“We’re really struggling”: The president of the Writers Guild of Canada on the Hollywood writers’ strike
Orphan Black alum Alex Levine breaks down why writers are demanding AI regulations, which beloved shows could get delayed or cancelled and how the labour stoppage will affect upcoming negotiations in Canada
Only a picket line formed by screenwriters would boast a sign that reads: “You’re gonna be the villains in a limited series about this.” Apart from clever signage, the members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA)—11,500 TV and film writers—have officially put down their pencils. On May 1, after months of negotiation with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Production, they went on strike to demand raises, staffing minimums, longer contracts and regulations around the use of AI in production. Bereft of new material, late-night shows have gone dark while work on popular scripted series has screeched to a halt. And though the action may be happening down south, the Writers Guild of Canada (WGC) has emerged as a vocal supporter of the strike. WGC president Alex Levine, who has also worked on shows like Flashpoint, Orphan Black and Stargate, says upcoming negotiations in Canada will revolve around the same issues. We spoke with him about what the WGA is fighting for and what the strike could mean for production, crews and ardent viewers up north.
Let’s start south of the border. What led to the Hollywood writers’ strike?
The major streaming services—like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime—have taken over broadcasting. And while they are commissioning a historical amount of content, much of that is smaller orders—shows with as few as six episodes. With an order that size, studios can get away with hiring fewer writers and having them do a lot more work. We’re also seeing shorter contracts with lower wages. That’s happening globally, but in the US, studios are often paying the guild’s minimum rates—per episode, for streaming, that’s about $20,000 for a script or $12,000 for contributing to the story without writing it. Then a lot of writers get cut loose before production begins and aren’t able to work directly with the cast and crew. So these future showrunners aren’t getting the training they need to lead their own shows.
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Why don’t the studios want to accommodate the WGA requests?
They say that staffing minimums are incompatible with the nature of the industry, and they point to shows like White Lotus, where one person writes every episode. But we have to find a way for the middle class of writers to make a living, not just the Mike Whites. They also didn’t adequately respond to the WGA’s proposals about regulating AI.
Is the fear that computers will be writing TV shows?
I’m not worried about AI replacing the screenwriter entirely. Subtext, comedy, nuance—it’s difficult for a computer to capture those things. But I am worried that it might devalue our work. An AI tool could produce a junk first draft for a producer, which they would own. They could then take that to a screenwriter and just task them with making it sound human. That’s scary. I think that, as a society, we have a vested interest in keeping people at the centre of our stories.
How long do you think the strike will last?
It’s difficult to say. I do worry that it will go on for longer than the strike in 2007, which lasted 100 days. The streamers were prepared for this—tensions have been bubbling for a while. They’ve stockpiled content, so viewers won’t notice a lack of options right away. They can also buy foreign programming, even Canadian programming, to fill the gap. So I don’t think there’s as much pressure as last time.
Many US shows are filmed in Canada. What happens here if the strike in Hollywood continues?
Sooner or later, productions will run out of scripts. Canadian crews working on the big-budget American productions that shoot here—like The Last of Us, The Good Doctor, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Boys—will be out of work. Film and TV production contributes billions to some of our provinces’ economies, and a long strike could have a huge impact on that.
What would that mean for viewers?
There would eventually be a dearth of new content, but probably not until late this year or early next. The longer the strike goes on, the longer existing shows will get delayed. I could also see a scenario where a show gets cancelled because, after a while, the star or the showrunner is no longer available or a studio changes its mind about it.
We’ve seen picket signs threatening to spoil Succession. That’s a joke…right?
Yes, I don’t think that’s a real concern. It’s a funny sign, though.
On that note, do you have favourite sign of the ones you’ve seen so far?
I saw one that just said, “Fade In…” and then the rest of the sign was blank.
The Canadian guild has been very outspoken in its support for the strike.
Yes. We’re telling WGC members not to pitch, query or work with American streamers or producers during the stoppage, and we’re asking our writers who are based in LA to abide by the WGA rules rather than come back to Canada to work.
The WGC’s collective agreement ends this December. Will the current US negotiations affect what you bargain for?
Many of the same issues will be on the table, and if the WGA is successful, that would provide precedent. Make no mistake: we’re really struggling in Canada. The amount of domestic production is in decline. Streamers are the dominant players here too, and they take away from the traditional broadcasters who use—and pay—more Canadian creators. For a while, the streamers didn’t even have to pay HST, and they’re still not regulated or required to contribute to Canadian production. Now, sometimes they come here by choice, which is great. We’ve seen that with Netflix’s new Canadian office, for example. But, more often than not, they’re producing US-backed stuff, so the crews here get paid but the creatives don’t. That could change with the Online Streaming Act, which was passed last month, but the boost it may have on CanCon isn’t being felt yet.
Canadian screenwriters have said that writing rooms here have always been smaller. Is that true?
A big American show like This Is Us has upward of 20 writers—no Canadian show has ever had that. Lately, an increasing number of writers get cycled in and out of productions rather than being employed the whole time. It’s nearly freelance. Many writers are lucky to get one short contract in a year, and then they have trouble paying their bills. People think that, once you break in, the rest is smooth sailing, but you need a continuous series of breaks. I’ve heard of people going back to copywriting jobs or picking up side-hustles like driving for Uber. That’s sad to hear. They could be writing the next great Canadian TV series or screenplay.
For many writers, this is a dream job. Does that make them more vulnerable to poor working conditions?
Screenwriters are often taken advantage of because they care about the craft—they love what they do and they feel lucky to do it. And they don’t always get a lot of sympathy, because people think it’s a cushy job or that we’re overpaid. But the bottom line is that the work is valuable. Writers should be paid fairly for it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.