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Hollywood writers say jobs are scarce a year after strikes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This time last year, Hollywood writers were picketing outside the offices of major studios and streaming companies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) This corporate greed has got to go. Hey, hey. Ho, ho. This corporate greed has got to go. Hey, hey.

KELLY: NPR's Mandalit del Barco covered the five-month-long strike by the Writers Guild of America, the WGA. She checked back in to see how writers are doing now.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: At Bob's Big Boy in Burbank, writer Taylor Orci reminiscences about all the free food they used to get last year, when TV host Drew Carey picked up the check for striking writers.

TAYLOR ORCI: I remember eating a lot of hash browns, and then, if it was dinner, they've got a good soup situation.

BILL WOLKOFF: It saved us. It was a vote of confidence that I believe in writers. Thank you, Drew Carey, for that.

DEL BARCO: Bill Wolkoff writes for the series "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds," which took a pause during the strike. He's also one of the show's supervising producers. And last year, he was a WGA strike captain outside CBS studios in LA. Thanks to the union's new contract, he's looking forward to getting higher streaming residuals with each hit season.

WOLKOFF: That's going to be a noticeable difference in my life. And the AI protections, too - I mean, we got in our contract language that ensures that AI will not replace writers. That's huge.

DEL BARCO: Wolkoff says he's one of the lucky few Hollywood writers. But like many others, Taylor Orci still struggles. One writing job fell through recently.

ORCI: I knew it was going to be slow, but I thought I'd have a job.

DEL BARCO: They're still living on loans, with maxed-out credit cards and a baby on the way.

ORCI: It's tough right now to find work, especially if you didn't have a job before.

COREY GRANT: And it was hard before the strike. It's even harder now.

DEL BARCO: At a different diner across town in Encino, writer Corey Grant says there's not much production now.

GRANT: And I think it's a backlash because of the strike. I think they're trying to reset and shore up their pockets a little bit. But it's less TV, less episodes getting made, tired of budgets. Half the shows got canceled.

DEL BARCO: We reached out to eight major studios and streamers for a response. They didn't get back to us. But the president of the WGA West, Meredith Stiehm, says those production changes started before the strike, not because of it. She says there had been a boom with streaming companies ordering a glut of new shows. But in 2022, she says so-called peak TV went bust.

MEREDITH STIEHM: Netflix announced that they'd lost subscribers. Streaming was not profitable for anybody. It was kind of a failed model. Everyone started retreating, you know, at the same time - like, our contract was untenable, and we needed a sea change.

DEL BARCO: The WGA began their nearly five-month strike last May. Actors and performers in the union SAG-AFTRA also went on strike last summer and reached a deal in November.

STIEHM: When we all returned to work, the sort of decline continued, meaning not as much content was being ordered, and it seems that the studios are sort of regrouping, and writers are feeling that post-peak-TV pinch.

DEL BARCO: During a recent earnings call, Sony CEO Tony Vinciquerra said his company's productions were hit by more than just the streaming revolution.

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TONY VINCIQUERRA: We had to go from a pandemic, where production was severely limited, to a strike, where there was no creative work being done for literally seven or eight months, and it had to restart, and that's what you're seeing right now.

DEL BARCO: The industry continues to transform, with shrinking ad revenues and layoffs at just about every entertainment and media company. Last month, Netflix announced it would produce more nonscripted material - reality shows, game shows. Disney said it will offer even more live sports through ESPN over the coming years. Things are tough for many new writers trying to break into the business and those who've been in it for decades.

JON SHERMAN: I reach out to my agent, and he just tells me it's really bad out there. Hopefully it will turn around.

DEL BARCO: Jon Sherman says he hasn't had a writing assignment in three years. He was a strike captain outside Amazon Studios last year. He began his career more than 30 years ago, writing for "Bill Nye The Science Guy," and he wrote and produced for the original TV series "Frasier."

SHERMAN: I worked consistently. I never had a break of more than, you know, three months, maybe 1.6 months, but it's been the first time in a long career, for which I'm grateful, that I've had a real long layoff and have reached a point where I'm like, oh, this time feels different.

DEL BARCO: To pay the bills, Sherman says he was in a focus group for dried fruit and in a UCLA study on exercise. He's also now a TV game show contestant, but he sure would still love to write for television.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Hollywood.

KELLY: And just a note here that some NPR employees are also part of SAG-AFTRA, the union that represented striking actors last year, but they were not in a unit on strike. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.