Imagine you’ve been dreaming your whole life of working in Hollywood, with all its glittering promises of fame and fortune. The mere possibility that a famous actor will say a line or joke you wrote, or the chance that you’ll star in or direct the next blockbuster film fuels your drive. The dream of making a living from doing something you love — something creative and fulfilling — continuously propels you forward, even amid box-office bombs and audition rejections.
Then, streaming services enter the industry, and Hollywood’s landscape dramatically changes before your eyes — wages are cut, residuals are eliminated, and contracts are changed. Then, technological advances change the industry again, and the company executives who make millions — or billions — from the shows and movies you helped create suddenly think a rom-com written by a robot is bound to be the next big thing. With every tech update, the dream continuously slips out of your grasp.
After 148 days, the Writers Guild of America, a joint collaboration between two unions representing writers in the entertainment industry, ended its strike on Sept. 27, capping off the second-longest Hollywood walkout in history. In the three-year agreement struck by the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the trade association that negotiates contracts for Hollywood’s major studios, writers made massive advances in areas they fought for — compensation, length of employment, staff size and usage of artificial intelligence.
Meanwhile, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists’ monthslong strike continues, as the latest round of the union’s negotiations with the AMPTP were struck down on Oct. 11. The turbulence has left many recent graduates and current students at ASU’s Sidney Poitier New American Film School concerned about their future careers — and the landscape of Hollywood itself.
Understanding the strikes
It takes Chris LaMont and his writing partner four months to produce a script. That’s four months of spitballing ideas and drawing inspiration from their own lives and imaginations. It’s also four months of unpaid work — that’s just how Hollywood works, said LaMont, a card-carrying member of the WGA and professor at the Sidney Poitier Film School.
But during the nearly five months the WGA was on strike, bringing the industry to a grinding halt, LaMont and his partner couldn’t work on any scripts.
“We’ve got scripts (completed prior to the strike),” LaMont said. “We had a script with a producer that’s attached, with a director attached to the project, and…every studio in town was waiting to see it, (but) they couldn’t look at it for five months.
“The heat has kind of died down on all of our projects, so now it’s a question of…jumpstarting everything again. But when…we have two scripts that are basically sitting around that have been waiting for the marketplace, that’s eight months of work that has nothing to show for it right now.”
The inability for screenwriters to meet with producers and sell their scripts led to many members losing their health insurance, including LaMont and his partner. The guild requires members to sell roughly $40,000 worth of scripts within a calendar year to qualify for health insurance. Those who weren’t able to sell any because of the strike were dropped from their insurance.
Now that the WGA strike has ended and a new contract was ratified on Oct. 9, health insurance will be extended through the end of the year for screenwriters, replacing the original Oct. 1 expiration date. LaMont said things are looking up for him and his partner as they have started to contact studios and regain the momentum they lost.
But Hollywood’s future still remains uncertain as the SAG-AFTRA strike continues. While the WGA strike put existing screenwriters’ careers on hold, LaMont said it was recent film graduates who were among the hardest hit by the strike’s effects.
One step forward, two steps back
This spring, Eden Prieve was named the Outstanding Undergraduate for the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts when she graduated from Sidney Poitier. In that moment, she should have felt on top of the world.
But when the WGA strike hit a week before graduation, she felt more stressed than excited about her future career. Once she graduated, making her professional dreams a reality proved nearly impossible as the strike loomed overhead. It meant some of the only jobs she could find were outside the screenwriting field, as working for films during this time would undermine the entire purpose of the strike.
She now works for ShotDeck, the largest searchable film image database in the world. As a tagger, she watches films and supplies key information on individual shots for the database.
“I was very nervous because I knew this was a job that's in the industry but didn’t cross the picket line,” Prieve said. “I knew that there are very limited options for this…and I was really lucky to land that. But it's a remote job, and it's not in writing.”
Chloe Rudolph, another recent Sidney Poitier graduate, works as a talent agent assistant at Signature Models and Talent in Scottsdale, an agency franchised by SAG-AFTRA. There, she’s responsible for connecting her clients — actors — with projects they’d be suited for.
She started as an intern with the agency and planned to work there only until graduation, when she would set off for Los Angeles — “every film kid’s dream,” she said.
“Before the strikes got announced, I was applying to all sorts of postings,” Rudolph said. “But as soon as the strikes hit, the job boards went silent.”
