Hollywood Writers Strike for Third Month Over Wages, Conditions
In their third month on the picket lines, Los Angeles screenwriters are drawing inspiration — and sustenance — from a local restaurant as their industry faces pressures from changing viewer habits.
By Corina Knoll
Reporting from Los Angeles
They are usually fresh off the picket lines when they sink into plaid booths behind red Formica tables, or pull up to the terrazzo countertop, not far from the jukebox that switches from Sam Cooke to Joan Jett.
The room rumbles with their chatter, their laughter. Their emergency savings are dwindling, but hey, sitting together over free milkshakes and tuna melts, things don’t feel so bad.
Such is the daily scene at Swingers, a beloved retro diner in Los Angeles where the lunch and dinner crowds are dominated by Hollywood writers still on strike.
For more than two months, they have fought studios for better wages and job security, and there is no hint of an agreement on the horizon. And yet, spirits are high.
“This is the time you would think things would be petering out, people would be getting tired,” said Scott Saltzburg, a writer for the game show “Weakest Link” on NBC who tucked into a corner table on a recent weekday with a friend. “And I don’t see that at all.”
Since early May, 11,500 screenwriters have been on strike against Hollywood studios and entertainment companies in a battle for higher pay and better working conditions. Writers say their industry has increasingly become a gig economy, in which they are forced to string together income with side hustles. Those in the lowest-paid tier take on dog-sitting and delivery jobs to make ends meet.
Writers say they are frustrated at being slowly edged out of a changing industry. The Writers Guild of America has warned that the profession is at stake, as fewer episodes of each show are ordered, writers’ rooms shrink and companies like Netflix and Amazon limit their residual payments. The writers also want restrictions on the use of artificial intelligence.
For their part, major-studio executives are facing a business model in crisis, as viewing habits and advertisers shift away from broadcast and cable networks. Streaming services have continued to lose money, and executives say there is little room in the situation for raises.
“In some ways, the W.G.A. has caught management at an awkward moment,” said Jonathan Kuntz, a retired film historian who taught at the School of Theater, Film and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s not a time when they’re feeling rich and fat and sassy and might be willing to share. Instead, there’s great upheaval, and we’ve seen layoffs and cutbacks.”
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios’ interests, points to the high salaries that writers can already reach and says that companies have offered outsized wage and residual increases. The alliance has resisted the union’s proposal for a minimum number of writers on staff for shows, saying that would be a hiring quota that does not align with the creative process.
Most productions in Los Angeles have been disrupted by picketing writers. Other trades that serve the industry — the caterers, costumers, prop houses — are sympathetic, but hurting.
“It’s been really tough — it’s so slow, and there’s nothing going on,” said Dan Schultz, vice president of Prop Heaven in Burbank. “We’re an ancillary business, and things roll downhill. We’re at the bottom of that hill.”
Mr. Schultz said the prop house had lost at least 80 percent of its business because of the strike. Requests for props for live events or commercials have helped, but there is no pivot that can make up for regular production work. For now, the company’s 28 employees focus on in-house projects like cleaning up and organizing areas of the showroom.
At Western Costume, which has outfitted actors in films for more than a century, the 120,000-square-foot warehouse full of rentals has had little traffic lately.
“When we’re busy, it’s like a train station — there’s a constant flow of customers coming in and out,” said Gilbert Moussally, vice president of costume operations. “There’s almost zero at this point.”
During the 2007 writers’ strike, the California economy lost $2.1 billion, according to one estimate. The hardship could intensify if the actors also go on strike after their contract with the studios expires Wednesday night.
The current writers’ strike is expected to last longer than the 100-day walkout in 2007. Many writers said that guild members seem particularly determined, and that morale is much higher this time around. At picket lines across the city, there are theme days (think cosplay or Beyoncé), television-show reunions, karaoke Fridays. Guild members are drawing support from social media, and strike captains have been flooded with donations of beverages, snacks, sunscreen and food trucks.
And there are free burgers and fries at Swingers, an institution that has always drawn industry regulars.
Drew Carey — the actor, comedian and game-show host — is currently paying back the restaurant for each meal, plus tip, that is ordered by someone who flashes a Writers Guild membership card. Mr. Carey made the same grand gesture during the previous strike, one that he also extends at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank.
Each week, his tab at Swingers runs more than $10,000. Without it, “I’m sure we would be completely hurting, and we were, the first few weeks,” said its owner, Stephanie Wilson.
The restaurant has its own Hollywood story arc: Iconic hangout where employees who are like family closes during the pandemic. Actress/waitress turned manager and mother of three scrapes together funds from relatives and friends to buy and revive the place.
Ms. Wilson, 41, now oversees a main hub of the strike. “Writers are, I think, kind of the backbone of it all,” she said.
By early evening on a Monday night, the diner’s servers had changed shifts, but the clatter of plates and glasses had not paused. The sun’s last rays lingered on tables where customers squinted at the light.
Sitting across from her husband and collaborator, Anya Meksin attempted to finish her chopped salad while keeping their 2-year-old son from climbing over the top of the booth. The family has been coming to the diner at least twice a week, trying to stretch the savings they are relying on.
Just before the strike, Ms. Meksin, 41, was hired for “High Potential,” a new detective series on ABC. But the work won’t start until after the union has a contract.
The free dinners and the chance to be around people in similar situations has become her comfort zone.
“It feels,” she said, “like a union mess hall.”
Corina Knoll is the Los Angeles bureau chief. She writes features about California and covers breaking news. Previously, she spent more than a decade with The Los Angeles Times, where she contributed to two Pulitzer Prizes. More about Corina Knoll