The Charitable Foundations and Local Agencies Stepping in to Support Industry Members During the Writers Strike
When the Writers Guild strike began on May 2, it wasn’t just union members trying to anticipate what a months-long work stoppage might mean.
A number of industry and writer-adjacent organizations on both coasts had already begun discussions about the work stoppage’s potential impact in the weeks before negotiations between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers ended on May 1 without a deal. With the memory of the three months it took to reach a deal during the last Hollywood writers’ strike in 2007-2008 on the mind, industry and entertainment-adjacent organizations were on alert.
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The challenge, a few tell The Hollywood Reporter, wasn’t whether they’d respond, but to what needs, when and for how long alongside what the WGA was already offering its striking members.
As of last December, that was $20 million in strike funds, according to the union, with WGA West’s 2022 annual report noting over $19.7 million available for loans to members “adversely affected by the strike,” with an additional $250,000 marked for strike funds by WGA East’s 2021 report. (WGAW has a separate loan offering in collaboration with the Motion Picture and Television Fund.)
But a little over a week into the strike, the Inevitable Foundation — a nonprofit focused on breaking barriers in Hollywood for mid-level disabled writers — launched its own Emergency Relief Fund to support disabled writers through hardship grants. By their estimates, the community consists of around 100 writers, all part of the 25 percent of the U.S. population that is twice as likely to live in poverty and have a 28 percent higher cost of living average than those who are non-disabled.
In the month before the work stoppage, the organization identified how to serve this community best through a survey featuring more than 30 scribes with disabilities, 82 percent of whom are WGA members. Forty-five percent of respondents revealed they already have more than $50,000 in debt, 43 percent have less than three months of savings and 67 percent have six months or less.
Inevitable determined that money without strings is what their writers needed, which made unrestricted responsive cash grants versus loans more ideal, says Richie Siegel, co-founder of the foundation. The challenge was figuring out where to get the funding for an organization, like others in the industry, whose programs historically were partially supported by the studios.
“We’re effectively launching this by pulling from some internal funding and getting additional funding from our other philanthropic partners,” Siegel explains. “I think this will be a bit of an exploration for us in trying to figure out more of that individual donor side because all the studios are not going to fund this. They’re on the other side of the table, and so how do we meet the crisis at the level we need to while being more limited in terms of sources?”
Inevitable, meanwhile, secured tens of thousands within a month for its Emergency Relief Fund, which it announced just a day after the WGA and the Entertainment Community Fund, a national human services organization focused on supports the unique challenges of arts workers, revealed that they had raised $1.7 million for grants and bill support. That was with the help of leading donors J.J. Abrams, Greg Berlanti, Adam McKay, Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, Mike Schur and John Wells.
(Like Inevitable Foundation’s relief fund, the Entertainment Community Fund offers emergency assistance to those who meet need-based and other requirements regardless of union affiliation, though EFC’s solidarity funding is designed to support more than just writers.)
“This is a time for our entire industry to band together,” Chris Keyser, WGA negotiating committee co-chair said in a statement, adding the EFC grants “will provide relief to our fellow film and TV workers who most need it.”
Due to the uncertain length of the work stoppage, funding is both a short and long-term issue for most granting and support organizations, with Siegel telling THR ahead of the fund’s launch that Inevitable doesn’t “have, at this point, a six-month commitment that will allow us to power through.”
It is, however, looking for ways to not only do more grant rounds, but for those amounts to grow, which may be more possible in the week since launch thanks to recent donations from high profile industry members like Damon Lindelof, Julie Plec, Hart Hanson, Rachel Bloom, Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz, Ashley Lyle, Jamie Turner, Mike Royce, Erika Lippoldt and Craig Thomas.
“This is us being like, we got to start somewhere,” Siegel says.
Humanitas similarly focused on quick action, according to Michelle Franke, executive director of the nonprofit behind the Humanitas Prize and Groceries for Writers, fueling the three-person operation’s initial snack and supply drops at Fox and Amazon picket-lines. “It was really clear to me just how grateful the captains were,” she says of those initial tabling donations. “And it made me think about how Humanitas could continue our short term efforts.”
