Edgar Momplaisir’s first glimpse of Hollywood success came early. Having dropped out of college in 2014 and moved to Southern California to chase the dream of writing for television, Momplaisir was named to a house team at the Upright Citizens Brigade, the improv theater that serves as a proving ground for aspiring comedy writers and performers. With a regular opportunity to showcase his talents, Momplaisir thought, “Holy shit, I made it.”
That impression didn’t last. “You don’t make a dime!” he told me. Even the agent who took him on after his first UCB show couldn’t get him a paying gig. “Six months later, it’s like, man, I’m as broke as I’ve ever been.”
The real break came later, in 2018, when a mentor recommended Momplaisir for a slot in one of the so-called mini-rooms where writers are asked to devise a storyline for a show that has yet to be greenlit. It’s a format that circumvents the traditional model of TV writing (and its pay standards), in some cases leading to actual episode scripts being drafted. The show didn’t get picked up. “That was heartbreaking,” he said. “You spent all this effort, all this work creating a whole show, and then they just walk away from it.”
He stayed afloat by taking some bit acting parts, then finally began to find stability last year, when he was hired to write on three shows. But that doesn’t mean he’s done scrounging for work. “When I’m in the writers’ room, if I’ve got two weeks left,” he said, “I’m already like, cool, what’s the next job?”
From the vantage of the couch potato, the television industry has never seemed healthier. There were over 500 scripted series produced last year, more than double the number made in 2010. And as each season brings yet another streaming service to the digital smorgasbord—Disney+ last fall, HBO Max in May, Peacock in July—the business of content consumption becomes ever more bloated. Yet audiences have given the studios no indication they’re looking to cut back. Streaming, once a forgettable sideshow to broadcast and cable, raked in $37 billion last year. The likes of Netflix and Amazon proved their staying power in the media ecosystem this spring, when the widespread stay-at-home orders triggered by the onslaught of the coronavirus sent viewership spiking to new highs.
But despite the boom times in Beverly Hills, the working stiffs of L.A. who keep the apps stocked with thousands of hours of new content every year find themselves in a surprisingly precarious position. “There has been an explosion in the number of shows that exist,” says Brian Tanen, the showrunner behind Hulu’s Love, Victor. “Because of that explosion, there ought to be an explosion in the number of jobs that exist. But it isn’t that simple.” Just as in every industry disrupted by a fast-talking founder with a Silicon Valley area code, Hollywood finds itself in a new status quo, one that’s forced the proletariat of writers, actors, and key grips into a never-ending hunt for their next job. And this perpetual hustle only promises to grow more frantic the longer Covid-19 maintains its grip on the nation’s throat.
At the year’s outset, simmering tensions over the discrepancy between how most television laborers are compensated for their work on streaming platforms versus what they can make creating cable and broadcast shows seemed poised to boil over. Contracts that govern the minimum compensation for writers, actors, and directors were all due for renegotiation. Studio heads, fearful of a repeat of the Writers Guild of America’s 100-day work stoppage that began in the fall of 2007 (a labor action that cost California’s economy an estimated $2.1 billion), reportedly had begun digging in for another long disruption. There was talk that executives had a plan to stretch out their existing stockpile of unscripted shows, foreign rights, and already-shot scripted programs to keep feeding the streams even as the talent supply ran dry. Adding to their urgency was the WGA’s successful campaign to disentangle its membership from the so-called big four talent agencies last year, a seismic shift in the business that seemed to signal the union’s willingness to play hardball.
And then, of course, the novel coronavirus landed. Production screeched to a halt in March, and nobody knows when it will fully resume. For producers, the disruption comes with a significant silver lining: Whatever momentum might have been building among writers and other laborers to strike for a better split has all but evaporated. “The pandemic softened things,” Sonja Warfield, a longtime TV writer, said when I spoke to her in late May. “People are more amenable to figuring it out.” However much pain a strike could have caused the handful of conglomerates that dominate Hollywood pales in comparison to what the pandemic has already wrought.
