back and taking abuse, and they are one hell of a political machine. My most memorable crash-course in Teamster ethos came when I was the Assistant Locations Manager on the first season of the HBO prison drama Oz in 1998. The Local Teamsters 817 Captain on that job was Sonny Volpe, a former Golden Gloves boxer in the 1950s and a legend on the New York production scene.

Sonny Volpe in Command // Oz (HBO) location // East Village NYC // 1998
Sonny Volpe In Command // Oz (HBO) location // East Village NYC // 1998

I never saw anyone better than Sonny and his teams at doing that job. When Sonny passed in 2022 at the age of 90, I recalled a few interactions with him over my “early adoption” of the internet to scout Oz’s locations. The Teamsters and Locations departments shared office space on the same floor of the prison set on the 6th-floor of the Chelsea Market building in Manhattan on 16th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue.

Westy in the Clink // Oz (HBO) set // NYC // 1998
Westy in the Clink // Oz (HBO) set // Chelsea Market, NYC // 1998

The internet in 1998 offered little in the way of fluid communication and exhaustive visual research, but you could source plenty of information about potential locations and logistics providers without having to drive around or look at a phone book. At least part of the world then could come to you by sitting still and tapping a mouse.

On one of the first days I plugged my laptop into the office’s landline and fired up an iconic modem connection tone, Sonny at his desk looked up from behind his paper.

“Scoutin’ on a computer?” he cajoled. “Whatta you, Star Wars?”

“If only, Sonny,” I said. “But it is the future. Get used to it.”

“I’m just getting used to people bein’ able to reach me in my car, which I’ll have you know, is a sacred space. Like, don’t bother me when I’m drivin’. I mean, I know what you’re sayin’, but c’mon…”

“10 years from now-”

“10 years from now,” he cut me off in his classic street-kid-no-joke tone, “these productions will still need a few hundred feet of sidewalk clearance for their trucks, someone to drive each of those trucks, and a Honeywagon fulla toilets for all you softies to piss out your midday lattés... And lunch. We’ll all still need lunch.”

“All true,” I said. “All true.”

On account of my laptop, Sonny called me “Star Wars” for the rest of the job.

“Hey Star Wars,” he’d snark (good-natured) at me as I pulled up to a location, “I bet your left foot’s never touched a clutch.”

Or as I launched into my daily dial up, he’d fire off, “Hey 2-streeter, careful plugging in that robot!”

RIP, Sonny.

And RIP to all the ways films used to be made.

Nothing Left But Love

DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a writer carrying a picket sign in front of a film studio, instagram post”
DALL-E2 PROMPT: “a writer carrying a picket sign in front of a film studio, instagram post”

The 2023 walkouts lasted long enough, and flushed away so many projects, that Catherine, a Guild award-winning and Emmy-nominated A-lister, still has no work prospects and no contributions going into her health insurance and pension plans, for at least the next few months.

The resolution of the strikes did not make allowances for lost benefit contributions, either. To their credit, when the strikes dragged, IATSE froze increases on health insurance premiums, and also allowed workers with no employer contributions left in their accounts to stay in their plans without going out of pocket. That contingency continues to this day.

Anyone with a positive balance of employer contributions, however, is required to continue drawing down their accounts for coverage until they’re depleted. In the ultimate knife twist, those with subsidy balances greater than $0 but less than the cost of their plans are required to run their balances to zero and pay the difference.

Fwiw, we are on an IATSE family health plan’s 2nd-lowest tier, an “EPO.” The effective cost is around $2900 per quarter. The highest tier family plan PPO nets out to ~$11K per quarter, and the 2nd highest ~$5K.

Before the Affordable Care Act, everyone in Local 829 was on the union’s sole health plan (a PPO), and it cost $750 every 6 months. Subsidies were based on hours-worked over the prior four quarters. Until the 2012 law, if Catherine didn’t work for a year, we could still carry on with her health plan for $1500 per year.

Now, the subsidies are based on actual salaries and employer (i.e., studios or independent guild-level production companies) contributions. Without the IATSE strike allowances, if and when Catherine’s contribution balance runs out, we would need to cough up almost $12,000 a year to stay on a plan that offers 1/4 the network and 4x the deductible than our pre-ACA plan.

Raise your hand if your salary has increased 700% since 2012.

In any event, Catherine will most likely have been out of work for a over a year by the time she lands another gig. My steady work dried up during covid, and never came back.

Catherine and I have enough health insurance banked for the next two quarters, and an apartment we will offload before things get dire. But that’s it. Beyond that, just a big black void.

For now, until either my or Cat’s careers flow again, I got nothing to give but love.

Would that love bought groceries.