What Creators Can Learn From the Writers Strike, Part 7: Taking Back Control

Members of WGA walk with pickets on strike outside the Culver Studio, Tuesday May 2, 2023 in Culver City, California.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve drawn some comparisons between the ongoing WGA strike and issues facing digital creators every day as they build their careers and grow audiences online. This week, as we wait for the results of SAG-AFTRA’s negotiations with the Hollywood studios, I’m going to begin segueing away from a strict focus on the entertainment industry, and fully over to the creator side of things.

For this final “Things Creators Can Learn from the Writers Strike” column, I’m looking at the ways creators are taking control of their own destinies, even without the ability to fully collectivize as TV and film writers have.

Animation and TV writer David Slack has worked on a number of shows and franchises you probably know, from “Teen Titans” to “Law & Order” to that underrated “MacGyver” reboot CBS aired in the mid-’00s. This week, he posted a thread on Twitter—really, an open letter to studio executives and their corporate overlords—explaining just what has made his fellow writers so angry. 

Among Slack’s complaints are all the usual issues I’ve highlighted in this column for the past few months: residual fees that haven’t kept up with the cost of living, mini-rooms that prevent writers from turning gigs into steady and reliable careers, a lack of transparency about viewership and the renewal process, the looming threat of competition from AI chatbots, and so forth.

But beyond all of his careful explication of the writers’ demands and the other negotiation specifics, I was struck by Slack’s use of anger as a central theme. (Each tweet in the thread opens with “Writers are still angry that…”) Despite the repetition, the thread doesn’t come off as a rant or a screed. (The guy’s a professional writer after all.) By walking off the job and bringing the fight to the studios, Slack and his fellow scribes are turning their anger into something productive. It’s not just fuming into the void; the anger has been translated into action.

At least for now, true unionization remains out of the hands of individual digital creators for a panoply of reasons. On most platforms, creators are classified as high-end users, rather than employees. Even though it’s a viable way to make money if I build up a large enough audience, YouTube doesn’t hire me to post videos on their platform. They just allow me to do it. So they don’t have to bargain with me; I can just take my videos elsewhere if I so choose. 

Theoretically, at least, users could develop enough leverage to actually negotiate with YouTube, but only if a significant number of them got organized and on the same page, which seems, if not impossible, highly unlikely.

Still, as long as websites need content to read and platforms need videos to view, these companies will rely on their users, which does translate into a form of leverage and soft power. Many career-minded creators have started to get smarter about how they wield this power.

As part of its efforts to overthrow Twitch’s supremacy in the gaming and livestreaming space, upstart app Kick entered lucrative new non-exclusive deals with some of the Amazon platform’s most popular creators. Both xQc and Amouranth—Twitch’s top male and female personalities, respectively—signed new deals to post streams on Kick for the next two years. The New York Times reports that xQc’s deal is worth around $100 million. Though the deals are non-exclusive, Twitch bans creators from cross-posting their streams to multiple platforms, so this theoretically could remove xQc and Amouranth from the Twitch ecosystem entirely. 

In other creator news, former Smosh-mates Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox have reunited and bought back a majority stake in their YouTube channel turned media company. Smosh was owned by Defy Media, and after that folded, the brand was acquired by Rhett & Link’s Mythical Entertainment in 2019. Rhett & Link will reportedly keep a minority share in Smosh.

These are potentially big financial wins, of course. xQc and Amouranth stand to make a huge windfall from their new deals, and Mythical reportedly “realized a significant multiple of its original invested capital” on the acquisition.

But perhaps even more importantly, the moves represent creators taking real control over their own destinies. By making non-exclusive deals with Kick, xQc and Amouranth aren’t tying their fates specifically to any one platform. They’re taking this money, and maintaining the freedom to explore other potential avenues; it’s hard to read it as anything but a win-win for them. 

Kick is also offering all creators a 95-5 revenue split, which is massively more favorable than Twitch’s terms. Even if this doesn’t last forever, the livestreamers are potentially staking a claim on a new platform that could become the next breakout success in the space.

For Padilla and Hecox, they’re no longer selling their comedic services to the highest bidder, but directly and personally benefiting from any potential success as they grow the Smosh channels and community. 

In the early days of YouTube, building up a large-enough audience to potentially sell your channel was the dream, the ultimate sign of success on the platform. The idea was that by uniting with a large company (as when Maker Studios sold to Disney, or Smosh sold to Defy Media), YouTube channels and digital creators could essentially “level up,” and become more like established entertainment brands. This meant more opportunity to collaborate with established talent and Hollywood studios. Smosh made a film during their time at Defy, a larger-scale project than they’d have previously taken on as an independent comedy duo.

But tying a personal brand to a major corporation also brings with it a number of drawbacks, particularly the loss of creative freedom. Padilla ultimately exited Smosh in 2017, citing a loss of creative inspiration. His return, in his own words, signals a “return to our roots, and part of that is owning the company so we can really take Smosh in any creative direction.”

Though obviously, it helps for making big moves, creators don’t need to have a Smosh-sized audience or channel to get creative in terms of taking some of their power back. The creator economy has reached a scale that new ideas and products and tools are being launched all the time. 

It’s always crucial to check the fine print. Even the big deals we’ve been discussing aren’t without potential drawbacks. Kick’s close links with Australian gaming site EasyGo and Ed Craven have led some to question the platform’s true intentions, and just how aggressive it’s going to get in terms of creators pushing their (possibly young) audiences over to actual gambling sites. The platform itself has also been at the center of a number of controversies and scandals, including streamers using it to share homemade pornography, bootleg Super Bowl streams, and other content almost universally regarded as inappropriate. Passionfruit contributor Steven Asarch called it “the Wild West of streaming.”

Smosh’s new venture will likely prove less anarchic, but it’s backed by Breeze Financial, an upstart Kentucky company offering loans to creators based on the size of their online following. Specific terms of the company’s deal with Smosh’s creators weren’t disclosed. Questions certainly abound about both of these companies and their long-term reliability. There’s always going to be some level of risk associated with big moves such as these.

With a potential nationwide ban on TikTok looming just over the horizon, the time is now for creators to start getting more, well, creative in terms of career-building. Relying on an individual platform to fight for your participation is a dangerous game; you’re better served by diversifying and constantly exploring new options.

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