Here’s why this Columbus television writer says she’s prepared to strike all summer

Credit: Robin Trimarchi

Credit: Robin Trimarchi

This story was originally published by Ledger-Enquirer.

Columbus resident and television writer Natalia Temesgen fears the inability of production studios to see eye to eye with writers will lead the current strike to drag on for months.

While she appreciates the flexibility that remote working has given her, Temesgen sees a variety of systemic issues in the industry that have contributed to the stand off.

As the Writers Guild of America (WGA) continues to strike over higher and stable pay, fairer contracts and provisions about regulating the use of artificial intelligence, Temesgen supports the effort while recognizing the benefits of working remotely in the industry.

Credit: Sammie Saxon

Credit: Sammie Saxon

Before entering the world of television writing, she developed a background as a playwright and held a job as associate professor of creative writing at Columbus State University. In the middle of the 2019 fall term, Temesgen landed her first television writing job for season 4 of Dear White People, and soon joined the WGA.

“When you work in Hollywood as a writer, the union will find you,” she told the Ledger-Enquirer.

After seeing the response by studios to writers demands, Temesgen expects the strike to last months. She worries about the impact it will have on economies from California to New York, not to mention her home state of Georgia.

The financial impact in Georgia alone is significant. The television and film industry spent $4.4 billion in Georgia during fiscal year 2022, according to a statement by Governor Brian Kemp, and the state hosted 412 productions between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022.

Catalyst Productions, a Columbus-based production company, supports writers as they strive for changes in how they’re compensated, CEO John Mock told the Ledger-Enquirer in a statement.

“Catalyst strongly believes that all people who make stories matter and deserve to earn a fair, just and livable wage for their work,” the statement reads.

One of the main problems in the industry is that studios are comfortable with writing being a gig-based career for people, Temesgen said. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), an organization representing major Hollywood studios and production companies, released a four-page document that refuted the idea that writers are part of a “gig economy”.

The organization argued that writers are employed for a guaranteed number of weeks or episode with benefits that include health care, contribution to a pension plan and eligibility for paid parental leave. The median number of weeks writers are employed while working on a streaming series is between 20 and 24, the AMPTP said in the document.

In light of the circumstances surrounding the strike, she is relieved that her family was able to stay in Columbus while she pursued her career.

“I, for the first time since 2019, feel vindicated for not quitting my day job,” Temesgen said.

‘COVID taught everybody about flexibility’

The 2019 writing job for Dear White People was in-person and based in Los Angeles. Everyone in California was telling Temesgen that to pursue writing in this industry she would have to move her family out West.

“It felt like there was no other option,” Temesgen told the Ledger-Enquirer.

So, during those months before 2020, she considered moving from Columbus and went as far as visiting potential elementary schools in Los Angeles for her children.

Then in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put everything on hold, and people began to learn to work remotely.

“COVID taught everybody about flexibility,” she said. “And I’ve been able to work remotely since then.”

Credit: Natalia Temesgen

Credit: Natalia Temesgen

As a result, Temesgen didn’t move. She continued teaching and secured tenure at CSU all while furthering her career in television as an editor and producer for Julia on HBO Max, a story editor on Reasonable Doubt on Hulu and a co-producer of Spirit Squad on Hulu.

After negotiations between WGA and the AMPTP broke down, Temesgen was relieved the changes and flexibility COVID brought allowed her to stay in Georgia.

Because she was able to continue working at CSU, Temesgen wasn’t betting all of her bills on her television writing career. Studios rejected many of the WGA’s proposals without making any counteroffers, she said, which made her pessimistic about writers’ ability to make a living in the industry.

The WGA has published its proposals and the counteroffers they received from the AMPTP on its website.

Temesgen would be scared right now if she’d made the move to California, she said. For instance, she wouldn’t be a homeowner as she lived in an expensive region of the country.

Pythias “Pete” Temesgen, her husband and a judge in Muscogee County, would likely have had to take a step back in his career if they’d moved to another state where he would have to take the California Bar Exam. It would have been a lot of pressure on his career, she said.

