How to Get Through the WGA Strike as an Aspiring Writer

Photo: HBO

As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka Mattoo — whose memoir will be published by Knopf in 2024 — represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and directs, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide. In show business, they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck, because now you know Priyanka!

I moved to L.A. five years ago to follow my dream of becoming a TV writer. I landed a job as a writer’s assistant, and it seemed for a second that I might get promoted, but right now continued employment seems difficult. The dwindling jobs — and now the strike — have me pretty dejected about my current prospects. I absolutely understand why the strike needs to happen, but right now how am I supposed to (1) live and (2) keep my spirits up? I had been starting to feel like there was a place for me, but now I’m just not sure I should stay. —Miryam, L.A.

My first instinct is to try to find a solution for you, because I can’t help feeling like this is my fault. Since I started writing this column, my only goal was to get more kinds of people out here — the kinds who didn’t have a well-lit path illuminating the way. Having elbowed my own way into the business, and not seeing many faces like mine, I wanted to hold the door wide open and clear up the opacity that this industry can sometimes create. I’ve assured my loyal readers for years that if they have good samples and the right attitude that they will find friends, then representatives, then jobs.

And as we entered peak TV, the streamers’ dash for shows seemed like an opportunity for more fresh, experimental content, so much of it from marginalized communities. Our stories, finally! Not just endless regurgitation of IP. I was amazed at all the brown and Black faces that started showing up in my inbox, then in rooms. I teared up looking at show credits. It made my heart swell with hope for the industry, which was finally letting more kinds of people in.

Then the mini-rooms started sprouting up right around when I started selling shows as a writer. We love the script, a studio might say. How about we explore it with a small room of writers, get some more scripts out, and then decide? Hiring two to three writers to churn out a handful of scripts for a few weeks wasn’t exactly a series order, which would have meant a production commitment, full staff, and stable jobs for each of those writers, but it felt like a step toward one. From a creator’s perspective, a mini-room seemed like a compliment: Wow, they really have faith in my idea. They want to invest even more in it! But then it became very clear that the jobs these fresh faces were being offered didn’t afford the same security that the creators before them did. Most of the shows were never green-lit. There was suddenly no path, no apprenticeship for the writers in that mini-room to sustain themselves and learn to be creators and showrunners on their own. And now that you’re all out here, because I convinced you to move, the jobs have depreciated beyond recognition. I’m so sorry.

In the last few weeks, I’ve spoken with people who have run shows and are afraid of losing their homes, immensely talented longtime network writers who haven’t had a real job in two years, and pre- and new WGA writers who are worried about short-term survival in a city that’s ballooning in price. I spoke with someone who has $25 in the bank and I cried after I hung up, because I can’t help everyone in the same situation. It’s dire.

But I don’t know how helpful it is for you to hear that the people who came before you are wringing their hands when you need your basic needs met. So I spoke with Olga Lexell, an organizer who is also one of my favorite people online. Olga’s never not rattling a cage, from her activism in the area of L.A. transportation to, now, strike captaining (you can shake her hand outside Fox most days). She shared the following funding sources (and/or places to donate):

• For WGA members, the WGA strike fund offers 0 percent interest loans with a flexible repayment schedule (available through the WGA strike portal).

• The WGA Good and Welfare Fund is also year-round fund for WGA members that can offer financial aid (also available through the strike portal).

• Humanitas is doing Groceries for Writers gift cards, prioritizing writers early in their careers.

• The Entertainment Community Fund is open to anyone who’s worked in Hollywood for a set period of time — loans and grants available here.

• The MPTF has a hotline for anyone in need of financial assistance and is affected by the strike.

• Local IATSE chapters have Good and Welfare funds that are set up for financial aid.

• The Inevitable Foundation offers cash grants to disabled screenwriters on strike.

• Write Inclusion has compiled a list of additional strike resources (including picket-line accessibility, public-transport tips, and more funds) here.

And here’s an important sidebar for rich writers, because I know how many of you read this column: Now is the time to use all your extra money to hire someone — an assistant, associate, tutor, house manager who picks up the kids, whatever! You need stuff done; hire people. Pay them $30-$35 an hour. Redistribute the wealth and tide someone over. Even if you can only hire part time, share an assistant with a friend! Pay that good old residual money forward, and tell your pals to do the same. I will be watching you closely, and you do not want me disappointed.

