The Writers Guild of America ratified a landmark contract this month, ending the five-month strike that halted film and television productions during a summer of renewed energy in the labor movement.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, a 1992 Rutgers graduate, played a key role in the negotiations.
Cullen, who honed her writing skills at The Daily Targum, spent years as a reporter at TIME Magazine before pivoting to screenwriting on shows including Law & Order: SVU. She is the newly elected president of the Writers Guild of America, East, making her the first person of color and only the third woman to hold that position in the union’s long history.
Susan Schurman, a Distinguished Professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations and a renowned expert on Hollywood unions, interviewed Cullen for the latest episode of the school’s podcast, “A Third of Your Life.”
The following is an abridged transcript.
Schurman: Congratulations on a 99% member ratification of your new contract after the strike.
Cullen: Thank you. We are so proud, not surprised, but extremely proud. I've been telling people it feels like a fever dream. It's hard to even believe that we've survived it and now we're back at work because it really does feel like a lifetime.
Schurman: We were all amazed by the support that you received from the other unions. That has not always been the case.
Cullen: When we went in for our first day of in-person negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers, the AMPTP, there was this woman. She was tall and gorgeous. She looked like a movie star. And she was very polished. I thought, "Is she a studio executive? Who is she?” Then she took off her suit jacket and her arms were covered in tattoos, and one of them was of Jimmy Hoffa. She was the representative for the Teamsters. Lindsay Dougherty is her name and she is a star. She came in person, as well as Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the executive director of SAG-AFTRA National, to our caucus room to signal their unity and solidarity with us. [SAG-AFTRA’s own strike is continuing.]
Schurman: Clearly there's been a huge payoff. I want to start with what is getting, by far, the most attention. That is your language on artificial intelligence.
Cullen: What we got enshrined in this contract is that a writer has to be a human. That sounds ridiculous. It makes people laugh. But it is what we had to actually put in language. So even if the studio came up with an AI-generated idea or spat out a very bad script, they could not, as they were trying to do before negotiations, go to a screenwriter and say, "Take this [expletive] script and we'll pay you at the lower rate of a revision to make it into an actually producible script.” That cannot happen now.
Schurman: You also had a huge win on residuals.
Cullen: Television and screenwriters create a product. When it goes on to success and continues to make even more money for our studio employers, then we have traditionally received a small slice of their success. For instance, if a Law & Order episode is shown overseas, or if an episode replays on a cable network, you would receive a check in the mail months later. For writers and for actors, that’s absolutely lifesaving and career-sustaining.
But as television moved into streaming, the same formula for residuals did not follow. So you saw actors from Orange is the New Black – a massive, massive show for Netflix – posting photos of residual checks for $0.02, $0.03, a fraction of the cost of the stamp to send the check. We needed to change that formula. We got better residuals for streaming. We also got a formula for success so that if your show is a global hit, you see a bonus to reward that success.
Schurman: It sounds like most of the key things that you went in demanding, you got.
Cullen: We really did. They told us “never” on so many of our demands. There were so many “nevers” that we flipped in this negotiation. What I dearly hope is that our union brothers and sisters and other entertainment unions will take these wins and run with it in their own contracts.
Listen to the entire, 40-minute interview or search for “A Third of Your Life” on your favorite podcast platform.