“Things We Lost in the Fire”: A View From the Writers Strike Line
Published August 19, 2023
By Todd Robinson
A screenwriter, whose home was destroyed by a wildfire during the Writers Guild’s last standoff with the studios, stresses the urgency of meaningful change in the next contract and breaks down the math of what, on the outside, looks like an enviable salary: “At $150,000 a year … you basically can’t afford to go to the very movie you wrote.”
An Emmy-winning writer, producer and director, Todd Robinson has worked in film and television for nearly four decades — penning screenplays for White Squall, Lonely Hearts and The Last Full Measure. Prior to the current WGA strike, the second since he joined the guild, he’d been working on his next features Eldorado and Neponsit Circle, slated for production in 2024.
Nov. 24, 2007, I was asleep in my childhood bedroom in my hometown of Media, Pennsylvania. Crushed after a brutal red-eye, followed by my 30th high school reunion, I was wasted.
In L.A., it was day 18 of the 2007-08 writers strike, where I’d been picketing right up until Thanksgiving. It was a relief to get away from the sunburn, signs and honking cars. Back home, the gloom of a painful work stoppage seemed far away.
The strike had brought much into focus for my wife, Elizabeth, and me. I was a director and writer and she a literary agent turned manager. Our careers flowed in contrapuntal sine-waves, one of us up while the other was down. But now, because Liz represented writers, we suddenly had zero income. We had a mortgage to pay and the costs of having a young family. A strike was something we’d never experienced before and it was scary. We understood the stakes were enormously high. Then, as now, we were the visible face of American labor in a David-and-Goliath fight pitting worker bees against Africanized corporate hornets.
Cost-cutting from the bottom up always seems to be management’s first instinct rather than rewarding successful creators with a livable wage, which they can easily afford to do. For example, Netflix recently reported massive second-quarter profits of $8 billion. A handsome gratuity for punishing account sharing and selling a lesser service, replete with advertising. On the other hand, we who generate the actual product are forbidden to share meaningfully in the fruits of our successes. Diabolical.
Back in 2007, sleeping off jet lag and a long night out, I was awakened by my mom. I tried to process as she held a phone out to me and said, “It’s Liz, honey. There’s a fire.”
Gathering myself, I took the phone. Liz explained that a wildfire was racing down the hills, surrounding our home on three sides. It was 4 a.m. in L.A., and the flames were raging. My son had a sleepover pal, there was my daughter, my visiting 85-year-old mother-in-law, two dogs and two hamsters, all of whom had to be evacuated.
My wife is unflappable in a crisis. We’d been through family emergencies and fires before. But this was different. Not unlike in Lahaina, 70-mile-per-hour winds were driving 100-foot flames across the Santa Monica Mountains. For the first time since I’d met my wife, I heard fear in her voice.
My family only had minutes to flee. Nearly everything but our wedding album was left behind. Liz’s parting words to me were, “We’re going, I’m sorry. I don’t know if the house will be here when you get home.”
What’s happening in entertainment today, and in the broader labor force in general, feels a lot like that approaching firestorm — an existential killing machine intent on carpet-bombing workers, intimidating unions and guilds, while attempting to incinerate collective bargaining altogether.
For those outside of Hollywood, let me break down what getting paid as a writer actually looks like.
Let’s say you manage to earn $150,000 a year. Most don’t, but we’ll take that number. Ten percent goes to your agent. If you have a manager (many do), 10 percent more. Five percent goes to your lawyer and another 2.5 percent to union dues.
At $150,000, your effective federal and state tax bill could be as high as $51,229. Subtract $41,250 in commissions and $42,000 for rent (at $3,500 a month, average for a two bedroom in L.A.) and your final net income is $15,521. Car payment? Insurance? Groceries? Utilities? Suffice it to say, you basically can’t afford to go to the very movie you wrote.
Add in a year or two of inflation, a decade of eroding residuals (or as in the Netflix model, none at all), and as a rank-and-file member of the guild you’re practically paying to make your art. Want kids, a house, a dog, two cars, daycare, God forbid a vacation? It’s just not happening. That isn’t a career, folks. It’s a hobby.
In David Leonhardt’s recent piece in The New York Times, he wrote about the “fracturing of work” in America: “Screenwriters — who are unionized — have gone on strike in an attempt to use their collective leverage to avoid becoming Hollywood’s equivalent of adjunct professors …” where pay, prestige, benefits, and job security are reserved for the “made” women and men of the tenured class.
This is what Noam Scheiber describes as “a tiered work force of esteemed versus lesser workers” reinforced by the “let-them-eat-cake” executives pulling down tens of millions a year while telling writers and actors they’re being unaccommodating.
To emphasize this animus, last month Universal Studios cut away the sidewalk shade trees. Some have alleged that this was to take advantage of the stifling heat of July to keep the picketing rabble at home. An anonymous insider quoted someone from the AMPTP of having famously said they wouldn’t return to the table “… until writers have lost their houses and apartments.” Really?
Bleary-eyed, I raced to the Philadelphia airport. As I sat in the terminal, I watched a CNN news blast on an overhead television. The banner read “LOS ANGELES BURNS”. The image showed an aerial assault on the blazing coastline of Southern California. The smoke, driven out to sea by the satanic Santa Ana winds, could be seen from the International Space Station. I knew somewhere in the middle of that inferno was … my home.
