Once again, the consequences of prioritising financial gain above real human wellbeing and mental health are being broadcasted, clear as day, to studio executives and companies. The question is: are they finally going to listen this time?
Between talks of "crunch culture" in the gaming industry, the exposing of toxic workplace practices for animators and developers, and now the ongoing writers' strike in America, it sometimes feels like we're stuck in a time loop, having the same discussions, writing the same think-pieces, and calling out the same problems over and over again to no end.
As many of you will have heard, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), a trade union representing film and television writers, is on strike. Currently on its 28th day, the ongoing WGA strike has been the largest disruption to production within the entertainment industry since the last WGA strike of 2007, which lasted 100 days.
Many US-produced shows of the time had their 2007-2008 seasons cut short as writers scrambled to wrap up what they could before the strike began. Though its impact was most obvious in television, cinema certainly felt a hit from the strike too. Famously, for the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, widely criticised for its messy plot and seemingly abrupt ending, actors didn't have a script to follow at times, with lead actor Daniel Craig improvising lines on the day of filming.
To say that the 2007 strike had an impact on the film and television industry would be a tremendous understatement; aside from causing $3bn of economic damage in Los Angeles alone, in the years to come, the industry would undergo an extraordinary shift in how we consume the films and television we do today, namely with the widespread popularity of streaming services. Interestingly, it also resulted in a surge in the popularity of reality TV shows, which were substantially cheaper to produce and required, notably, no writers.
Improved pay, accounting for inflation — According to the WGA, over the last decade, writer-producer pay has decreased by 23%, while the proportion of writers making the minimum rate has increased from 33% to 49%.
Improved staffing — The widely despised practice of “mini rooms”, where only a small team of 2 or 3 writers will be made to pen scripts for a whole season of a show, has been a key issue the guild demands be addressed. Understaffing projects not only puts tremendous strain on the small teams to deliver projects within often short timeframes, but also shuts out newer writers as studios are less likely to take the risk of hiring those with less experience. Furthermore, while traditionally writers would remain involved in the entire production process, from writing the scripts to filming on set and consulting during editing, this has become less common practice over the last decade, resulting in a clear-even-to-audiences disconnect between writers and their own work. Refusing to allow writers to see how their scripts come to life on set takes away an incredibly valuable opportunity to improve their skill as writers, but also leaves writers stuck with little to no room for career progression.
Better residuals — With traditional television, writers get small (typically only a few dollars) residual payments every time an episode they've worked on has a re-run. However, with the rise of streaming platforms, residual pay has all but ceased to exist despite those streaming services continuing to profit off those very shows that wouldn’t exist without said writers.
Shorter exclusivity deals — This refers to the amount of time that must pass following the completion of work on a project before a writer can work on a new one. Current exclusivity rules are outdated, appropriate for the time of the 22-episode year-long season of television but not so much the 8-episodes-every-2-years season format we’re seeing more regularly.
Safeguards on the use of AI in writing — Discussion on the danger of AI to art and entertainment is one we’re likely only going to be having more often. Within television and film production it’s no different; sustainable pay is dubious enough as it is, and introducing AI is only going to complicate things further.
In solidarity, here in the UK, the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) has stated "The WGGB support the WGA in their ongoing negotiations. If a strike cannot be avoided, we will advise our membership not to work on projects within the jurisdiction of the WGA for the duration of the strike in line with our IAWG agreements".
The strain that practices like "mini rooms" and reduced opportunities for pay, thanks to shorter seasons with fewer episodes, on writers' mental health and wellbeing is undeniable. When writers, particularly younger writers, attempting to establish themselves in their field, are made to get second side-jobs to make ends meet and survive — sadly, something we’re only hearing more about across various industries too, including teaching and nursing — little time is left to properly care for themselves. Not only are increased incidences of mental health difficulties apparent, but the continuous stress over unsustainable pay and working conditions is also detrimental to the quality of their work. Again, this isn't in any way an issue that only writers in the entertainment industry have to deal with — in fact, you can hear about this very problem and how it impacts the lives of NHS workers on a recent episode of At the Back of Your Mind, with guest Professor Dame Anne-Marie Rafferty.
Also, YouTuber Drew Gooden in his recent video, "The Future of TV is Bleak", also talks about the ongoing WGA strike and its impacts on both writer wellbeing and the industry as a whole, so I’d recommend giving it a watch if you’re interested in hearing more.
Though not explicitly addressed in the WGA's demands, one recurring issue that workers across the entertainment industry face is "crunch culture".
What is "crunch culture"?
"Crunch" and "crunch time" simply refer to the period before a major deadline where employees will work extremely exhausting long hours, often unpaid overtime, to ensure that the product is delivered on time. While "crunch" itself isn’t necessarily an issue or uncommon in everyday life, "crunch culture" within workplaces can become extremely dangerous extremely quickly. Unsurprisingly, high incidences of burnout and elevated stress and anxiety are frequently seen.