The answer came when a board member for the nonprofit “made a really generous donation to keep snacks and supplies moving,” she says. Franke first took some of those funds to Costco to create care packages of fruit, coffee, water, wipes, sunscreen and ibuprofen for those picketing at Sony, Paramount and Netflix. But the donation was so large, she considered whether she could spend “as much money as we had received only on snacks.”
So they pivoted to something more substantial for individuals and families at home: $100 grocery cards. “Our goal was to quickly support early career folks,” Franke explains. “We spend a lot of time in conversation with people at the start of their careers, so we have a very clear idea of the struggles that they face through early staffing positions and also with feature writers.”
Humanitas worked with WGA to confirm that it was operating in accordance with strike rules and then determined eligibility as based solely on proof of union membership to avoid “having to judge who was in greater need” and get funds dispersed fast. They also took a note from the COVID response, building the group’s simple application out in a weekend after the pandemic taught her that people in “tough situations don’t have a ton of time or emotional capacity for an extensive application.”
The organization has delivered 358 grocery cards to date, raising $66,000 from 133 donors, including Shonda Rhimes, Peter Ramsey, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Matthew Fogel, Dennis Lehane and Elizabeth Meriwether. And while many other efforts are focused on financial impact of the strike, Humanitas’ choice to concentrate on donations tied to food security speaks to its mission and program work of “supporting film and TV writers who are exploring the human condition in their work.”
“Forty-three percent of these requests are coming from staff writers. Eighteen percent are coming from feature writers,” Franke says of the application data. “We are seeing people in these lower positions — in television, especially, like staff writers, assistants who got into the guild writing freelance episodes of television — who are in very difficult situations. There are folks who have in our ‘Would you like to tell us anything else?’ section shared some of their stories, and some are just truly heartbreaking — writers on food stamps.”
On Tuesday, union writer and grocery card recipient Matthew Rasmussen underscored the importance of food at home and on the lines for writers who will have to choose between eating, healthcare and housing as the strike continues on. “I realized today that one of many reasons I show up to picket every day is food security,” he tweeted. They have food for me, food I’ve come to rely on. So when us writers say we’re fighting for our lives, believe us.”
Another group whose work and response was informed by their COVID experiences is the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment in New York, who will host a webinar to help those affected by the strike across the city’s entertainment industries. The effort came together during the first week of the strike, after it became clear from reports that it would likely not conclude quickly.
Working with the chairs of the TV/Film Production Council and other stakeholders, who are in regular communication with MOME as they all monitor developments around the strike, the office leaned into its connections within the industry and with other local agencies — which were strengthened during and around the pandemic and recovery.
From there, MOME Commissioner Anne del Castillo says the team was able to draw on those resources quickly to pull together the event, which is slated to take place over Zoom on Friday, May 19 at 1 p.m. ET (registration for the event is required). Castillo says there’s already been a “strong, positive response in terms of sign-ups, proving the office’s “instincts to be proactive and assemble this webinar quickly were correct” and “that people would be looking for this information.”
It’s a move outside the bounds of many media and entertainment offices, which tend to focus primarily on filming and production support like permitting. But under Castillo, MOME has taken a broader approach, focusing on promoting, strengthening and growing the city’s creative sectors that produce $150 billion in economic activity.
The webinar is aimed at any and all workers affected by the strike and will feature representatives from the New York State Department of Labor, the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection and Small Business Services, as well as The Entertainment Community Fund and The Freelancers Hub. All will be on hand to offer an array of resources that take a wholistic approach to supporting workers through the strike and will, among other things, help attendees access unemployment and health benefits, small grants, employment services, as well as access to mental health support and financial wellness tools.
“The film and TV industry contributes $82 billion to New York’s economy, 6.5 percent of the city’s GDP,” Castillo says. “So when we’re thinking about who is impacted by the strike and production slowdowns, it’s not just the production crews and sound stages, but workers in support businesses such as dry cleaners, florists, costumers, lumberyards, coffee shops, event planners and retail shops.”
“We don’t have any indication how long it will last,” Castillo adds. “Our goal is to help New Yorkers be as prepared as possible. This is New York City working for New Yorkers.”
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