The Hollywood Strikes: How Storytelling Won the Day for Writers
By Alessandro CamonOctober 15, 2023
The first and most important consideration about the story of the Hollywood strikes is that it was immediately framed as a story about labor. The last WGA campaign had to do with agency packaging fees—a serious issue, but one that most people can hardly be expected to care about. The 2007–08 strike happened right before the Great Recession, which might have amplified its core issues, and was only modestly successful in generating public support and cross-union solidarity. Generally speaking, “Hollywood writers” (and actors) cannot assume automatic sympathy from the general public. People still tend to project on both categories an idea of glamor, celebrity, and wealth that, in reality, only describes a vanishingly small percentile.
This time, things shifted. The strike was widely understood as a fight between ordinary workers and giant corporations, rooted in the larger fight for the rights, dignity, and financial health of all labor. I talked to writer Billy Ray, host of the weekly podcast Strike Talk, which chronicled and analyzed the last five months. Billy is a veteran writer, known for big films like The Hunger Games (2012) and Captain Phillips (2013), and former co-chair of the WGA negotiating committee, which gives him both historical perspective and personal insight. “I started the podcast to place the strike inside a larger conversation,” he told me.
I believed that, this time, nobody could look at us as a bunch of Hollywood crybabies. We were fighting about fair wages, about the ability to have a career rather than a series of gigs, about not getting replaced by AI. These were universally relatable issues. I felt that the country was at an inflection point, and the strike was going to both benefit from and expand the new wave of labor activism in America.
The WGA made this clear from the beginning, calling attention to other unions’ battles, and receiving their support in return. Teamsters leader Lindsay Dougherty was a fierce and charismatic ally. Actors immediately aligned with writers, knowing that in many ways we were all fighting the same fight. When SAG-AFTRA also went on strike, the two groups merged seamlessly on the picket lines. Writers also joined in solidarity with teachers, hotel workers, UPS drivers, and Amazon packers, developing the shared narrative of a “hot labor summer.”
The WGA has proven many times that it can punch above its weight. But with actors joining the fight, Teamsters honoring the picket lines, other unions offering public support, and then finally auto workers going on strike in Detroit and elsewhere—this was a whole different ball game. The industry was brought to a standstill. General pro-union sentiment reached a high mark, well illustrated by the image of the first sitting president ever to show up on a picket line.
But while the story as such gave the Hollywood strikes great credibility, relevance, and moral standing, the real game-changer regarded how the story would be told. For the first time, a creative class on strike could bring its main asset—creativity—to a fully mature if still unstable social media environment. This allowed writers to make the strike exponentially more visible and emotionally resonant. Thousands of individuals took their lived experience to the virtual town square, sharing stories, signs, memes, jokes, videos, photos of their absurdly microscopic residual checks. They made each other feel stronger and made the wider public care more. They made it all feel personal.
Crucially, the story also became personal by focusing on specific people on the other side. This was an unforced error by the companies’ CEOs, two of whom in particular (Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav and Disney’s Bob Iger) placed themselves in the spotlight with a series of questionable moves and statements. They didn’t seem to realize that social media enables a particularly powerful kind of storytelling: the kind that damns someone with their own words. A simple clip (such as Bob Iger’s interview from a billionaire retreat, calling the strikers demands “unrealistic”) can replicate virally for days and weeks, launch a thousand memes, and profoundly shift public opinion. CEOs are used to media deference: they own the media, after all. It’s a safe bet that the negative attention shook the ground under their feet. As history proved time and again, satire is a hugely effective political weapon (which is why it’s so quickly criminalized in dictatorial regimes). For figures who have turned provocation and disruption into a career move, like Donald Trump or Elon Musk, these dynamics work differently. But when it comes to regular corner-office CEOs fronting for publicly traded companies, and cultivating wholesome reputations, public satire and criticism can exact a toll.
Avoiding the spotlight altogether was not necessarily a good strategy either. Carol Lombardini, lead negotiator for the AMPTP (representing the major companies), had spent a lifetime fighting labor from the shadows: you’d be hard-pressed to name any powerful woman more determined to avoid any media attention, other than perhaps Gina Haspel before she became CIA director and after her involvement in the torture program went public. There are precious few pictures of Lombardini in the public record, and hardly any interviews. Needless to say, she has no social media presence. Lombardini seemed to be, by design, a cipher—the kind of opaque corporate operator whose personality can only be conjectured or imagined.
Unfortunately for her, conjecture and imagination are basic tools in the writer’s kit, and early in the strike, an anonymous writer set up a parody account on Twitter (@ItsMeCarolAMPTP), which quickly went viral, mocking the companies’ inaction, bad faith, and scare tactics. “The more I learned about Carol and the AMPTP, the more I thought the whole thing just sounded so absurd,” Fake Carol told me.
Like this big scary all-powerful Hollywood studio Goliath was just some random lady in a mall, grinding artists on behalf of corporations? I guess the account was initially a response to that, just poking at this sort of boring and mundane brand of greedy labor exploitation. But I think it really started to take off when the AMPTP resorted to its predictable old PR playbook for trying to break our solidarity, as it was quite easy to satirically point out exactly what they were trying to do with each press manipulation and crisis PR move.
The Fake Carol account became a trenchant and hilarious running commentary in the style of early Stephen Colbert (back when he was impersonating a Fox News anchor). It was both high-end comedy and razor-sharp criticism. It was political art. Suddenly the Kubrickian monolith “Carol Lombardini” had been commandeered and turned against itself: while the real Carol Lombardini remained opaque, the made-up character brought to life a raging corporate id—power-hungry, petty, relentlessly unfair, and desperately uncool. Fake Carol became the anonymous rock star of the strike. Importantly, her anonymity made the account even more emotionally powerful: in a sense, we were all Fake Carol.