“That’s a moment that would be an existential crisis,” Temesgen said. “If we had made that move, and it was all based on (screenwriting’s) ability to sustain us at least for the initial time.”

‘It’s unsustainable’

One of the reasons Temesgen chose not to rely on television writing as her sole source of income was because of the long periods, six to eight months at times, that she could go between jobs.

“Ideally, you make enough that you can kind of cover the quieter times,” she said.

In today’s world of streaming shows, limited series and reduced pay, the jobs are half the length of what they would have been if the shows were on ABC or CBS in the past, Temesgen said. Writers are paid half of what they would have made on a network show, she said, making it difficult to cover the down periods, especially for writers who are paying rent in Los Angeles or New York City.

The WGA is asking to increase minimum pay, including residuals, each year for the next three years, according to the latest public negotiation details. While AMPTP provided a counter-offer on minimum pay, the studios rejected the proposal asking for 50% of compensation to be paid in the beginning with the remaining 50% paid out weekly over the writing period.

Studios argue in the AMPTP document that their offer on minimum wage increases adds up to $97 million per year, not taking into account outsized wage increases and residual increases.

“The first-year general wage increase currently on the table is the highest first-year increase offered to the WGA in more than 25 years,” the document reads. “In addition, the companies have offered to create an entirely new category of rates that will establish a new and higher floor for mid-level writers’ compensation.”

AMPTP also rejected a guaranteed 2nd step proposal, which would pay writers for two drafts that gives them more control over the finished product and an increased paycheck. This is preferred over the one-step deals where writers are hired to produce a single draft. The studios countered this proposal by offering to educate executives and producers about writers’ “free work concerns.”

Another proposal asked that writers for high-budget shows made for streaming receive a minimum weekly pay rate, 13-week employment guarantees and aggregate residuals. AMPTP countered that this would apply for comedy-variety programs with no 13-week guarantee or aggregate residuals.

In the AMPTP document, the companies argue that establishing a minimum weekly rate for these comedy-variety programs is unprecedented and would be the first time this has been offered in any collective bargaining.

The proposals would cost the industry $429 million per year, with about $343 million of that attributed to the eight largest employers, according to the WGA. This is a fraction of the $19 billion studios spent on original content for streaming this year, the union said.

When someone works at a company like Aflac, after a decade they can expect to have received promotions and pay increases, Temesgen said.. Screenwriters don’t get those kinds of incentives, she said, and it ends up with a system that undervalues its experts.

“It means that a creative industry has literally turned into such a booming business that the art has been squeezed and drained out of it,” Temesgen said. “Now it’s strictly about profits and endgame, and it’s just not what art is for.”

AI a big concern for writers

The one sticking point in the negotiations that told Temesgen that the strike would last for an extended period is centered around the use of artificial intelligence.

WGA proposed that the use of AI should be regulated, asking that the technology not be used to write or rewrite literary material, source material and that work covered under the union’s agreement cannot be used to train AI. AMPTP rejected the proposal with counter offering “annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.”

Companies argue in the AMPTP document that AI raises hard creative and legal questions. They argue that writers might want to use the technology in their writing process without changing how credits are determined, which can be complicated since the material can’t be copyrighted. The document also argues that the current WGA agreement only allows a person to be considered a writer and that AI-generated material is not eligible for writing credit.

“People are not happy about the way they responded,” Temesgen said. “I think we’re very scared about what the idea of some kind of creative AI tool in the hands of any of these major production companies means for us.”

There was a sense that these companies didn’t fully understand what writers were trying to do, she said, and their response to writers’ demands showed that the gap in understanding between the two sides was real.

The response showed that AMPTP believes in a world in which AI can do the same thing as writers, Temesgen said, or that writers would be happy to be paid less and edit an AI’s work to make it more artful than it really is.

“That’s why I’m #StrikeGirlSummer at this point,” she said. “Because I feel like it’s going to last the whole summer. I don’t know.”

Credit: Ledger-Enquirer

Credit: Ledger-Enquirer


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