Meanwhile, the widespread protests elicited by the police murder of George Floyd have reinvigorated long-stalled conversations about how poorly both the industry’s workforce and the programming it produces reflect the diversity of its audience. Actor Meera Rohit Kumbhani told me she is hopeful that public pressure will force executives “to start hiring more diverse writers, diverse actors, diverse directors—because the people want it, not because they’re following some inclusivity rider.” The work-stoppage forced by the pandemic may even create the space for those concrete changes to actually be made. “If production has paused, then there’s going to be a pause in new content we get,” Kumbhani said. “When things start up again, people are going to want to hear diverse stories.”
Other writers and actors I spoke with were warier about the future, pointing to the less righteous alterations to industry standards ushered in by the pandemic. Hollywood’s creative workers fear studios will eventually seek to make these provisional retrenchments permanent once business conditions return to something like normal. The shifting of writers’ rooms to Zoom in the past few months has led to numerous assistants—whose entry-level jobs represent the only real toehold in the industry for aspiring writers—having their pay cut. Actors have been asked to self-tape auditions, a change that many observers fear will deter casting directors from giving talent they’re not already familiar with a shot at the big time. Sarah Peters, who spent June in one of the virtual writers’ rooms, is alarmed by what these changes may portend. “How many jobs are we eliminating?” she wonders. “Especially lower-level jobs in all departments, if we’re like, ‘Oh, we don’t really need the P.A., we don’t need camera assistants—we did it during coronavirus!’ Who’s going to be able to afford to work in the entertainment industry after this?”
To understand why Hollywood’s current convulsions are so foreboding to the industry’s laboring class, it’s important to recognize that getting by in the television business has always looked a lot more like gig work than a nine-to-five job. Aside from studio suits, everyone on a TV set is employed on short-term contracts, meaning that the more limited a series order, the less money your average script coordinator or makeup artist gets to work on it. Before the onset of the streaming era, a huge number of television jobs still came from broadcast shows that ran 22 episodes every season, a volume that required nine months of shooting. That meant writers like Sonja Warfield, who worked on Will & Grace in the early 2000s, would typically staff on one show per year, with the time left over reserved for polishing up a film script or brainstorming a pilot.
By the end of that decade, season orders of only 13 episodes became common thanks to prestige cable dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the idea being that film-like production value and drama could only be achieved through a more concentrated form of storytelling. Once Netflix and Amazon got into the original content game, in 2013, their ambivalence toward the traditional television model led to episode orders dropping yet again. Today, many shows receive only six- or eight-episode orders, requiring writers’ rooms to be held only for a few months.
“The game has changed,” said the writer Kimberly Ndombe. “You have to be able to jump around. There are more shows to staff on, but I think it’s harder to make a living.”
What makes this new arrangement so toxic is that, even as writers are struggling to cobble together the multiple jobs necessary to match the amount of work older generations were guaranteed to land from a single show, they’re also making less money. Between the 2013–14 season and the 2017–18 season, median compensation for writers dropped 16 percent, even as the total number of scripted shows surged by more than 20 percent. This drop in real wages is complicated by growing uncertainty around residuals—the system through which writers and actors are compensated for the rebroadcast of shows they worked on as they go into syndication. “You used to be able to buy a house off one episode of NCIS,” one writer joked to me. Another laughed that he was still cashing checks from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager he’d written two decades ago. But the intellectual property of networks is increasingly being collected under the umbrella of proprietary streaming services like NBC’s Peacock and CBS All Access. Given that licensing fees account for a majority of residuals, once Netflix is no longer paying Universal Television for the right to show The Office, for example, many fear the final gutting of what the WGA has called “the backstop of all middle-class writers.”
From the actor’s perspective, meanwhile, Hollywood is as unforgiving to aspiring performers as it’s ever been. What’s changed is that even the sort of journeymen actors who once made up the backbone of the TV business are increasingly finding themselves in the crosshairs of corporate cost-cutters. “The bottom has just fallen out,” says Mark Haskell Smith, a writer and producer who’s been working in the industry since the late 1990s. Rates for talent are typically negotiated by their agents based on a “quote,” which is calibrated to how much the actor has previously been paid for similar roles. Now, says Smith, even if an actor books a job, “the streaming services are saying, ‘We won’t honor your last quote. Here’s what we’re paying, take it or leave it.’” Michael Patrick Lane, whose turns on Sun Records and Dynasty have led to a regular stream of smaller film parts, is nevertheless still struggling to find stability. “It’s such a balance of understanding the math and the logic so that you’re not too hard on yourself, but still giving in just enough, when all hope is lost, to be delusional enough to keep going.”
