As of 12:01am PT on May 2, screenwriters belonging to the Writers Guild of America went on their first strike in 15 years. The reasons why have been well documented across multiple media channels, including Twitter. Members of the guild are primarily seeking, among other things, better compensation arrangements from the now dozens of streaming outlets where their content will live on indefinitely. You’ve likely seen the screen grabs of residuals totaling in the cents. It’s not a good look, obviously.
But it’s not a new story, although certainly the advent of streaming content makes the inequity far worse.
When reading stories about the strike, I’m consistently reminded of Joe Gillis (the great William Holden) in the classic Sunset Boulevard. Gillis, a struggling screenwriter, turns in hack work and begs for beneath-his-talents opportunities because writers were (and likely still are) paid so little comparatively. In his attempt to ditch the repo men, he stashes his car in the dilapidated mansion of silent screen star Norma Desmond. And then his hungry need for cash pulls him into a dangerous relationship with Norma, ultimately resulting in him floating face down in the swimming pool. Granted, I don’t think many modern-day writers find themselves in the same situation, at least I hope not. But hopefully you get what I’m going after — this isn’t a new story. Writers are seldom paid their due and are thus forced to resort to desperate measures.
The unfortunate thing about the current writers strike, though, is that it’s coming at the beginning of the official Emmy campaigning season. The Emmy eligibility window runs from June 1 through May 31 each year with the Phase 1 round of voting taking place over the last two weeks of June. That means, traditionally, May is prime Emmy campaigning season. There are parties, FYC events, Q&As, and so on, in an atmosphere that’s increasingly identical to the Oscar season. Emmy campaigning, for someone so inclined, is perhaps even more necessary as there are fewer critics groups or guilds that weigh in before or during the voting period. Hollywood Critics Association. African American Film Critics Association. The Television Critics Association. They all drop awards around the voting window in hopes of aligning their selections in an influential way. But there are no awards handed out over the summer with the same level of influence as those we see in the months leading up to the Oscar nominations.
So, campaigning, shaking hands, and conducting interviews about their craft all seem to become very essential to influence Television Academy voters.
But with the writers strike, writers are now barred from attending FYC events in support of their own series for which they’re underpaid. As mentioned in a recent Hollywood Reporter article, the WGA issued an unequivocal statement about campaigning on their FYC page: “You should let the company know you are prohibited from making these promotional appearances about your work until the strike concludes.” The article, and another one like it at Variety, posits whether or not traditional campaign events scheduled for May will continue. Granted, they’ve been happening since early March, but many major events across Netflix, AppleTV+, Disney, and more were scheduled for the next few weeks.
Will directors or actors attend these events to talk about their work on series without their writer counterparts in attendance? How will it appear to the very watchful world if they continue with business as usual? Will they risk the air of not supporting the writers? Or will they praise the writers in absentia with the specter of the unpaid and striking looming over the proceedings like one of Norma Desmond’s massive portraits looming over poor Joe Gillis?
I hypothesize, though, that some will take advantage of the situation and not campaign at all.
Sure, most creatives in Hollywood fully support the writers guild. Just scroll through Twitter or Instagram for a few seconds, and you’ll see that. But I imagine that the opportunity to skip all of that campaigning and tie their inherent reluctance to such a virtuous excuse will likely prove irresistible. I mean, how effective are these FYC Q&As anyway? Dozens of series spend millions on such events only for the Television Academy to frequently stick to the same series they’ve honored before, year after year. Last year, Joey Moser and I were offered an amazing opportunity by HBO to cover the Emmy FYC event for The Gilded Age. Most of the cast was in attendance, and they walked a red carpet discussing the series with journalists. We screened an episode of the series. They sat for a roughly 45-minute panel session with writer Julian Fellowes. The end result? One Emmy nomination (and win). That event was preceded the night before for a similarly structured event for Julia. Zero nominations. There was also one for The Staircase. Two nominations.
Look, I don’t mean to pick on HBO here. These were all strong series and should have received far more nominations. Undoubtedly, there were all kinds of events across New York and Los Angeles with the same end result. The Television Academy loves what they know. There’s also the now-clichéd excuse of “there’s simply too much television to consume” (which is true).
As we enter the final stages of the 2023 Emmy eligibility window, one series seems to be consuming all of the oxygen in the Emmy conversation, and that’s HBO’s own Succession. It’s all anyone talks about, and if they’re talking about another show, then it’s likely in a snug position adjacent to Succession (I see you Barry). In the drama categories, the only remaining mystery is exactly how many nominations Succession will receive in its final season. Will Brian Cox pull a Logan and go lead? Will Alexander Skarsgård go supporting and throw that race into disarray? Hell, will the entire slate of Supporting Actors in a Drama Series be filled only with cast members from Succession? It’s gotten that dire folks. Succession is more popular now than it has ever been thanks to a “must see TV” final season that shook up the expected narrative with a major death. There’s no way it loses. No amount of campaigning by rivals will change that.
Succession has so completely dominated the television discourse that good shows like Love & Death or A Small Light or the ludicrously ignored The Other Two seem to struggle to find any kind of footing. Anything that has premiered during our national obsession with Succession seems to completely lack traction for any kind of discourse. No one seems to be talking about White House Plumbers or Fatal Attraction. It’s all Succession all the time.
Sure, some amount of campaigning could get a series in front of viewers that may have missed it. Maybe now they’ll watch it. Maybe they’ll even vote for it. But in a year like this where the appearance of being eager for awards attention could make an artist look crass, a lot will simply opt out. It’s already happened. This week alone, Emmy-contending creatives cancelled over half a dozen interviews with Awards Daily TV, citing the writers strike as a justification. It’s a risk/reward proposition, and the writers will remember which of their friends choose to do what.
The far more concerning question surrounding the writers strike isn’t around campaigning. The Emmy ceremony itself could be in jeopardy. The last major writers strike in 2007 struck a deadly blow to the 2008 Golden Globe Awards, which became a dull affair centered around a drama-free press conference. The 2008 Academy Awards escaped that fate as the strike was resolved early enough for the show to go on. However, this year’s writers strike need only extend a month longer than the 2007 strike for the 2023 Creative Arts and Primetime Emmy Awards shows to be adversely impacted. Just yesterday, Drew Barrymore announced she would defer her hosting duties at this weekend’s MTV Movie & TV Awards to next year, again citing the writers strike as a justification. The ceremony will go on without a host, so we’ll see how that works out.
All those award show cringe-inducing jokes you love to hate? A writer created those.
For all these reasons and more, I hope the writers strike is quickly settled. Few today remember the dire entertainment landscape after the last writers strike (CBS foisted not one but two seasons of Big Brother upon us), but that’s not the most important thing, obviously. Writers should absolutely be paid in a manner reflecting today’s broad and continual opportunities for their work to be seen — and to generate revenue — on streaming platforms. Just don’t always assume that those opting out of campaign events over the next several weeks are 100 percent doing so with their purest of motivations.
It’s Succession‘s world right now, and no amount of campaigning is going to change that.