Writer’s strike expansion puts pressure on Chicago film industry

As the writers’ strike expands across the country, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) hosted a strike in Chicago May 17 from noon to 3 p.m. 

Over 800 writers, actors, students and community members walked the picket line outside of the NBC Tower to demand fair pay and equity for television and film writers. 

This is Chicago’s second picket line so far. The first was Monday, May 15 at Cinespace Studios. Wednesday’s, however, was much larger. 

“Get up, get down, Chicago is a union town” was a central slogan to the protest, representing the general consensus. WGA members and aspiring writers were joined by other unions such as The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). 

Kristi Emmons, an actor who attended the strike, is not yet a SAG-AFTRA member, but she has worked on “Chicago PD,” “Chicago Fire,” “Empire” and other Chicago productions. 

Protesters gather outside the NBC tower in the Loop Wednesdat, May 17, to demand fair pay and equity for film and television writers. (Eva Epley)

“With technology and forms of media that are quickly advancing, we really need to protect ourselves because to make a living, especially as an actor, it’s getting really hard, especially as residuals go,” Emmons said. “The people that are behind everything, they need to be compensated properly.” 

The current WGA writer’s strike is the first in 15 years. The last strike was in 2007-2008 and lasted 100 days. 

The 2023 strike began after failed contract negotiations between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). 

The AMPTP is the trade association between labor unions such as the WGA and motion picture companies such as Disney, NBCUniversal, Paramount and Sony. The AMPTP is responsible for the contracts between writers and companies, which determines writers’ wages and the sustainability of a television and film writing career. 

As artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities grow, writers also face a loss of job security. Now, the film industry is shifting from cable television to streaming services, and writers fear that AI is becoming a replacement and that mini rooms will employ fewer writers at much shorter timeframes. 

In the past, for television writers, networks would order an average of 20 episodes, giving  writers a job for 10 months. Now, episode orders have shortened due to streaming, and shows are worked on for shorter periods of time. According to the WGA, the median weekly writer-producer pay has decreased by 23% when adjusted for inflation. 

The WGA’s negotiations with the AMPTP lasted until the contract deadline May 1. The WGA officially called the strike May 2 at 12:01 a.m. PDT, after the previous contracts had expired. 

As for Chicago, today was the first official strike event, and the support was high. During the strike, the recently inaugurated mayor Brandon Johnson tweeted his support for WGA East and WGA West. Monday’s strike also canceled the filming of “The Chi.” 

Wednesday marks the first official strike event for writers in Chicago. (Eva Epley)

Zayd Dohrn is the WGA strike captain for Chicago and attended the strike because he works as a writer and playwright. Dohrn said all the Writers Guild’s demands would only add up to 2% of the money shows generated within three years. He said writers should be able to share the profits they generate for studios. 

“We have shows like the ‘Chicago Fire,’ ‘Chicago PD,’ ‘The Chi’ and ‘The Bear’ that shoot here,” Dohrn said. “One of the things we’re trying to show to everybody is that we want productions here in Chicago. We want people shooting here, making TV here, but it can’t happen until the studios come back to the table with a fair deal for the writers.” 

At the moment, production on NBC’s “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago Med” and “Chicago PD” has yet to be halted by the strike. 

Attending the strike were several students with hopes for a future in the film and television industry, including DePaul junior and screenwriting major James Easton, who expressed fears over the rise of AI within his future workplace.

“I don’t know how we’re gonna keep that [AI] out of the industry,” Easton said. “I’m not worried about the strike. I think it will resolve itself. What I’m worried about, this is an element of [the strike], but I think AI and ChatGPT is the biggest beast to deal with when it comes to what screenwriters are facing. That’s what I’m worried about.” 

Easton is not the only DePaul student who faces the same fear.

“As a student I would say, especially on the AI front, it’s kind of scary to see how technology is evolving, and obviously you can’t really fight that, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that humans are ultimately behind the writing,” said DePaul sophomore and screenwriting major Lilly Patrick. 

Throughout the strike, writers, actors and community members alike convened to make television and film writing a viable and sustainable career. The march was peaceful, and the chants carried a strong cadence through the streets. 

Attendees at the strike said it is past time for contracts to be rewritten and for writers to be paid and treated fairly in the film industry.

“What writers are asking for is not a lot, and meanwhile the CEOs of these big companies are making hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and it’s not fair,” Dohrn said. “Like most strikes, we’re here to say we need a better deal for the workers.”