In a new weekly column, writer Lon Harris examines the Writers Strike and how the WGA’s organizing can work for the creative industry.
The Hollywood Writers Strike is entering its second month. We’re back with yet some more insights digital creators can glean from the sidelines as the action unfolds.
The writers have reached something of a turning point, as the strike transitions from a breaking news story to an ongoing historical event. Other Hollywood unions began entering the fray or taking themselves out of the fight.
So this week, we’re considering the subject of staying power—aka, how to communicate with your audience in a way that keeps them engaged over an extended period of time, not just distracted by something shiny and new.
The Writers Guild’s path to payoff
The WGA’s current strategy involves not just “raising awareness” among members of the public about their situation. They actively shut down Hollywood productions that have completed scripts and are attempting to close out production. Just this week alone, WGA picket lines have shut down production on Universal’s Community spinoff film, and Netflix prematurely delayed shooting Season 4 of Emily in Paris to avoid picketing in the French capital.
By actually shutting down the entire production machine, the WGA hopes to have a swifter and more resounding impact on the studios’ bottom line than they would just by taking themselves out of the picture.
It helps that they’re seeing a lot of solidarity from sympathetic Hollywood unions like the acting guild SAG-AFTRA and crew member guild IATSE. On average, a full lost day of production costs a studio between $200,000-$300,000, and traditional show business insurance policies don’t cover labor-related shutdowns.
Still, this movement requires a tremendous amount of active participation from the striking writers themselves. Shutting down a set requires covering all entrances and exits, forcing individuals to actually cross a picket line in order to show up for their jobs.
Depending on the area and the studio, this might require around-the-clock shifts to ensure that access points aren’t changed or moved around. Some productions have even started circulating fake call sheets in order to throw writers off, demanding a high level of vigilance in response.
To keep one another engaged and motivated, striking writers employ remarkable creativity along with their solidarity. Each day, strike captains and organizers take to social media in order to spread the word about where more bodies are required, with a lot of detail and transparency about what specifically they’ve got planned for the day.
Themed events like “Pride on the Picket Line,” Lord of the Rings fan meet-ups, fun runs, or Taylor Swift sing-a-longs encourage like-minded writers to get together on the picket line, turning what could be a mundane responsibility into a social gathering.
David vs. Goliath
What we’re really talking about here is controlling the discourse. Not just using social media and other communication tools to “spread the word,” but to tell one another and the public a compelling story of solidarity.
In the case of the WGA, it’s a David vs. Goliath tale of writers (and potentially now actors) coming together to take on corporate greed. But for digital creators who aren’t currently on strike, what kind of story they wish to tell is up for grabs.
Theoretically, in the future, creators could also mirror what Hollywood writers have done in terms of evangelizing their cause to the general public. The discussion around social media apps and technology can be reframed in a way that puts creator concerns at the center.
Progressive media organization More Perfect Union recently posted a 10-minute interview with The Wire creator David Simon in which he condenses a lot of complex economic and financial issues into an easy-to-follow linear narrative. It’s one thing to read an article laying out exactly what the writers are demanding and why, but it’s far more compelling to hear Simon discuss it from his own perspective. He delves into why these changes are important for individual writers who are embarking on their careers, and what disadvantages they’re specifically facing now that the TV industry changed so significantly.
The lesson here for online creators is obvious: they need to be their own strongest advocates for one another and the public at large.
Just this week, Twitch shifted its ad policy in a way certain to financially impact top creators, limiting the kinds of branding and promotion they could use on their channels. These kinds of rules can be complex to follow. But by making the situation personal—and informing their audiences about the negative impacts of the changes—streamers were able to get Twitch to undo the changes in under 24 hours. This is the power of strong, organized, thoughtful communication and good storytelling.
So much of finding, maintaining, and growing an online audience is about not just consistently releasing individual pieces of content, but the overall narrative collectively unspooling over months or even years. We used to call this your “personal brand,” but it’s not just, “What kinds of things do you talk about?” It’s the larger question of, “Where is all this going?”
For an individual creator, perhaps it’s a tale of overcoming challenges on the way to becoming fully realized, as it is with so many Instagram inspirational accounts taking us on a journey of self-healing. Perhaps it’s the kind of narrative we’ve seen from breakout creators from Justin Bieber to Lilly Singh, about a natural talent using the internet to capture the world’s attention, before being launched on a path to mainstream stardom. Or perhaps it’s the kind of creepy, unsettling horror-movie worldbuilding that helped three YouTubers go from making found footage shorts in their apartment to the Scream movies.
That’s not to say that creators need to constantly obsess about the Big Picture, every time they write a tweet or post a video. No one is keeping score. Still, maintaining a level of interest from regular viewers about what’s coming up on your channel, what projects you’re looking forward to working on the most, or even the biggest challenges just over the horizon, keeps them coming back—even if YouTube forgets to send them the update every single time.
Signpost your way to success
In creative writing or public speaking, not to mention self-improvement, this is known as “sign-posting.” It’s letting readers or listeners know where they are in the narrative, and just expressing confidence that they’re going to eventually land somewhere interesting.
Similarly, when you briefly and nervously tease next month’s video, which has taken weeks of prep, you’re building up anticipation among your own viewership. You leave them wanting that next development just around the corner.
Just as WGA captains have to keep writers on the picket line both legitimately informed and motivated, creators shouldn’t stretch the truth too far in generating and maintaining these narratives. Just because you’re telling an audience a story isn’t a license to deceive. Transparency and honesty are not only easier to maintain on a day-to-day level but can also foster a truly personal and more intimate connection between creator and viewer.
People don’t want to be constantly “sold” or hyped up on something, especially in a fraudulent way. But everyone likes to get swept up in an ongoing drama. Even if you’re making videos about sports, technology, or something that isn’t inherently narrative, everyone has their own story to tell.
We’ll be back next week with some more insights into the ongoing Writers Strike and important takeaways for online creators. If you’re a creator with experience in labor organizing, email [email protected] to share your story.