The poststrike general meeting was a raucous gathering of thousands at the Hollywood Palladium. After a series of standing ovations for the negotiators and strike captains, Fake Carol got her own thunderous round of applause—a moment made especially sweet and surreal by the fact that everyone was clapping for someone who could have been standing right next to them. “I was there,” Fake Carol told me.
It was quite unexpected, and a profound moment I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. I don’t usually do well with attention or praise, so I was glad to be able to experience that anonymously and appreciate it for what it was without being all in my head about it. The story of this strike is the story of unbreakable solidarity—on social media, across all the guilds, on all the picket lines, in the extraordinary ways in which everyone lifted each other up and helped those who needed it and stuck together, no matter how the studios tried to break us. I'm just so proud to be even a tiny part of that.
Fake Carol remained anonymous, and belonged to all of the writers. The nameless executive with the infamous quote about people losing their homes also remained anonymous, and came to stand for the companies. The statement was so callous that it irrevocably surrendered all moral high ground, galvanizing the strikers and horrifying the public. It was an epic own goal.
In a last-ditch attempt to reshape the narrative, the AMPTP recruited a Washington crisis PR company, but even that backfired. The PR firm itself became a target of scrutiny, and its most valued client (the US women’s national soccer team, which the firm helped in campaigning for wage parity) took a public stand on the side of the striking unions. A Lombardini puff piece in The New York Times, emphasizing her working-class roots and love for baseball, did little to sway public opinion. The uptick in anti-union online trolling was entirely ineffective. The traditional divide-and-conquer corporate strategy—instigate dissent amongst showrunners, and try to turn out-of-work crew members against the strike—fell flat, with both groups fully aware that the strike had been provoked and prolonged by the companies.
While corporate PR still relied on rumor-mongering and misinformation, writers and actors were playing an entirely different game, not just disseminating accurate information but deploying wit and humor to amplify its reach, and to keep morale high. It was a kind of crowdsourced, instant labor-side storytelling that the companies had no way to counter.
How do you deal with Fran Drescher delivering a barnstormer of a speech that would be right at home in Norma Rae, Ron Perlman darkly musing that “there’s a lot of ways to lose your house,” Margot Robbie channeling Barbie on strike, and all the rank-and-file actors and writers giving their fight thousands of different human faces and voices? These are the people whose entire job is to elicit an emotional response—and they happen to be armed with the truth. If you think you’re going to squash that with spinmeisters and trolls, you’re bringing the proverbial knife to a gunfight.
Traditional media also sided with Hollywood labor in an unprecedented way. The Los Angeles Times covered the strike accurately and objectively—meaning that it didn’t “both-sides” the story but instead clearly pointed out what was and what wasn’t fair. Even the industry trade publications, despite their structural economic alignment with the companies (Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Deadline, which are all part of Penske Media, depend heavily on studio advertisement) were less pro-corporate than in the past. It’s not far-fetched to imagine that, after decades of corporate raiding, downsizing, and technological upheaval, most journalists can now closely relate to the issues that film and TV writers were fighting about.
In the final analysis, writers and actors had both the right story and the means to tell it. The result goes beyond contractual wins—as important as those are—and affects the overall power structure of the industry.
One of the few positive effects of the pandemic was a temporary redistribution of respect. For a minute there, it was suddenly clear that masters of the universe are not “essential” to society, while nurses, caregivers, drivers, cleaners, first responders, and food workers actually are. Hollywood was due for a similar moment of reckoning. Writers and actors at large have historically endured high levels of disrespect—getting shortchanged, deceived, belittled, even sexually exploited for a century or more. This was their chance to remind “the business” that there is no business without them. They did so with no shortage of outrage, but also, importantly, with humor and joy, and the overall joyful tone of the story is part of what made it so winning. There could be no joy, humor, solidarity, or moving, inspiring personal story on the corporate side. Writers and actors had all that by boatloads.
Ironically, what the companies never seem to understand is that when we write (or act in) all those stories of overcoming the odds and sacrificing for the greater good, the kind of stories Hollywood is built on, we need to be able to connect with them. And that makes us pretty formidable foes in a labor fight. We cannot tell these stories with the requisite conviction without some thread that leads back to the ideals we are selling. Hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance may work in the executive suite, but don’t quite work on the ground, where you actually might have to feel the feelings in order to make the stuff. You need to find empathy and solidarity in order to walk the walk.
That’s ultimately why we won the strike. It’s hard for corporations to control the story against professional storytellers with true conviction, time on their hands, and social media at their fingertips. And it becomes impossible if corporations themselves cannot offer any credible counternarrative at all. I asked Billy Ray why no one from the management side wanted to come on the podcast, even though Billy’s attitude was always nothing but diplomatic, and he repeatedly made the point of being himself “a capitalist to the core.” Ultimately, Billy said, “They had no story to tell. They just had no story. And we did.”
Alessandro Camon is a writer and producer, currently based in Los Angeles.
Featured image: Vasily Kandinsky. Painting with Green Center, 1913. Art Institute of Chicago, Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection. artic.edu, CC0. Accessed August 31, 2023.
Alessando Camon is a writer and producer, currently based in Los Angeles. His script for The Messenger (2009), co-written with Oren Moverman, was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Best Screenplay Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. His producing credits include Thank You for Smoking (2005), The Cooler (2003), and Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (2010). Current projects include TV pilots at Showtime and HBO. Camon holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Padua and an MA in film from UCLA. He has published numerous books and articles on film and popular culture, in both English and Italian. He is married to film producer Suzanne Warren; they have two children.
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