For nonwhite and queer actors, that calculus can feel even more oppressive. “You look and you realize it’s a small pool of us working, and that small pool is being recycled,” says Donzell Lewis. Even as Issa Rae, Sandra Oh, and Oscar Isaac have become Hollywood fixtures in recent years, many actors with similar backgrounds but a limited reel find themselves still being sidelined into token roles. “I’ve been a part of so many rooms where I’m in a table read, and I look around, and I’m the only person of color there,” Kumbhani says. “I’m immediately like … am I here because of some inclusivity requirement? It’s a shitty feeling to have.”
A UCLA report last year found that whites were cast in an astounding 70 percent of all roles on streaming shows in the 2016–2017 season, while across broadcast, cable, and streaming, around 55 percent of roles featured men. That same season, GLAAD found that under 5 percent of characters on broadcast TV were LGBTQ. That number rose all the way to 10 percent in the most recent season. Even so, the newfound visibility of queer characters on TV does not necessarily translate to more queer actors getting work (as is made clear by the still regular occurrence of cisgender actors being cast as transgender characters). Those numbers underlie what Lewis calls the “realities of making it as a queer actor,” particularly as a queer actor of color. “I don’t think you have to be gay to play gay roles,” he says. “But until my opportunity is equal to that of straight actors, I do have a problem with it. The equity is not there.”
Rather than making substantive changes, many showrunners and executives are content to, as the writer Annie Wyman put it when I spoke to her in June, surround themselves with “woke” staffers, effectively “paying somebody to try and keep you on the safe side of ‘identity politics’ … to insulate yourself from criticism.” Naturally, those superficial efforts have done nothing to improve the experience of nonwhite artists in the industry, where minorities working on the production side are both underrepresented and facing the bizarre assumption of their white co-workers that their race has actually provided them with a leg up.
Valerie Chu, currently working as a writer’s assistant on Better Call Saul, says many people in television have told her, “You’re an Asian female writer. You’ll get hired, you’ll have no problem.” When she was interning on set as an undergrad screenwriting student, she told a group of crewmembers that she’d be uncomfortable with being hired solely because of her race; a white writer snapped back, “You take whatever you can get.” Yet despite her role on one of television’s most critically acclaimed shows, she’s still hunting for her first staff job. This insidious paradox of the nonwhite writer, of being perceived as both advantaged by their race and lucky to be hired at all, is long-standing. Sonja Warfield says that, despite feeling intense pressure to “prove herself” on Will & Grace, she once walked in on a white assistant complaining, “I didn’t get the staff job this year because they hired her—because she’s black.”
Making matters worse is the hierarchical culture of writers’ rooms, which prevents many nonwhite writers who do get staffed from ascending to the highest ranks of the profession. The WGA has found that while 35 percent of all TV writers are nonwhite, only 18 percent of showrunners are. The persistent gender gap in writers’ rooms is similarly alarming: Only 44 percent of writers overall are women, and just 30 percent of showrunners.
The financial implications for the inability of women and people of color to move up the ranks are substantial. All writers are paid a weekly fee while they’re working in a room, but for high-level writers, those payments are supplemented by the script fee doled out to the credited author of each particular episode (under the WGA’s 2017 minimum basic agreement, these fees start at around $27,000 for a half-hour broadcast show). Showrunners are typically credited with the first and last episodes of a season, and other high-level writers expect to author at least one episode. When a show order only calls for six or eight episodes and its writing staff includes a showrunner and a handful of veterans, the chances of a low-level staffer getting a script fee drop precipitously.
The shift away from long seasons has been even more challenging for assistants, who are typically precluded from interviewing for staff writing jobs until they’ve landed an episode credit or two. In the past, showrunners would see to it that promising assistants were given an episode credit, helping them take the next step in their career as well as offering a significant financial lifeline. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened to Valerie Chu when she was an assistant on Nashville and Queen Sugar.
