In a new weekly column, writer Lon Harris examines the Writers Strike and how the WGA’s organizing can work for the creative industry.
Negotiations between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and the actors union are ongoing, and now that SAG-AFTRA members have overwhelmingly approved of a strike if negotiations fail, the entire entertainment industry is eagerly awaiting the results of these talks. If SAG-AFTRA and AMPTP have not reached an agreement by the time their current deal expires on June 30, the entire dynamic of Hollywood’s current labor crisis will shift dramatically.
But while we wait for those results, there are still more lessons that online creators can extract while watching this entire process go down from the sidelines. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) and its leadership have to understand their audience, and what these people need to hear, and want to see. In the same way, creators have to learn how to determine which voices to prioritize from their own audience, and learn how to play to them directly while ignoring the noise.
Playing to the Crowd
By its very nature, any mass labor action—such as a strike—plays to numerous audiences at once. Obviously, the primary goal is for the workers to achieve leverage against their employers, in order to extract higher wages, better benefits, additional perks or on-site amenities, and so forth.
This goal has primarily been achieved to date by shutting down active productions that Hollywood desperately needs to recoup its investment, fill theaters and streaming platforms with fresh content, and so forth. The ongoing strike recently convinced Disney to push back release dates on a number of its most highly-anticipated Marvel Studios releases, including the “Avengers” sequels “Kang Dynasty” and “Secret Wars” and the next “Deadpool” film. “Mission: Impossible” director Christopher McQuarrie also recently confirmed to Empire that the strike has pushed back work on the follow-up to this summer’s release, “Dead Reckoning.” Only 40% of “Part Two” has gone before cameras so far. So that message is clearly being received.
But the studios aren’t the striking writers’ ONLY audience. They’re also playing to SAG-AFTRA members. Solidarity between unions is absolutely vital for the writers’ success. Their efforts to shut down productions only work because sympathetic members of fellow unions like truck-driving Teamsters and crew members belonging to IATSE are refusing to cross picket lines.
Actors joining the strike and walking off of sets adds exponential pressure on to the studios. Most of the alternatives to scripted content—such as reality shows, game shows, and improvised comedy specials—still require on-camera talent as performers, presenters or hosts, and most of these people are SAG-AFTRA members.
Some writers are themselves very notable celebrities and public figures who can bring the public’s attention to the WGA’s actions. Larry David joined with “Curb Your Enthusiasm” writer Jeff Schaffer to send the “Yeastie Boys” bagel truck to the picket line in a show of solidarity, while “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” star Rachel Bloom and “Schmigadoon” vet Cinco Paul went viral just this week for performing “Suddenly Seymour” from “Little Shop of Horrors” in front of Universal.
But Hollywood actors going on strike takes this up to another level entirely, and brings an entirely new kind of mainstream focus and attention to what’s happening on the streets of Los Angeles. A number of stars already released videos urging their colleagues to vote in favor of strike authorization, including Kim Cattrall, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kumail Nanjiani, and Kerry Washington.
The WGA’s leadership is obviously aware of the importance of solidarity between unions, and has participated in several joint rallies intended to bring these sometimes disparate groups together. A rally on Monday in New York City united the WGA and the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor union. Writers share when their celebrity guests and supporters show up on the picket line on social media, and use the ensuing virality to drive clicks to hashtags like #WGAstrike and #WGAstrong.
The Writers union even compromised on this weekend’s Tony Awards, agreeing not to picket as long as the show went entirely improvisational and dispensed with the scripted banter. For the most part, the show appeared to go off rather smoothly, with host Ariana DeBose jokingly holding up a “script” full of blank pages during what would normally have been her monologue.
Turning the Microphone Around
For striking writers, this really sums up the audiences they need to reach: the studio chiefs who decide how much they earn and how the work is organized, the colleagues who may or may not join them in their efforts, and the public at large whose support they desperately need.
