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Hope and Heartbreak: Stories From the Hollywood Strikes

In a year of extended work stoppages by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, plenty was gained—and plenty was sacrificed

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David Krumholtz hadn’t worked for 16 months straight. He’d been a Hollywood actor since he was a teenager and wondered whether the ride, finally, was over. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, well, they’ve seen enough, and I’ve come to the end of something wonderful, and all good things come to an end,’” the 45-year-old tells me in late November. “And that was my perspective on it, and it hurt. But I was trying to remain hopeful.”

Not long after that, his agent dropped him. “Which was a bummer,” he says. Then, miraculously, he heard from a big fan: Christopher Nolan. They’d connected in the 2000s when Krumholtz was starring in the CBS crime drama Numbers. “He approached me and told me he loved the show,” Krumholtz says. “You meet really amazing artists throughout your career, and if you’re lucky, they say really wonderful things about your work. And then you just hope that they remember you.”

A decade and a half later, that faint hope became a reality when Nolan began casting a biopic about the father of the atomic bomb. The filmmaker needed a huge team of character actors to portray the scientists who helped J. Robert Oppenheimer achieve his terrifyingly consequential goal. He asked Krumholtz to read for one of the theoretical physicist’s closest confidants. “He gave me four runs at two scenes, which is a lot,” Krumholtz says. “Usually you get two. And after the third take, he said to me, ‘Now do it again and do it like you’re driving home from this audition thinking, I should’ve done it that way,’ which was absolutely petrifying. But I think he wanted to see how I handle it. And I laughed it off in the moment. It was such a bold thing to say. And Chris, I’ve come to learn, is a very funny guy. Brilliantly funny, actually. So I rolled with that punch. That didn’t mean that I didn’t fall apart after the audition and think, ‘My God, I screwed the whole thing up.’”

Later that day, Krumholtz was told that he got the part. He was then summoned back to read the full screenplay, which was being held under lock and key. “The script was printed on dark red paper with black lettering so that it couldn’t be Xerox copied, I suppose,” he says. “And that’s when I realized the part was as substantial as it was.” He was playing Nobel Prize winner Isidor Isaac Rabi, and he’d be sharing the screen with lead Cillian Murphy more than a few times.

At that point, Krumholtz broke down. “I was emotional in front of Chris,” he says. “I didn’t know how to thank him for believing in me enough to give me such an important part. And I still don’t, really.”

But despite being in one of the year’s biggest hits, Krumholtz couldn’t talk about it in the press. When Oppenheimer came out in July, the Screen Actors Guild had been on strike for a week, and SAG rules prevented him from promoting the movie.

A little media attention would’ve been nice—and judging from reviews and social media reactions, plenty of people would’ve wanted to talk to Krumholtz around Oppenheimer’s release—but to him, solidarity was more important. The work stoppage, he says, “was worthy.” Even if it robbed him of his moment in the California sun. “I don’t regret that I wasn’t able to speak much about it,” he adds with a laugh. “I probably would’ve said stupid stuff that made me seem way less intelligent than the character I was playing.”

Krumholtz knows that most actors had it much, much worse in 2023. “I’m speaking from the perspective of being a very, very, very lucky person and being aware of how lucky I am,” he says. “I’ve learned over time that this business is the farthest thing from meritocracy.”

For the entertainment industry’s rank and file, the year was profoundly difficult. Starting in May and July, respectively, the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA went on strike against the enormously profitable studios that by many measures had grown increasingly exploitative. Both the WGA and SAG struck for pay increases, streaming residuals based on viewership, staffing minimums, and the regulation of the use of artificial intelligence. Each union cut a deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that yielded gains this fall, but not before months of picketing, forfeited paychecks, and ice-cold stonewalling by CEOs. The end result was uplifting, but the road to get there was punishing. “You don’t have to grind people down,” says writer David Hemingson, whose first theatrically released feature, The Holdovers, came out in October. “Just give them what they’re owed, give them what’s fair. We weren’t asking for anything more than what’s fair.”

Now that the dust has settled and Hollywood is back up and running, the toll of the AMPTP’s hard-line stance is coming into view. The protracted labor dispute didn’t just throw the show business calendar into disarray—it led to billions of dollars of lost wages and emotional exhaustion. But the writers and actors who sacrificed what little career stability they had for a greater cause knew it was necessary. This is what 2023 was like for them.