Only a few months ago, online content production company Rooster Teeth came under fire for inappropriate conduct towards several ex-employees, including unpaid overtime, underpaid salaries, dismissal of mental and physical health concerns, and harassment. Though this was the most recent incident for the company, concerns about the poor management and crunch culture at Rooster Teeth had actually been raised a few years prior as well, by a number of ex-employees including animators, voice actors, and show creators.
Those familiar with the group - for me, I loved watching their gaming YouTube videos and podcasts as a teen - will be very familiar with the company's history with "crunch time". For years, on podcasts and in YouTube videos, we'd hear comments, laughed off as jokes, about how they (most often writers and animators) were exhausted and had to spend the night at the office again because they didn't have time to go home with the tight production deadlines they were working under. With how they'd laugh it off themselves, and how Rooster Teeth for years prided themselves as being a big family of sorts, a group of friends goofing off and making content they love, audiences decided this must be normal.
Quickly following the media attention that the recent incident gained, however, Rooster Teeth this time apologised for the past actions of their management staff, promising to listen and implement the necessary changes to ensure healthier work environments and appropriate pay for all staff. I can't say how it's been for employees since, but I am glad that this time Rooster Teeth are acknowledging the harm caused and actively making attempts to improve working conditions and worker wellbeing are certainly steps in the right direction.
Beyond television and film
One of the other moments that inspired me to eventually write this article was the conversation surrounding the wellbeing of developers during the production of the then highly anticipated 2020 video game, Cyberpunk 2077. Following almost a decade of waiting and ever-escalating expectations for a game that, very early on, was anticipated to be the "game of the decade", the actual launch ended up being… rough, to say the least, and certainly not what audiences had been dreaming of. Its now infamous "tumultuous, bug-ridden release", combined with the repeated release delays, and controversy surrounding "crunch culture", left audiences extremely disappointed, and finding positive commentary on the game was near impossible.
To this day, I still haven’t even played the game myself, but at the time, if you were remotely interested in video games and the gaming industry, it was difficult to avoid seeing the endless stream of criticism towards the game and its creators. That’s not to say some of it wasn’t deserved, but I’ll get into that in a moment.
Now, over two years since its release and many bug-fixing patches later, players appear content with where the product is at, with many explaining that the game is finally the "finished product" that it should have been on launch day. Nevertheless, audiences have moved on to other games and Cyberpunk 2077 will likely remain, for many, as simply the Keanu Reeves game with the incredibly cool trailer but completely botched release.
So, what went wrong? With this game, and many others, key reasons as to why the released product failed to meet the expectations of both audiences and studio alike, were unrealistic timelines resulting in unhealthy work environments and in turn strained employee mental and physical wellbeing. This is where, yet again, "crunch culture" comes in.
Earlier I mentioned that some of the criticism towards the handling of Cyberpunk 2077 was necessary. Audiences (and individuals working within the videogame production industry) rightfully calling out the toxicity of "crunch culture" is what I was referring to. With Cyberpunk, while employees were not forced to work 100+ hour weeks and forego rest and self-care – an argument made regularly by individuals defending the studio over concerned workers – it’s often made clear to employees that their employment is very much contingent on them putting in that extra time and pushing themselves to demonstrate their "loyalty".
But this isn’t what writers, artists, and developers sign up for when they follow their passion to work in this industry. Research expectedly shows that the high incidence of burnout syndrome among workers, as well as the poor employee retention, in the video games industry, is attributed to "crunch time".
As Assistant Professor and video games researcher Professor Amanda Cote states perfectly in a recent paper, "Months of overtime, 100-hour workweeks, and 12+ hour days do not sound like the characteristics of a "dream job"; they sound like red flags that should leave anyone with an alternative heading in the opposite direction".
Ultimately, "crunch culture" is a predatory and manipulative practice to ensure that employees play their crucial yet undervalued role in producing a product. Studios might make a loss when the game or show inevitability takes a hit in quality, but the ones really paying are the artists and creatives pushed to their limit for weeks, months, and sometimes even years at a time.
What does the future hold?
As I said, the 2007 right to strike had tremendous impacts on the entertainment industry; impacts we’re still seeing the ramifications, for better or worse, today. Though it doesn’t seem like an agreement will be reached soon, I have to say that I’m incredibly curious to see where today’s strike will take the film and television industry and how what effects we’ll be seeing ten years from now.
And I am hopeful, though perhaps naively, that the value of these workers will be recognised, even if it once again takes months for executives to wake up and realise the reality of the matter is: we need writers, we need creators, and we need artists.