Predawn Picket Lines help writers disrupt studio productions
At 5 a.m. on a recent weekday, a lone figure was pacing back and forth outside the main entrance to the Fox Studios lot in Los Angeles. Peter Chiarelli, a screenwriter, walked the picket line.
He was holding a sign that read “Thank You 399”, a message to the local chapter of the Teamsters union, which he hoped members would turn their trucks around instead of crossing his personal picket line to enter the compound, where Hulu was filming the series “Interior Chinatown.”
“It’s passive-aggressive,” said Mr. Chiarelli, who wrote the movies “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Proposal,” about his feeling — sincere when the Teamsters returned and sarcastic when they entered.
Since the Hollywood writers’ strike began on May 2, Mr. Chiarelli and others like him have been waking up before dawn to try and disrupt productions whose scripts were already finished.
“We have to close the pipeline,” he said of the shows in production.
The practice, which had no real effect when the writers last went on strike in 2007, initially surprised some studio executives. And many of them – as well as many people in the Writers Guild of America, the union that represents the writers – are surprised that it has had any success.
Showtime halted production on the sixth season of “The Chi” after writers gathered outside the gates of the Chicago studio where it was filming for two straight days. Apple TV’s “Loot” was shut down after writers staged a picket at a Los Angeles mansion where filming was taking place. The star of the show, Maya Rudolph, retreated to her caravan and did not want to return to the set.
More than 20 writers headed from Los Angeles to Santa Clarita, California, to snag the FX drama “The Old Man,” starring Jeff Bridges. The nighttime action kept the Teamsters’ trucks inside the Blue Cloud Movie Ranch, Mr. Chiarelli said, and the crew had trouble working. The show soon ceased production.
A Lionsgate comedy starring Keanu Reeves and Seth Rogen, with Aziz Ansari making his debut as a film director, came to a halt last week after just two and a half days of filming at Los Angeles locations after loud, screaming writers ran all three sets picked .
“While we don’t discuss the details of our strategy, we are putting pressure on the companies by disrupting production wherever it takes place,” a spokesperson for the Writers Guild of America said in a statement.
Eric Haywood, an experienced writer who sits on the union’s negotiating committee, put it more clearly. “If your movie or TV show is still being shot and we haven’t closed it yet, stay put,” he said wrote on social media last weekend. “We’ll come see you.”
A representative of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates on behalf of the studios, declined to comment.
Both sides have privately said that a much greater sense of solidarity between the unions than during the last writers’ strike has made it more difficult for workers from other unions to cross the picket lines. Productions are also more geographically dispersed than they were 15 years ago. In addition to amplified soundstages in Los Angeles, writers chose locations in New Jersey’s suburbs, New York’s Westchester County, and Chicago. And social media has provided a way to warn writers to quickly move to specific picket lines.
Every day, the writers send out calls for “rapid response teams” when they hear about a production’s time and location.
“Breaking: They shoot on Sunday…we peck on Sunday,” writes one writer posted on Twitter, asking people to immediately gather in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn to disrupt a production. “Please reinforce.”
“I think everyone is behind us because they see that if we all stick together we can do some real feats,” said Mike Royce (“One Day at a Time”), who has joined Mr Chiarelli in his some of his predawn pickets.
The writers also disrupted other events. Netflix canceled a large in-person presentation for advertisers in New York over concerns about demonstrations. The streaming company also canceled an appearance by Ted Sarandos, one of its co-chief executives, to be honored at the prestigious PEN America Literary Gala. A Boston University kick-off speech by David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, was interrupted by boos and chants of “Pay your writers!” of protesters and students.
While the improvised picket lines disrupted individual productions, it’s not clear they had much effect on the strike itself. Negotiations have not resumed since they broke down on May 1, and the industry is bracing for the possibility that the strike could drag on for months.
The writers claim their wages have stagnated, even as major Hollywood studios have invested billions of dollars in recent years to build out their streaming services. The guild has described the dispute in stark terms, saying that “the survival of writing as a profession is at stake”.
But production stoppages don’t just affect the studios. Crews and other employees – such as drivers, stage designers, caterers – lose pay. And as the closures pile up and more people can’t work, some wonder if the writers will erode the current goodwill of other employees.
Lindsay Dougherty is the lead organizer of Local 399, the Los Angeles division of Teamsters, which represents more than 6,000 film workers, from the truck drivers the writers try to turn away to casting directors, location managers, and animal trainers. Mrs. Dougherty, a second-generation Teamster, is one of the union’s few female leaders. Her profuse tattoos, including one of former Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, and her often profanity speeches made her somewhat of a celebrity to the writers during the strike.
And she said solidarity with the writers remained strong.
“I think collectively we are all on the same wavelength in the sense that streaming has profoundly changed the industry,” Ms Dougherty said in an interview. “And these tech companies we’re negotiating with during the last writer’s strike — Amazon, Apple, Netflix — weren’t even part of the conversation.”
When asked if the Teamsters tipped off the writers about the timing and location of productions, she objected.
“The Writers Guild gets tips from all sorts of different places — whether it’s members who work in the crew or from film licensees, they’ve obviously set up social media groups and emails to send tips and information,” she said.
In the meantime, Mr. Chiarelli continues to pace outside Fox Studios every day, hoping to turn around some trucks. Some days he gets results. On a recent morning he was joined by several other writers, and five trucks turned back, he said. During a nightly picket at Fox, a trailer carrying fake police cars destined for the shooting overturned at 2 a.m.
On other days, the picket line is much sparse, especially if a tip takes a group to another location.
He and Mr. Royce spoke fondly of their second day in the dark. It was raining cats and dogs as two large trucks with flashing lights pulled up at the exit lane, ready to enter the site. Then they saw the writers. The trucks pulled up to the side of the road, waited about 10 minutes, then turned around.
They “blew past the entrance, honked and waved at us,” Mr. Royce said. “It was exciting.”
mr. Chiarelli added: “I’ve been chasing that altitude ever since.”