Creators are facing a similarly multi-front battle. Of course, there is the audience to consider, the everyday fans who watch their videos and spread the word about what they’re doing. Without them, no true growth is possible. But then there are also the platforms on which they rely to host and sustain their work. In order to reach an audience, you have to post your content where that audience lives, after all.
But then there are a multitude of other voices to consider as well: the advertisers creators rely on for revenue, the regulators who might seek to limit what kinds of content they can produce and where they can distribute it, the press who can either help them reach new kinds of viewers or shut them out from entire sectors of the public, and so forth. Just as the WGA has to consider all the various stakeholders and then choose its battles carefully, creators have to constantly question whom they’re serving and what moves are going to placate and/or satisfy those specific individuals the most.
Online creators are interacting with their audiences constantly, not just on their platform of choice but on social media apps, within multiplayer video games, and elsewhere. This puts them in a unique position to not just broadcast all the time, but also to listen.
Some companies have already found ways to tap this resource. Twitter owner Elon Musk has publicly mused about a potential scheme to pay creators for advertising that’s served in their replies, a way to turn an engaged following directly into dollars. A number of video game publishers are now partnering with top video game streamers on not just marketing but developing new titles; after all, who else is in a better position to relate to them what specific features hardcore gamers are looking for in their next purchase?
This same ability to turn the microphone around and listen to what the audience has to say can work not just for the benefit of third-party sponsors, but for the creators themselves. According to AdAge, many creators who started their careers on short-form apps like TikTok and Twitter spotted a trend early and started shifting over to podcasting, where the audiences are both more consistent and flexible, open to shifts in formatting and subject matter.
But perhaps no creator is more well-known for watching how his audience moves and then following them wherever they want to go than Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson. A recent New York Times Magazine profile of breakout Donaldson—YouTube’s single most popular creator—gives some insight into how he listens to his audience and sets priorities accordingly.
Donaldson famously spent years studying patterns of viewership on YouTube and dedicated himself to cracking the code of success on the platform. He told Joe Rogan that he and his team “did nothing but just hyperstudy what makes a good video, what makes a good thumbnail, what’s good pacing, how to go viral.”
That kind of rigorous A/B testing of all the variables that go into video production is, of course, just a way of listening to an audience through data. MrBeast knows what makes a video go viral because he looked at all the other viral videos and broke them down into their component parts.
But of course, Donaldson’s success as MrBeast isn’t just limited to understanding analytics and data. As The Times piece makes clear, it’s also largely about deciding who not to listen to, like the numerous critics who refer to his videos as exploitative or even “demonic.” With each new video he posts, MrBeast makes a decision to listen to his fans and ignore his critics, steering into the patterns and trends that will produce the largest audiences and earn him the most revenue (which he can then turn around and put back into philanthropic efforts).
Studios Also Have an Audience
Clearly, studios and media companies also have an audience of their own. And who’s that audience? Everyone who watches movies and TV shows. Most of the big streaming platforms and TV networks have a backlog of content they can dribble out for at least a few more months, and so long as they work out a contract with SAG-AFTRA, they can keep safely pumping out reality content and courtroom shows for the long haul.
But they’ll also need to keep one ear to the ground and pay attention to not just what people are saying anecdotally, but the data and larger patterns as well. Eventually, people will get tired of paying for streaming platforms that aren’t getting routinely padded with fresh content; the dreaded “churn rate” for all these services can’t go up that much without Wall Street taking notice.
The filmgoing public and TV viewers can prove pretty fickle. The same Deadline article that noted Disney pushing back its Marvel content due to the Writers Strike also noted that there were quality concerns behind the delays. According to the post, following negative reactions to “Eternals,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Thor: Love and Thunder,” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” Marvel Studios is pumping the brakes on new releases “to make sure they’re better.”
So even the largest entertainment company in the world has to listen carefully to its audience, and shift course dramatically if their public reputation sours. That’s a lesson everyone, creators included, should keep in mind.