While Prieve and Rudolph said they are proud of the writers and actors for striking and want them to achieve success, they and their fellow film graduates have been left in limbo — though they’re teeming with the desire to work and create, the opportunities simply aren’t there.
Recently, Prieve asked her former professors how long it would take for the industry to whir back to life again. They told her to wait out the silence for just nine more months.
“This is because people are not just going to pick up exactly where they left off — it's going to take time,” Prieve said. “Anything takes time to adapt to the new contract.”
The mailroom that Sidney Poitier graduate Joe Nixon dreams of working in is only a block away from the coffee shop where he currently makes lattes for roughly 35 hours a week. For now, Nixon just works at a Starbucks in Beverly Hills. The illustrious mailroom in question is the one at the celebrity-endorsed Creative Artists Agency, where he hopes to climb the ranks to become a screenwriter.
But brewing espresso around the clock to afford an LA apartment doesn’t leave much time for Nixon to practice his craft. In fact, scraping together the time and energy to be creative is something many recent film graduates have struggled with in recent months.
During the week, he spends five hours of his free time co-producing a short film for a nonprofit organization. Though he does care about the project, it’s simply not work he is passionate about.
“I wouldn't really qualify it as creative work,” Nixon said. “It's more like busy work. I spend probably an average of two hours on screenwriting and personal work.”
At the beginning of the WGA strike, Nixon doggedly continued to search for opportunities that would bring him closer to his dream, but like many others, he turned up dry.
“I did try super hard to get a job,” Nixon said. “I have a list, a spreadsheet, that I've built up for every job that I applied to, and it's over 150 jobs long. That kind of demoralized me a little bit. So I'm hyping myself back up to kind of get back into the job search.”
When Prieve isn’t watching films for her job, she’s in her room trying to muster up enough creativity to write the script of the feature film she’s been working on since her senior year.
“It's been hard for me to come up with new ideas,” Prieve said. “I feel really stuck and very trapped by the situation.
“You would think all this downtime would be a great time — I can just write and really hone my craft, and when it starts back up I'll be good. But feeling so discouraged at the moment makes it really hard.”
Young filmmakers like Nixon and Prieve are longing to be in those creative spaces. But as the SAG-AFTRA strike continues in Hollywood, jobs are limited, and graduates have to remain patient.
“This is a really hard time, and I think it would be foolish to act like it's not scary,” Prieve said. “But I think the best thing you can do is to treat job applications like your job — applying every single day, looking at things. And you just have to remember…how much you love it.”
Film classrooms at ASU have swirled with talks about the strikes and their implications, according to Victoria Gauza, a sophomore studying film and media production.
For current students like Gauza, the strikes were an inspiring and eye-opening introduction to the realities of the entertainment industry.
“I found how unfair it is,” she said. “It took a whole strike…for us to get even a shred of recognition even though, you know, we are the backbone of the industry.
“I found that I can't ever settle for any less than what I offer because at the end of the day, writing is a passion that takes all your heart and soul, and it’s such a difficult thing to do.”
In the WGA negotiations, the guild was able to protect screenwriters’ craft by giving writers more control over where and how they want to implement AI in their process, as well as holding companies accountable if they use AI.
Yet, AI remains something of a wild card in Hollywood. One of the reasons the SAG-AFTRA negotiations with AMPTP were struck down was that AMPTP pushed to allow companies to hire background actors, pay them for only one day’s work, scan their likenesses and use these scans for the rest of the project without providing them with any additional compensation.
“I firmly believe AI could not write half the movies that I've loved or the TV shows that I love,” Gauza said. “It can't bring the same impact because at the end of the day, it's only drawing from existing properties.
“It takes away the creative aspect that makes film, television, acting, writing — all that stuff. It takes away what makes it so special.”
Protecting the humanity at the heart of filmmakers' work has been a core issue throughout the strikes. But it’s one the unions are willing to fight for because the answer to this question holds so much sway over the future of the industry.
“It made me feel amazing to see all these screenwriters…standing up for a future that I want to pursue and seeing them fight not only for a future for themselves, but a future for people like me,” Gauza said.
“They’re picketing for the future screenwriters so that they would not have to go through what (striking screenwriters) did. (It’s) really moving to see that the people (who) come before me are so passionate about paving the way for a better future for me and my fellow classmates.”
Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen
This story is part of The Element Issue, which was released on Nov. 1, 2023. See the entire publication here.