Andra Whipple never expected to become a labor leader. The Dayton, Ohio–raised writer and performer moved to Los Angeles a decade ago with hopes of breaking into television. She started as a production assistant at the comedy content factory CollegeHumor in 2014 before getting hired as a PA on TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything. Host Adam Conover’s playfully didactic show was, in Whipple’s words, “Last Week Tonight meets Curb Your Enthusiasm. The episodes were actually kind of a sitcom with regular characters/relationships that developed over time.”

Whipple liked her job, but it was not a glamorous existence. “The writers on average were making more than three times what I made,” she says. “And they had health care and dental. I had none of that. I was scraping by.”

By 2018, Whipple had worked her way up from PA to staff writer. She joined WGA and immediately began to see the union’s benefits. “That’s a show that is very much about the transformative power of what we do with our lives. It is very much about changing your perception of the world,” she says. “A lot of the writers there were really enthusiastic about the union. I was an assistant first, so I saw the difference between being non-union and having no protection and being a writer and being in a union.”

TruTV canceled Adam Ruins Everything after three seasons in 2019, leaving Whipple without steady work. “I mean, the perilousness of the business has really dominated my career,” she says. “I did of course have moments like, ‘What if this is it?’ watching everything feel like it’s crumbling.”

When Whipple finally felt like things were looking up for her this year, negotiations between the WGA and the AMPTP stalled. “Just as I started to claw back, we look at what the companies are willing to offer us, and it’s so incredibly bad that the only logical decision to make is to go on strike,” she says. “And for me and my values and my dreams about this career, the only logical thing to do was to throw myself into that strike.”

Whipple decided to become a strike captain. She led pickets at Radford Studio Center. Soon, the owner of the property relegated her group to the facility’s shade-free rear entrance alongside a busy street. “It was 130 degrees on the sidewalk,” Whipple says. “Cars were barreling through, and we had several close calls with people almost getting killed by big trucks, which was obviously terrifying.”

Whipple’s days were draining. “I would do a little dance routine with everybody, and then I would walk off into a corner and I would hold someone’s hand while we talked about the fact that they had $1,000 left in their bank account,” she says. “And then I would go call the Guild and see what we could do. And then I would have a dangerous situation because of the way the lot had placed us. And I would look at my own bank account and feel worried, and then I would wake up and do it all over again.”

After a while, Whipple got used to the tumult. But talking about it now makes her emotional. “On the one hand, it is crushing,” she says. “And on the other hand, it becomes super normal. It’s kind of gratifying to explain it to other people, just because I think it looked fun from the outside.”

During the strike, Holdovers star Da’Vine Joy Randolph often wondered whether anyone outside the Hollywood bubble was even paying attention. “I remember asking people, ‘Do you think that the rest of the world is aware?’” she says. “I wonder if they notice, ‘Huh, none of my shows are on. I’m just watching reruns.’ Because to us, we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, the world changed.’”

But more so than the last writers’ work stoppage in 2007-08, it did seem like the outside world supported these strikes. “Everybody feels that they are getting screwed at work,” says Adam Conover, a member of the WGA negotiating committee. “Everybody feels [like], ‘We are not getting a fair shake,’ or ‘My boss is getting richer, but I’m not.’ And so the public saw our fight as representative of theirs. They said, ‘Yeah, these people are getting screwed, and they’re standing up for what they want.’”

Whether it was Disney CEO Bob Iger claiming that the writers’ demands were “just not realistic” and “dangerous,” AMPTP president Carol Lombardini reportedly saying that “writers are lucky to have term employment,” or an anonymous studio executive telling Deadline that “the endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” the people running showbiz seemed, at best, hopelessly out of touch. “Whereas a previous age, they could have fucked with us and nobody would’ve batted an eye,” Conover says, “they so much as wiggled a finger and the entire country jumped down their throats and supported us. You can’t expect that every time you’re waging a labor struggle, but certainly we had the wind at our backs.”

Conover spent the year doing interviews to explain the WGA’s fight. A stand-up comedian by trade, he paid his bills in 2023 by performing at clubs across America. “I’d be touring in Batavia, Illinois, and I’d be walking down the street and people would honk their horns and stick their heads out of the window and yell, ‘We’re with you!’ I would open my sets by saying, ‘Hey, you may have heard I’m on strike,’ because so many people knew me from that. … And when I would say that, I would get a 60-second-long applause break because people were so on board with it. Again, this is suburban Illinois.”

Working in Hollywood means dealing with a nauseatingly high level of uncertainty. Studios often treat projects like they’re disposable, tossing them aside after years of development.