By 6 p.m. on Nov. 24, 2007, I’d returned to L.A. and was in the truck of a friend who’d tried to get to my house during the height of the fire. Conjuring images of the last day of Herculaneum and Pompeii, he’d been forced back by what he described as a pyroclastic plume.
When we arrived, the neighborhood was in ashes. The Technicolor vibrancy of the flowers, topiary, and sycamores was reduced to a monochromatic wasteland. Miraculously, our house was still there. Though severely damaged, it had been saved by multiple helicopter drops of water that preserved the structure but destroyed the roof.
The exterior stairs to my second-story office above the garage were gone, having burned into the walls, disintegrating the studs. Without support, the floor now sagged dangerously. Water ran freely through gaping holes cut into the ceiling by firefighters.
Pretty much everything from a 27-year career was gone. Signed movie posters, awards, photographs, and decades of research and files. It would all be demolished within days. Inside the rest of the house, our clothes, bedding, draperies, carpets and furniture, even the kid’s toys, were lost to water and smoke damage. That canyon fire destroyed over 80 structures, including 49 homes. It was hot, fast and explosive. In the end, we were fortunate. Many families lost all they had.
Like the destructive power of that blaze, the Hollywood work stoppage was taking its toll, too. Writers were losing jobs, deals and some, yes, their homes. Like today, the strike was impacting the entire industry, including hundreds of vendors who support film and television production. Los Angeles is a company town and the strike, like an unchecked wildfire, was consuming money and property. For me, it was difficult to separate the two events. Everything, it seemed, was going up in smoke.
In the carnage of our home was my 2007 strike sign. Somehow it had survived. It struck me that through the shared sacrifice of suspending that which defines and sustains us, or the mutual suffering of a community initiated in common loss, the outcome was an opportunity for understanding, esprit de corps and solidarity.
As if to drive the point, someone got word to the Writers Guild that my family had been swept up in the fire, and 30 or so striking writers left the picket lines and showed up unannounced at what was left of our home with shovels, buckets and brooms. Not only did they help clean up our property, they went up and down the street assisting our grateful neighbors. Out of the ashes of the things we lost in the fire, and the smoldering strike, good people emerged, enduring their own struggles and understanding that the most useful thing they could do was to be of service to others.
A small thing perhaps, but something the one percent of the one percent might consider: In the end, we all need to be accountable to ideals bigger and more significant than stock prices. We need to be responsible to and for each other. Natural disasters and unfair work practices alike cause disruption, stress and trauma. There’s the physical displacement, but more devastating is the emotional destabilization where nothing seems certain or secure anymore.
Some felt we should have held out for more during the 2007 strike. It took years to recover from the sacrifices of that time, just as it took nearly a decade to rebuild our home. As the Treaty of Versailles failed to create a lasting peace, the results of the 2007 strike were unsuccessful in protecting us from a rapidly changing system of producing and distributing our work. We got the message last time out. There are more wildfires coming. Which is why our resolve today is unbreakable. We don’t want to be back here in the same position three to six years from now.
To the CEOs, stockholders and anyone who consumes entertainment, I quote Peter Matthiessen from his powerful book Men’s Lives on the disappearing way of life of Long Island fishermen: “It’s not fish you’re buying, it’s men’s lives.” When you go to a movie or watch television, you are supporting thousands of middle-class workers. It’s not tickets or subscriptions you’re buying, it’s the lives of the people who work endlessly to bring their art to you.
On the east end of Long Island, corporate fishing concerns, powerful sportsman’s clubs and developers invaded the quaint villages and fisheries because they could. Today, the Bonackers and baymen are all but gone. Run off by the gilded transactionalists and Wall Street, yacht-cruising, day-trading class. They got their McMansions and jet skis, but their seafood is now flash-frozen and imported. If we’re not careful, creatives could suffer the same fate as those fishermen. Without potent guardrails, in short order we could become the equivalent of literary and thespian Neanderthals.
If it sounds like I’m a grumpy filmmaker, I’m not. I have nothing but gratitude for the opportunities I’ve had, the amazing people I’ve met and worked with. I’m supporting this effort so that I might help leave this business healthier than it is now for the younger people coming up.
I’m aware that the executives of our entertainment institutions are up against complex issues. The process of creating film and television is challenging. They answer to stockholders and corporate boards. I understand that. But they seem to view labor with a certain dismissive antipathy. Perhaps they need reminding that the creative force that serves them is made up of some of the most passionate, talented, dedicated workers on the planet. We love this business and we want it to survive and thrive. We are their partners. We want them to succeed. But not entirely at our expense.
As negotiators get back to the table and hope glimmers, we might remind them that we’re in this together. We want to create great movies and television. We want to tell great stories. We just need management to show up with some shovels and hoses and help us get it under control before this wildfire takes too much from too many.
We’re real people trying to live normal lives, doing what we’ve always dreamed of doing … and we do it better than anyone in the world. There is nothing more American than Hollywood. Show us a little flexibility, humanity and some empathy. Take a little less, give a little more, and we’ll return to work with all the passion and solidarity we’ve taken to the streets … and deliver.