“When I was a writer’s assistant in 2016,” says Mason Flink, “I made $1,000 a week, which was way on the high end but still basically just the cost of living in Los Angeles. And then to be like, ‘OK, you’re writing this 30-page script, and then we’re giving you a check for $26,000’ … that’s half of what I’d make in a year. Those episode fees at the entry level are key money. I got that chunk of money that then subsidized being able to work on my own writing and find my voice in the space between looking for my next job.”
Worse, the pandemic is leading to a rollback in the number of people who even get the chance to be an assistant in the first place. Sarah Peters told me that while she’s used to working in writers’ rooms that include four assistants, the virtual one she’s currently in only has one. Chu says she’s heard from other assistants whose hours have been cut, as well as some who have been outright laid off.
Beyond the ripple effects for assistants, many writers fear the rise of “Zoom rooms” will prevent showrunners from taking a chance on unproven writers. Meanwhile, lesser-known actors are anxious that being forced to submit self-taped auditions will limit their chances of breaking through. In an industry that has long treated its lack of diversity as a problem that can be solved with new hires, current conditions underline just how ludicrous it is for studio executives to suggest it’s possible for them to create a more representative version of Hollywood by the traditional means of merely allowing a diverse group of new talent to rise up through the ranks.
After the Directors Guild of America came to terms on a new contract with the studios in early March, it appeared that the pandemic-induced work stoppage had indeed forestalled any disruptive labor action from taking place. The actor’s union, SAG-AFTRA, came to its own agreement on June 11, in what union president Gabrielle Carteris called “a strong, forward-thinking contract” headlined by a 26 percent increase in the residuals actors will receive from their appearances on streaming programs.
The Writer’s Guild came to its own tentative terms with the studios on July 1, the day after the previous contract had expired. In an email to union members, the WGA’s negotiating committee wrote that though “the ongoing global pandemic and economic uncertainty limited our ability to exercise real collective power,” it was still “able to fight off significant writer-centric rollbacks.” Writers I spoke with were gratified to hear their residuals from streaming would also be going up, as well as to see the elimination of so-called new writer discounts, which previously allowed studios to pay first-time writers less than their peers. The guild also secured a new parental leave fund, paid for entirely by the studios. In exchange, the WGA accepted a reduction in the residuals paid for shows in syndication on broadcast and cable, a concession that will fall most heavily on older members who have been working in TV since the days of The Rockford Files.
The memberships of both SAG and the WGA are in the process of discussing and ratifying the new agreements. While hardly perfect, both seem to represent at least an acknowledgment that the industry’s gravity has shifted toward streaming. Still, more foundational changes will be necessary for writers and actors to share more equitably in the television boom, especially for artists from marginalized communities. In the meantime, the closing of the assistant path into the industry and the stalled progress of many at its lowest levels only leaves one option for anyone hoping to create their own show—what Annie Wyman calls “the moonshot” version of making it in Hollywood.
Wyman moved to L.A. to work as a television writer after completing an English Ph.D. at Harvard and realizing she had little hope of actually landing a full-time job as a professor. “You really get run through this commercializing machine that applies to your very person,” she says of the adjustment to the entertainment business. She was startled to find many interviews for writing jobs revolve not just around a candidate’s talent but whether they fit in with the current production team. “You have to do a lot of cosmetic surgery on your personality and your way of being in the world.” Wyman, to her own disbelief, has proved up to the task. She was able to sell a pilot to an old acquaintance now working as a producer, and though that project never materialized, she co-wrote a different pilot for a Netflix show executive produced by Amanda Peet and Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
Wyman predicts that the flow of talent toward Southern California isn’t going to stop so long as the studios keep pouring money into new content. Given the dire situation most other sectors of the economy are facing, it’s understandable that many creative types, seeing the gaudy viewership numbers streaming services have generated this year, might begin wondering if their future lies in La-La Land. Wyman fears having “a lot of people with superspecialized skill sets who are very, very smart all deciding that they’re going to go to boomtown.” The experience of those who have labored in the industry over the past few years should give pause to all the journalists and academics who have a half-written pilot sitting on their hard drive, as well as to the out-of-work stage performers and would-be influencers looking for a star turn on Peacock. “This is not a possible dream,” Wyman says. “It’s not even possible for me, and I’m living it.”