In 2023, writer Samy Burch was supposed to have two movies come out. May December, released in theaters and on Netflix in November, is one of them. In director Todd Haynes’s gasp-inducing satire, Natalie Portman plays an actress who ingratiates herself with a woman (Julianne Moore) she’s preparing to play: a tabloid curiosity who became infamous two decades prior for having sex with a 13-year-old boy, whom she later marries after serving time in prison. Burch and her now husband Alex Mechanik came up with the idea—which is loosely inspired by the disturbing real-life case of Mary Kay Letourneau—all the way back in 2018. “I’m always thinking about these tabloid cases because not only were they sort of fundamental to me as a child, but also we were in this period of reassessment and it feels like every single one is getting a miniseries or a movie,” Burch says. “And I think that’s interesting, and I question if it’s helpful.”

Burch spent the early part of 2019 writing May December, her first feature-length film. She eventually passed the screenplay to producer Alex Plapinger, who that year helped her set up with her current managers. From there, the script made it into the hands of Will Ferrell’s producing partner Jessica Elbaum. “She just totally got the potential of what it was,” Burch says. Burch incorporated notes from Elbaum and Ferrell for a draft that was sent to Portman. “That was life-changing, obviously, when she said she wanted to play that part,” Burch says. “And then she sent the script herself to Todd Haynes.”

It was early in the pandemic, and Burch had been thinking a lot about Safe, Haynes’s 1995 film about a housewife, played by Moore, who develops a mysterious sensitivity to common chemicals. In January 2021, she had a Zoom call with Haynes and Portman. “There was a kinship and everyone was kind of interested in the same stuff in the script, and obviously that was very exciting,” Burch says. Soon after that, Haynes sent the script to Moore. May December was shot last fall in Savannah, Georgia, over just 23 days.

The movie is now getting Oscar buzz. So is Burch’s script. “Dream-come-true stuff,” she says.

But the story of Burch’s other 2023 movie isn’t quite as fairy-tale-like. In addition to helping her find management back in 2019, Plapinger also connected her to director Dave Green. A meeting over coffee led to Burch writing Coyote Vs. Acme, Green’s live-action–animated Looney Tunes hybrid starring Will Forte and John Cena. The Wile E. Coyote–centered comedy was filmed, completed, and scheduled to hit theaters in summer 2023. But last year, Warner Bros. Discovery announced that Barbie would be taking over its July 21 release date. And this November, in the wake of the strikes and about a week before the release of May December, news broke that the studio would be shelving Coyote Vs. Acme completely for a reported $30 million tax write-off.

The extreme cost-cutting measure came two months after Warner Bros. reportedly stated in an SEC filing that the strikes would cost the company between $300 and $500 million, reducing its earnings to a paltry amount: between $10.5 and $11 billion. While helping prolong the work stoppages, the studio decided to make up the deficit by axing a potentially profitable movie. It’s yet another reminder that even when you’re riding high in Hollywood, an anvil can come crashing down on your head.

Since negotiations are still ongoing, Burch couldn’t talk about Coyote Vs. Acme. But she did acknowledge the extreme ups and downs of 2023. “This has been a wild year,” she says. “I mean, it’s hard to even see clearly. I feel like I’m in the eye of the storm at the moment.”

Immediately, Warner Bros. Discovery’s decision to bury a comedy that, by multiple accounts, is quite clever, caused a backlash. “I don’t know how you see the movie and then go, ‘That couldn’t happen to me,’” director Brian Duffield, Green’s friend, told The Hollywood Reporter.

In reality, though, the move wasn’t all that surprising. This, after all, was the same studio that alienated Christopher Nolan, one of its most bankable filmmakers, so severely that he took Oppenheimer to Universal. It’s also the same studio that’s made a habit of trying to save money by mothballing completed movies: “When I look at the health of our company today, we needed to make those decisions,” CEO David Zaslav said in November. “And it took real courage.”

Coyote Vs. Acme is the third film, after Batgirl and Scoob! Holiday Haunt, that Warner Bros. has killed under Zaslav. But it’s the first that the company actually changed its mind about.

Less than a week after the Coyote Vs. Acme debacle made headlines, Warner Bros. reportedly decided to allow Green to shop his movie around to other studios. It hasn’t found a home yet, but the fact that it might is a sign that pressure from a strike-weary creative class works.