Back to you, Miryam: While I can’t remember a more difficult time in entertainment, the energy of this movement feels vastly different than I’ve seen over the last 20 years. The last time there was a strike (2007), I was an agent. We were told belts would be tightened, and our expense accounts and travel were capped. That was as scary (ha!) as it got as an agent back then. This time, I’m a proud WGAW member, and the stakes have been raised. So much so that many of my former agency colleagues are joining picket lines, and from my conversations with a handful of them — and my knowledge of how hard it is to tear an agent away from the office — it’s not just performative allyship. Every worker in every sector of every industry is fed up, and this fight is the spearhead for a global collective rage.

But outside of your basic needs are the more existential ones: When you’re drowning in employment-related despair, please try to remember that you are a whole person outside of what you do. Can I encourage you to step outside of the bubble of chasing jobs to remember who you are as a person? How are you going to spend this pause? Yes, fighting the good fight and running your mouth about it, as we all should, but what else? A day trip with a friend? A self-taught new interest? Reconnecting with a family member? A romance you never had the guts to pursue? What are the other pillars of your life? If that’s too vague and Pollyanna for you, how are you going to fill this next stretch of time with the kinds of feelings and experiences you might be able to write about?

I have spoken with so many young writers staring down a negative bank balance in the last week, and I feel the need to say that none of this is about your individual choices. The system has failed you, and this strike is the only action that can get us back to a sustainable system. While the gears grind, you can move back home if you need. You can take a weird job. You can ask and apply for help. And please don’t worry about your résumé right now. A work stoppage is not a “hole” in your work history, it’s a correction. You’re not running out of time. Taking some survival work/money/help is not going to ruin your future career, and there is no reward for getting to “professional writer” first. There are rewards for being a good writer, and those will come. We are flying over a dramatic speed bump, to be sure, and uncertain when it will end. But it’s still a speed bump, not a wall. We will prevail, because the writers are a united front — as the 97.85 percent strike-authorization vote will tell you.

The studios, on the other hand, are all playing very different games, and I’m sure there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff we don’t even want to know about. The streamers say they can afford to sit on their libraries of content and twiddle their thumbs while network shows go dark, knowing they don’t have anything left. I don’t know how long they plan to wait each other out before they come back to the table. And even when they do, they’ll still have to figure out how to cut costs, and if that means fewer better-staffed shows, it might also require a rejiggering of their slate strategy. Streamers are waking up to the idea that smaller-budget movies (in the $15-20 million range) bring in eyeballs without costing as much as entire TV series, so I would imagine there will be growth in that area. That’s not just my spidey sense after 20 years of patterns and data points; in speaking with buyer friends, I’ve learned that there’s also been an uptick in interest in midsize comedy films in a way I haven’t seen since the early aughts. In any case, now’s the time to write that movie script you’ve always wanted to, but it’s also the time to figure out what loopholes they’re going to try to screw us with next.

“The studios have all the leverage,” groaned a manager to me a few weeks ago. Untrue. The studios have all the money. But writers create the shows and public sentiment is on our side. When everyone in the business, more and more unions, and even the public at large are in agreement that the AMPTP are the bad guys, those are some insurmountable optics. Do I trust the AMPTP to do the right thing? I don’t. I don’t trust anyone who wakes up focused on a stock price. But I do have faith in Hollywood’s outsize obsession with optics. The press — mostly coverage by writers who also feel taken advantage of, by the way — is very, very bad for them. And it’s not going to get better.

The thing they’ve underestimated is that we’re writers. We are used to creating entire worlds out of thin air. Our day job is hoping dreams into being. We are intense, fiercely united, and more than a little crazy-eyed. They are risk-averse, replaceable, and in the wrong. And they all know it.

This, too, shall pass, and when it does, we will have ensured that the jobs that have shrunk to nothing in the last ten years are worthy of your growing talent and work ethic. In the meantime, take care of yourself, and please know you’ll be back to work — not just because there absolutely is a place for you here, but because the industry is better with you in it.

How to Get Through the WGA Strike As an Aspiring Writer