Writers strike hits home for Indigenous TV shows, films

Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT

It’s going to be a long hot summer for the striking writers of television and films.

A nationwide strike by the Writers Guild of America over working conditions and pay is already raising questions about how long Native-centric productions such as “Reservation Dogs,” “Dark Winds” and “Rez Ball” can continue if the strike goes on for months.


Diné writer Sierra Ornelas is among those who have been on the picket line. She was co-creator of the series, “Rutherford Falls,” and oversaw a writers’ room that included four other Indigenous writers – Tazbah Chavez, Tai Leclaire, Jana Schmieding and Bobby Wilson.

Having five Indigenous writers for a series is believed to have been a first for a major television production, and her deal with Universal Television was renewed in August 2021.

“We really want to ensure the future of this job, the future of this business for the writers coming up,” Ornelas told ICT by phone from Los Angeles about the decision to go on strike.

“Television is a writer’s medium. I think that over the last few years our power has been taken from us. And I’ve been writing for television for 10 years, and I’ve seen over time the budgets have gotten smaller for writers. The ability for a writer to be on set or to stay on through the entire production is less.”

Sierra Teller Ornelas, shown here in 2021,  is a television writer and was writer/producer of “Rutherford Falls,” a popular series on the Peacock streaming service. She joined other members of the Writers Guild of America in going on strike May 2, 2023, for better working conditions and pay. (Photo by Reginald Cunningham via AP)

With the exception of late-night shows, which went off the air immediately, viewers may not notice anything amiss for a while, since networks and streaming services have plenty of banked content.

Production has already wrapped up for the upcoming new seasons of “Reservation Dogs” and “Dark Winds,” with “Reservation Dogs” set to open Season 3 starting Aug. 2 on Hulu and “Dark Winds” returning to AMC and AMCPlus in July.

“Rez Ball,” a new film about basketball backed by LeBron James, is set to be filmed this summer in New Mexico.

Reality shows, news programs and some of the scripted series made by overseas companies are unaffected by the strike, and most of the movies scheduled for release this year are past the writing stage.

Ornelas, however, said the strike could last months and the delays will pile up, but she believes the writers are making fair demands.

“Being a writer in television right now has changed drastically over the last five years,” Ornelas said. “Ironically, that’s been the years where more Native writers than ever have been staffed for television. It’s pretty ironic; they started letting brown and Black people make television right when they decided to stop paying us.”

‘Until something changes’

The Writers Guild of America, which represents 11,500 screenwriters, went out on strike May 2, with writers for studios, streaming services and networks walking picket lines coast-to-coast.

It looks to be several months before a new deal is made with the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers, and is likely to affect the Emmy Awards, scheduled for Sept. 18, and possibly delay the fall TV season.

The WGA has vowed to stay on with the strike for as long as it takes.

“The first week has shown, I think, just how committed and fervent writers’ feelings are about all of this,” Chris Keyser, a chair of the WGA negotiating committee, said in an interview with The New York Times. “They’re going to stay out until something changes, because they can’t afford not to.”

The writers want more money and more job security, especially regarding residual payments they get from streaming services, which have expanded to markets overseas. Prior to streaming, writers, directors, actors, and other creatives received residual payments whenever a show was licensed for syndication, for an international deal or for DVD sales.

Now that the streaming era is changing rapidly and DVD sales have slowed, the big streaming companies are reluctant to license their hit series, allowing them to keep subscribers and cut off those who benefited from the outside distribution.

The WGA has put forth proposals for mandatory staffing and employment guarantees. In what is called a miniroom, studios hire a group of writers to develop a series and write a few sample scripts in a few months. But by not officially ordering the series, the studios pay writers less than if they were in a traditional contract for a series.

With just a two- or three-month job, writers are then immediately looking for the next job if the show doesn’t get picked up. If a show does get optioned, fewer writers are hired since the outline and several scripts have already been written.

Writers also want companies to agree to guarantee that artificial intelligence will not take away from writers’ credits and compensation.

The strike has even caught the attention of President Joe Biden. During a White House screening for the film, “American Born Chinese,” which features Native Hawaiians, Biden called for the major studios to come up with a “fair deal” for striking writers during the event honoring Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

“Nights like these are a reminder of the power of stories, and the importance of treating storytellers with dignity, respect and the value they deserve,” Biden told CNN. “We need the writers, and all the workers, and everyone involved, to tell the stories of our nation and the stories of all of us.”

‘We’re not messing around’

Ornelas said she learned on the job, and wants to preserve that right for up-and-coming writers.

“I went to every production meeting, I was on set every day of my episode, and sometimes for other people’s episodes,” she said. “Coming from a weaver family, [Ornelas’ mother is award-winning Grey Hills Navajo weaver Barbara Teller Ornelas] you learn from your elders. You learn from the people who came before you how to do the job, so that you can one day teach younger people how to do the job.”

She continued, “What’s been happening is due to budget cuts, writers have not been allowed to learn on set how to do production, how to become showrunners, which is the job that I have. And so when and if they get their own shows, they’re going to be woefully unprepared for the job.”

The two sides are very far apart now, and Ornelas sees a long haul ahead.

“I hope that they come back to the table soon, make a deal with us,” she said. “I think that what we’re asking for is very fair. You see some of these CEOs of these companies making $250 million a year, which is half of the total amount that we’re asking for 12,000 writers.”

She said writers are a key component of a successful production.

“When you think about it, it all really starts with the writer,” she said. “The construction worker can’t build a set, the costume designer can’t pick the clothes. The actors can’t be cast until we fill up a blank page, until we write the scripts.”

She continued, “We’re dealing with big, streaming corporations and they’ve never had a great history of being kind to labor. But I do see a lot of solidarity, which has been amazing. We have the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, and the Teamsters behind us, as they are all experiencing the same problems.”

Pressure is building for the studios to negotiate, Ornelas said.

“Right now we’re trying to shut down productions and slow them down to get them back to the table,” she said. “I’ve been on the picket line and the mood is really enthusiastic. I think everyone that is there, they understand why we’re there. The union is more unified than it’s ever been. The strike authorization vote was almost 98 percent, the highest it’s ever been, the highest turnout.

“Everyone is really hungry to get a good deal and to really express to these studios that we are in business and that we’re not messing around.”

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