Audiences will now have to wait to see Coyote Vs. Acme, though the year’s box office receipts proved that there’s an appetite for unique popcorn flicks. The highest-grossing movie of the year globally was Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, a blockbuster that, as Keith Phipps put it in The Ringer, “is rooted in IP but can’t be easily mistaken for the fashion-doll equivalent of The Super Mario Bros. Movie or a Transformers sequel.” Hell, Oppenheimer, a three-plus-hour-long biopic, made almost $952 million, pulling in more than Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Fast X, and Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One.

“People are suffering from franchise fatigue,” David Hemingson says. Coming into 2023, the longtime TV writer and producer hoped that his first feature would find an audience amid the tentpoles. In The Holdovers, Paul Giamatti plays a dyspeptic teacher who gradually bonds with a student (Dominic Sessa in his big-screen debut) and the school’s grieving head cook (Randolph) over Christmas break at a New England boarding school. It started with a pilot Hemingson wrote about five years ago. “I gave it to my agent [Matt Solo], and he’s known as having the best taste and the worst bedside manner in Hollywood,” says Hemingson, who went to the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. “He read it and he was like, ‘Oh, I like it. It’s really emotionally resonant. It seems deeply personal.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, thanks.’ And he goes, ‘Of course I don’t know who’s going to make a prep school pilot set in 1980, so it’s basically useless.’”

Hemingson thought that the idea was dead. Then Solo remembered hearing that Alexander Payne had been thinking about making a prep school movie. While driving home from LAX one day, Hemingson’s phone rang. “I picked it up and a voice says, ‘David Hemingson, Alexander Payne,’” he recalls. “And I thought it was my buddy Bob fucking with me. So I almost told him to fuck off. Because Bob would call up and say, ‘David Hemingson, Francis Ford Coppola.’ And one time I believed it. So he engages me for about 45 seconds in conversation before he goes, ‘You’re an idiot, why would Coppola call you? I’m just wanting to see you and have a beer.’ So I thought I was getting pranked again.”

But Hemingson looked down at the screen and noticed an Omaha area code. “I realized that it was actually Alexander Payne,” he says. “And I said, ‘Are you really Alexander Payne?’ ‘Yeah, last time I checked.’ I said, ‘So why are you calling me?’”

Payne had read Hemingson’s pilot. But he didn’t want to make a TV show about prep school in 1980. He wanted to make a movie about prep school in 1970. “It’s about this sort of ocularly challenged kind of odiferous professor stuck over Christmas with these kids at a prep school,” Payne told him. “You seem to know the prep school thing very well.” Hemingson quickly explained why: He went to prep school for six years, and his dad was a teacher. “I remember it like the back of my hand,” Hemingson says. “It’s the most formative years of my life.”

Payne asked Hemingson to write a new script, which Hemingson agreed to before even hearing how much he’d get paid to do it. The screenplay was finished in 2020, Giamatti joined the cast in 2021, and Payne shot the movie in 2022.

“It made me spoiled because I was like, ‘This is what I want moving forward,’” Randolph says. She spent months perfecting a Boston accent for her part, working with Nicole Kidman’s dialect coach Thom Jones and watching interviews with Black Bostonians like Donna Summer for research. “Hopefully I can attract this kind of quality storytelling because there’s nothing antiquated about it,” Randolph adds. “You know what I mean? I just think it’s a skill and a reverence to the art form at large. A lot of stuff is fast food, and I’m not really into that.”

But in the weeks leading up to The Holdovers’ release, Randolph was striking—not being interviewed about a movie she loved. “I get it,” she says. “But that was hard. You’ve got to make certain sacrifices in order for people to take you seriously. And I guess it worked.”

“I’m WGA through and through, 27 years in the Guild,” Hemingson adds. “So I honored every single moment, and picketed consistently. I believe to this day that we did the right thing.”

When the well-reviewed The Holdovers was making the festival circuit this fall, it was strange for Hemingson. “My wife was saying to me, ‘So we’re not going to Telluride? So we’re not going to Toronto?’” he says. “And I’m like, ‘No.’ Friends of mine who weren’t in the Guild, from back East, from Hartford and New York, [said], ‘Why don’t you just fly to Telluride and sit in the back of the theater? Wear a fake mustache and glasses. And I was like, ‘I just don’t feel right.’ … It was weird, and stomach-churning, and necessary. I think I’m proud of my decision not to have promoted the film during the strike, and I stand by it. And [it was] brutal, because this thing is the love of my life.”

