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Striking Hollywood writers say film studios don't understand what a screenwriter does

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Film and TV writers are now in their eighth week of a strike against major Hollywood studios. They're demanding better pay, equity and protections from the rise of AI. But one of the core issues on the table is also an existential question - what exactly does a screenwriter do? From Hollywood, NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this story.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Screenwriting, for TV especially, has been a collaborative process starting with an idea - say, a drama about a handsome Los Angeles defense attorney who works out of his car.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LINCOLN LAWYER")

LISAGAY HAMILTON: (As Judge Mary Holder) The Lincoln Lawyer - that what they call you?

MANUEL GARCIA-RULFO: (As Mickey Haller) Some do, yes.

DEL BARCO: Writer Michael Connelly created "The Lincoln Lawyer" and also "Bosch: Legacy" and two other series. He's been on the picket lines this summer.

MICHAEL CONNELLY: And there's not a day that goes by in a production where the writer doesn't have a question to answer. And, like, does this fit with what we just shot in the last episode?

DEL BARCO: Connelly says that means writers are ideally always involved in everything from preproduction to postproduction. It's also crucial for them to be on set during the filming process, says Yahlin Chang, a showrunner for "The Handmaid's Tale."

YAHLIN CHANG: You have to have a writer ready at a moment's notice to rewrite a scene.

DEL BARCO: Sometimes, a scene needs to be cut for time, or an actor wants to tweak a line. Chang says that's how it should be, but this kind of on-the-fly writing and rewriting is becoming extinct.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No wages...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No pages.

DEL BARCO: Writers on the picket lines in Hollywood this summer say streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are increasingly hiring writers like workers on an assembly line. They work separately from each other online in so-called mini rooms, writing scripts before a production begins and then getting dismissed from the process. Overburdened showrunners, directors, actors and others are expected to finish the rewriting, they say. Howard Rodman says that's how he was asked to work on a high-profile hourlong drama that premiered this month.

HOWARD RODMAN: There was no room full of writers. There were just assignments that came in by text, and my work was finished the day that photography commenced. There was no continuity. The tasks were utterly divided up between ideation, writing, on-set writing, on-set producing.

DEL BARCO: Rodman is a working screenwriter. He's also a professor of screenwriting at the University of Southern California, and he's a former president of the Writers Guild of America West. He also grew up as the son of a screenwriter, and he's seen how dramatically the process has changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: Beginning in the late 1950s, Rodman's father was a writer for the TV shows "Route 66" and "Naked City."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NAKED CITY")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: There are 8 million stories in the naked city.

RODMAN: The way "Naked City" and "Route 66" were made, there were two guys. My father, Howard Rodman Sr., and a wonderful writer named Stirling Silliphant wrote or rewrote every one of 39 episodes per year.

DEL BARCO: He says in his father's day, story editors, as they were called, got ideas from freelancers, but they did all the writing themselves.

RODMAN: Every season started with a seven-week lead time. That seven-week lead time was gone by Christmas, and the rest of it was done on amphetamines. To get through that ordeal, it takes a toll on your body and psyche, and it did on his. He died when he was 65 years old.

DEL BARCO: Rodman says that changed by the 1970s, when groups of scribes were hired to brainstorm and script out stories in so-called writers rooms.

RODMAN: Those people worked like the devil, but they didn't have to exhaust body and soul the way people who put out shows in my father's generation did.

DEL BARCO: But after the rise of streaming and what many consider a TV renaissance, a new age of corporate mergers and layoffs have meant studios are trying to cut costs, and writers say they're the ones being sidelined. During contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the WGA wrestled over how and when writing should happen.

DANIELLE SANCHEZ-WITZEL: We were telling the AMPTP, you cannot separate writing from production. Writing happens through all the phases of making television.

DEL BARCO: Danielle Sanchez-Witzel is a writer for Hulu's rom-com musical "Up Here" and an executive producer of the upcoming Netflix series "Survival Of The Thickest." She's also on the WGA'S negotiating committee.

SANCHEZ-WITZEL: What streamers came in and did was decide, why don't we just write them all ahead of time? We're going to do less episodes, so let's write them all, and then you can just go shoot them. And we're going to hire as few as people as possible for as short amount of time as possible for as little as possible. And so that is a big reason why we're out here fighting.

DEL BARCO: The writing room model on location and in the mix was how newbies learned how to become showrunners. The writers strike has put a big question mark around how and what they'll be writing for TV in the future. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEU!'S "ISI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.

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