Anonymous Strike Diary: ‘The Well-Known Creator’ on Some Harsh Formative Career Lessons
This is part of a series of accounts of the strike from Hollywood writers at different levels in their careers who have been granted anonymity to encourage candor.
I was picketing the other day when I ran into an old friend. I hadn’t seen him much since a few years ago when he, for the first time, got his own show picked up to series. Soon after the order he promptly disappeared, as showrunners tend to do, having been thrust into the sausage factory, given the handle of the meat grinder. He made a wildly ambitious show that had echoes of all his genre favorites but remained fully his. It was a clear distillation of his vision. It was feted and (somewhat) marketed and reviewed and recapped and think-pieced and podcasted about and DVR’d and streamed. I’d watched all this from afar and cheered him on, knowing what an absurdly difficult mountain he’d crested. A corporation gave him millions and millions of dollars to tell his story. He’d succeeded. He’d won.
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But his face, on this overcast day on the picket line, was grim. The cause of his deflation was not the fact that the show, after one season, had been canceled, which is increasingly common as networks and streamers truck more and more in noise and flash and have less stomach for the slow, patient building of an audience. No, what was weighing on him was the fact that the show had been pulled off the parent company’s streaming service in order to save having to pay residuals and royalties or whatever other metrics merit this increasingly common deep-sixing of content, both new and old. His show, the show he and hundreds of other human beings had sweated over and painstakingly, lovingly crafted, Fitzcarraldo-ed into existence, kinda, no longer did…exist. His show was just removed. Was never released on hard media. Is rarely if ever offered on repeats. Maybe has a few foreign territories or janky airlines where one can find it. But other than that. It’s just, ya know, gone.
First of all, obviously, this was the story of most television shows pre-streaming era. Series aired and eventually got canceled and unless they’d reached syndication-level numbers of episodes, they maybe made it onto VHS or DVD, but usually they just disappeared. But part of the promise of streaming — part of the reason we’d accepted such minuscule residuals and upfront “backends,” was the seductive notion that our work would live on in near perpetuity in the content library, waiting to be discovered by a new audience. But things have changed. Now, obviously there is no actual malice or contempt at the forefront of such corporate decisions. When you’re that deep in Wall Street’s pocket, you have to do what you can to keep the investors happy. Slash some numbers to make those other numbers bigger. Pump that quarter. Massage that EBITDA. And despite what you hear, this is not a historic moment. It’s always been like this.
An early first lesson that I was a mere number came 15 years ago when I shockingly found myself writing a movie for one of the major studios. It was an incredible opportunity. Yes, my executive was famously, hilariously insane, and yes, the literate short story I was adapting (yup, IP was also king back in the time of Amy Winehouse and Kid Nation) was nowhere near an appropriate blueprint for a big, dumb studio comedy, but it was a big deal to me. So I did my drafts. Slogged through note meeting after note meeting, adjusted, rewrote, reimagined and finally turned in a final draft that the producer and the studio loved. They gave me a list of directors they were going to take it to and the producers bought me a giant gift basket and everyone was happy.
Then, as occurs on studio movies, fuck-all happened. Momentum shifted. Cultural tides ebbed. Enthusiasm waned. And one day, I arrived home to my little one-bedroom apartment to find a manila envelope addressed to me, sitting on my doorstep. I picked it up and saw that it was from the producer of my studio movie. They’d already given me cheese and wine, why would they be sending me another gift? I opened it. It wasn’t a gift, but a copy of my script with a note from the producer that read, “Hey, you’re one of our favorite writers! Here is a movie we like but feel could use some fresh eyes. Read it and tell us what you think.” They’d sent me my own script to see if I wanted to rewrite it! Now, obviously some poor assistant had made a mistake, grabbed the list of writers this producer was currently jazzed about, and shot it off to all of them. And sure, my draft might have needed work, or the producer was just doing what producers do, trying to breathe life into a project that had lost steam. But if I ever begin to feel too cozy or think my executive looooooves me — I just remember that at the end of the day, to them, I am another writer on a list.
Years later, I was under a TV overall with a big studio. I was actively working on the final season of their longest running show, had just created their first ever network show to be ordered to series, and had sold a second script. One day, in the middle of juggling these three projects, my agent called, utter shock in his voice, to tell me the studio was canceling my overall deal. After a series of angry phone calls from my lawyer, they reversed their decision and issued a semi-apology, claiming a Business Affairs executive had made a mistake, but the damage was done. Not only had it soured our relationship, but it hammered home just how little we matter to “them,” aside from our value in the assets and liabilities column. And it wasn’t a lot of money this guy was haphazardly trying to cleave off the quarter. (I wasn’t Ryan Murphy. I was Ryan Murphy’s monthly Sugarfish bill.) I had been very proud that I’d made good on their investment in me. I was happy for myself each success I had under their banner, but also I was happy for them. I’d cemented my worth to them. They loved me! But no, to them I was just fat that could be easily trimmed.
Look, this is not the first nor the last time creatives’ feelings have been hurt or their bottom lines squeezed, for in the machinery of late stage capitalism, labor is not people. Labor is a box in a spreadsheet. And that’s what the strike is for. To somehow, desperately, sloppily, loudly, unpleasantly remind the gilded few — be-vested and heckled during college graduation speeches or mocked as they dance with their nerd-swole bod to Bad Bunny at Coachella — that we are humans and together, we are mighty.
You can read previous entries by ‘The Well-Known Creator’ and others here.
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