For Hollywood’s middle class, the final stretch of the strike was an emotional roller coaster. No one knew exactly how long it would last. “I was lucky because I had enough money to pay my rent for those months,” Burch says. She recalls hearing whispers of the stoppage going until February 2024. “I remember when it felt like it was going to end in August when there were all those talks,” she says. “And then the crash when it didn’t. What surprised me was the feeling of hopelessness. Of course, this is a labor dispute. They end.”

In September, the WGA and the AMPTP had a deal; 99 percent of Guild members who cast ballots voted to ratify the contract. SAG-AFTRA’s agreement came in early November; 78 percent of union members who cast ballots approved. “When it was announced, it was jubilation, and people just freaked out,” Conover says of the writers’ deal. “So happy. People went to Idle Hour and partied.” Alas, Conover couldn’t go to the bar—his girlfriend got COVID. “I was able to join the rest of the celebration later in the week,” Conover says. “A couple days later, we had a giant member meeting at the Palladium theater, and it was just one of the best experiences of my life. I mean, we had a 15-minute standing ovation.”

Burch was elated. “I’m so proud to be a member of WGA, and I’m thrilled at the result,” she says. “I’m happy for SAG. For me, it was very lucky. I mean, it was strike over and I got on a plane the next day, and we had our premiere at the New York Film Festival. So it’s been kind of like that.”

When she heard the SAG strike was over, Randolph was preparing a closet sale. “Me and my assistant were in my garage and in my attic going through clothes and she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, the strike is over,’” says the actress. “Immediately, my phone started blowing off the hook, and within less than 24 hours, we were doing a press tour. … I’ve been going nonstop ever since. But I’m so grateful. It feels good to be back in the swing of things. ”

Hemingson was also excited to start promoting The Holdovers. “We don’t see these movies in theaters anymore,” he says. “So asking people to go out and see something in a theater that is very different than Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania? You need some context for it. … Like I’ve said before, I’d pull a dogsled in the Iditarod for this movie.”

For Whipple, the end of the strike was bittersweet. Picketing had dominated her life for months. “It’s just a hard letdown because your whole schedule changes. Your whole life changes. Everything that you’ve built your life around shifts,” she says. “And I knew that the level of dedication that I was giving to the strike was not sustainable for my life long-term. And also, it was brutally hard and difficult and sad. It’s not like I wanted it to continue.”

As happy as Whipple was about the deal, she knew that it didn’t guarantee employment. Being a TV writer isn’t like being a factory worker. You can’t just go back to the assembly line. “Some people already had work lined up, and I don’t know what that was like,” Whipple says. “I didn’t. So I have had to go back to taking meetings and living in the uncertainty of, I don’t know when I’m going to get my next job. I don’t know. I believe that what we gained will affect me, but I don’t actually know if I’ll ever work under this contract. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to taste what I achieved. And that’s really weird. I think that it makes the financial devastation of going on strike harder because 80 percent of the people I know are still under immense financial pressure.”

At this point, things don’t seem to be getting any easier for people trying to make a living in the contracting entertainment industry. During the strikes, Warner Bros., Netflix, and Paramount all laid off chunks of their workforce. Studios suspended overall deals with creators, canceled TV shows, and shelved movies. All while playing hardball with the people who actually make all of their programming.

Nothing the WGA and SAG could do will ever prevent Hollywood callousness, but the unions’ collective action showed executives that continuing to devalue writers and actors comes at their own peril.

That’s why Whipple still has hope for the future. “What gave me peace about it during the strike was really making the agreement with myself that I wasn’t doing this for me,” she says. “That I was doing this for something much bigger than myself. For the idea of writing as a career, for the idea that artists deserve to be paid for the idea, that people deserve respect, and that workers deserve respect, and that labor is valuable. We can’t just be willing to let the yacht owners of the world continue to suck our blood forever. And so I still have to tell myself that that’s why it was worth it. And if it ends up being worth it for me, which I really hope it does, that’s gravy.”

When we spoke this fall, David Krumholtz said that he felt like the strike was absolutely worth it. He’s hoping to see more residuals for Numbers, and he’s looking forward to working more. Before Oppenheimer was released, he landed roles in a handful of TV series. He’s thankful Nolan came calling. “He kind of saved my ass, which was really nice,” Krumholtz says. The actor is happy he can talk about Oppenheimer now. “It’s not too late,” he says. “The movie still has quite a bit of life. It’s still trending on Twitter. There’s a good chance we’re going to win a lot of very wonderful accolades. I’m thrilled that I got to say anything about it. I mean, if I’d had a less substantial role, then perhaps people like you wouldn’t be asking me these questions.”

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