Predawn Picket Lines Help Writers Disrupt Studio Productions
At 5 am on a recent weekday, a lone figure paced back and forth outside the main entrance to the Fox Studios lot in Los Angeles. Peter Chiarelli, a screenwriter, was walking the picket line.
He held a sign reading “Thank You 399,” a message to the local branch of the Teamsters union, whose members he hoped would turn their trucks around instead of crossing his personal picket line to enter the lot, where Hulu was filming the series. Interior Chinatown.
“It’s passive-aggressive,” Mr. Chiarelli, who wrote the films “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Proposal,” said of his sentiment—sincere if the Teamsters turned back and sarcastic if they entered.
Since the Hollywood writers’ strike began on May 2, Mr. Chiarelli and others like him have been waking before dawn to try to disrupt productions whose scripts had already been finished.
“We need to shut down the pipeline,” he said of the shows in production.
The practice, which was not used to any real effect when the writers last went on strike in 2007, initially caught some studio executives off guard. And many of them—as well as plenty of people in the Writers Guild of America, the union that represents the writers—have been surprised that it has had some success.
Showtime paused production on the sixth season of “The Chi” after writers gathered for two straight days outside the gates of the Chicago studio where it was filming. Apple TV’s “Loot” shut down after writers picketed a Los Angeles mansion where filming was taking place. The show’s star, Maya Rudolph, retreated to her trailer and was unwilling to return to set.
Over 20 writers trekked from Los Angeles to Santa Clarita, Calif., to picket the FX drama “The Old Man,” starring Jeff Bridges. The overnight action kept Teamsters trucks inside the Blue Cloud Movie Ranch, Mr. Chiarelli said, and crews had difficulty working. The show soon suspended production.
A Lionsgate comedy starring Keanu Reeves and Seth Rogen, with Aziz Ansari making his debut as a movie director, shut down last week after just two and a half days of filming in locations around Los Angeles after loud, shouting writers picketed all three of its sets .
“While we won’t discuss the specifics of our strategy, we’re applying pressure on the companies by disrupting production wherever it takes place,” a Writers Guild of America spokesperson said in a statement.
Eric Haywood, a veteran writer who is on the union’s negotiating committee, put it more plainly. “If your movie or TV show is still shooting and we haven’t shut it down yet, sit tight,” he wrote on social media last weekend. “We’ll get around to you.”
A representative for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of the studios, declined to comment.
Both sides have privately said a much greater sense of solidarity among unions than during the last writers’ strike has made it harder for workers from other unions to cross picket lines. Productions are also more geographically widespread than they were 15 years ago. In addition to fortified Los Angeles soundstages, writers have picketed locations in the New Jersey suburbs, New York’s Westchester County and Chicago. And social media has provided a way to alert writers to quickly get to specific picket lines.
Each day, the writers send out calls for “rapid response teams” when they learn about a production’s call time and location.
“Breaking: they’re shooting on Sunday … we’re picketing on Sunday,” a writer posted on Twitter, asking people to get together immediately in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn to disrupt a production. “Please amplify.”
“I think everybody is getting behind us because they see that if we all stick together, we can make some real achievements,” said Mike Royce (“One Day at a Time”), who has joined Mr. Chiarelli in some of his predawn picks.
The writers have disrupted other events as well. Netflix canceled a major in-person presentation for advertisers in New York amid concerns about demonstrations. The streaming company also canceled an appearance by Ted Sarandos, one of its co-chief executives, who was to be honored at the prestigious PEN America Literary Gala. A Boston University commencement address by David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, was interrupted by boos and chants of “Pay your writers!” from demonstrators and students.
While the makeshift picket lines have disrupted individual productions, it’s not clear that they’ve had much effect on the strike itself. Negotiations haven’t resumed since they broke down on May 1, and the industry is bracing for the possibility that the strike could last for months.
The writers contend that their wages have stagnated even though the 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 the “survival of writing as a profession is at stake.”
But production shutdowns are affecting not only the studios. Crews and other workers — like drivers, set designers, caterers — lose paychecks. And if the shutdowns accumulate and more people are unable to work, some wonder whether the writers will begin to erode the current good will from other workers.
Lindsay Dougherty is the lead organizer of Local 399, the Teamsters’ Los Angeles division, which represents more than 6,000 movie workers, from the truck drivers the writers are trying to turn away to casting directors, location managers and animal trainers. A second-generation Teamster, Ms. Dougherty is one of the union’s few female leaders. Her copious tattoos, including one of former Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, and her frequently profane speech have made her a bit of a celebrity to the writers during the strike.
And she said the solidarity with the writers remained strong.
“I think collectively, we’re all on the same page in that streaming has dramatically changed the industry,” Ms. Dougherty said in an interview. “And these tech companies that we’re bargaining with, during the last writers’ strike — Amazon, Apple, Netflix — they weren’t even part of the conversation.”
Asked if the Teamsters were tipping off the writers about the timing and location of productions, she demurred.
“The Writers Guild is getting tips from all sorts of different places — whether it’s members that are working on the crew, or from film permits, they obviously have social media groups and emails set up to send tips and information,” she said.
In the meantime, Mr. Chiarelli keeps pacing outside Fox Studios each day, hoping he can turn some trucks around. Some days he gets results. On a recent morning he was joined by several other writers, and five trucks turned away, he said. During an overnight picket at Fox, a trailer carrying fake police cars destined for the shoot turned tail at 2 am.
Other days, the picket line is much more sparse, especially if a tip takes a group to a different location.
He and Mr. Royce talked fondly about their second day out in the dark. It was pouring rain when two large trucks pulled into the turn lane, blinkers on, ready to enter the lot. Then they saw the writers. The trucks pulled to the side of the road, waited about 10 minutes, then turned around.
They “blew past the entrance, honked their horns and waved at us,” Mr. Royce said. “It was thrilling.”
Added Mr. Chiarelli, “I’ve been chasing that high ever since.”