Joining the picket line

Nathan Steele

Custer can hardly seem further removed from the bright lights and intricate sets of Hollywood entertainment, but as small towns tend to reveal, it is a small world.  In fact, Custer native, Anne Cofell Saunders is right in the middle of the latest Hollywood hubbub as she is actively involved in the Writers Guild of America strike and has been on the picket lines often in hopes that the strike will end soon so she and other professionals in the industry can get back to work—with fair wages and protections from controversial technology like Artifical Intelligence, for example.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) has been on strike since May 2, and since July 14, the strike has coincided with the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strike. This is the first time since 1960 that two Hollywood labor unions are striking simultaneously. Weeks prior to the strike, over 97 percent of WGA members voted in favor of a strike if they failed to make an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents major studios like  Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. Members also include television networks like ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC and streaming services including Amazon, Apple TV+ and Netflix.
WGA seeks protection and compensation for writers in the face of Artificial Intelligence (AI), streaming and growing wage gaps between Hollywood elite and the others striving to make a steady, reliable and fair income in the industry.
Saunders, the daughter of Custer residents Loren and Eileen Cofell, grew up in Custer and attended Custer High School, where she first got into writing by writing poetry and plays.
Her family homesteaded in the area and had a ranch near Hermosa.
From Custer, she took her love of writing to Chicago, where she attended college at Northwestern University and continued writing. Then, after backpacking around the world, she went to graduate school at Ohio University, where she studied playwriting before heading to New York to work as a playwright.
“But writing plays in New York didn’t pay well enough for me to survive,” said Saunders
So, in 2000 she packed up and moved to L.A., where she got started in the TV industry after she got a job as a production assistant.
Her first writing job came with the FOX series “24.” She got her first freelance script with that show in 2004 and has been working as a writer, producer and showrunner in TV ever since.
In 2020, as she and her husband could work remotely, they bought the house she grew up in and now they continue to split their time between Custer and LA. In 2020, she worked virtually on set in Toronto for “Star Trek Discovery” from her home in Custer.
Saunders said she is grateful to have grown up and went to school in Custer and appreciates having the ability to pass her love of the area to her children. She says that in Custer, her kids can experience the freedom of walking themselves down the street to Dairy Queen or go out for a hike—things not as safe or accessible in LA.
“We love it here,” said Saunders. “I’m proud to say I’m from Custer, from South Dakota and proud to continue to come back and live here in the summers and when I can.  I want my kids to not just be city kids, to get to experience a childhood a bit like I did.”
Saunders says that her childhood in Custer has “absolutely” prepared her for her life as a writer in LA. Making a living in the Hollywood entertainment industry is not easy, said Saunders. Neither was it for her great-great-grandparents who settled South Dakota, and Saunders says she reminds herself of that when things get tough.
“I always carry that with me,” said Saunders, who said that thinking of them gives her strength when things get tough, like during a strike, for example.
Now, back in LA, she and countless others in her industry can’t work. In fact, global television and film is 95 percent down, said Saunders.
“The whole town is shut down,” she said.
Although, she would like to get back to work, Saunders believes in the power these strikes have to improve labor conditions. She was a writer and producer during the  2007-08 writers’ strike and was one of those 97 percent of WGA members who voted in favor of this current strike.
“Striking also works.  We got what we needed in 2007, which was WGA union coverage for writers in streaming and residuals for streaming. Thank God that happened because streaming exploded, and now here we are,” said Saunders.
Saunders has seen this strike coming for a while, though, and took on multiple jobs while financially planning before she was unable to work.
“My husband and I started planning for it in January...This strike was inevitable because we didn’t strike during COVID when we should have,” said Saunders. She says many issues, like writer pay in the age of streaming, needed to be addressed then but never were.
Writers’ pay is set up to be more compatible with traditional TV viewing, which has now gone to the wayside as streaming has begun to dominate. With traditional TV, there were more episodes per season, and since writers are paid per episode, many now earn less when a streaming show orders less episodes in a season.
“Imagine you make $4,000 an episode.  You work on 22 episodes a year and make $88,000 a year.  Now, with streaming, streamers will pay you $4,000 an episode but only order eight episodes, and they still take a year to make.  Now you’re making $32,000 a year,” said Saunders.
That’s not an exact example, said Saunders, but “illustrates the issue and the challenges of working in streaming rather than a show with a longer order.” She said that those big famous actors and writers that usually come to mind at the mention of  “Hollywood” are “basically the top 1 percent of the industry.”
“Feature writers need to be paid weekly—they often only get paid once a year or less,” said Saunders.
She said there also needs to be a required writer’s room size, and that it should be required to have writers and producers on set.
“Right now, you can’t take a writing job in streaming without a ‘day job’ to go back to when it ends. TV writing isn’t the steady work it used to be. That needs to be changed,” said Saunders.
These changes in the industry don’t just affect writers, though. She explained that to save money, “streamers,” the streaming companies, have begun to cut out more jobs by asking showrunners to hire fewer writers for shorter lengths of time. She said this means showrunners have more work to do that other producers used to do, and in turn, is “taking jobs away from upper- and mid-level producers.”
When she first started out in writing rooms, she said there would often be between six and a dozen other writers. Now, there are two or three. In fact, “mini rooms” have become more popular, where there are few writers working for a shorter period of time.
Another threat to those jobs, and one of the biggest issues to be negotiated for the strikes to end is the role of AI in the industry.
“That’s an existential crisis that affects everybody, not just people in the entertainment industry,” said Saunders, calling it a “threat to all creative people.”
She said AI can’t just learn how to write about human experiences—things like giving birth, raising a child, grieving a loss—authentically, and shouldn’t be expected to.
“We don’t want to train AI to take our jobs,” said Saunders.
She says she’s sure there are plenty of ways to use AI in the industry but that “AI should be used as a tool” rather than as a boss.
“Technology changes fast. TV production changes fast.  The Guild is asking for contract changes that reflect the changing times,” said Saunders. She says these contract changes will allow TV and feature writing “to continue to be an appealing, family-sustaining career option.”
“Streamers have been changing the way things are done in TV to save money—taking away a lot of jobs,” said Saunders.
These same issues that affect the writers also affect the actors, who are also paid per episode, said Saunders. In fact, everyone working in the industry is affected by the inability of the AMPTP and the unions to reach a deal.
“Everyone working jobs related to TV is also out of work. So my friends, basically my big LA TV and film family is out of work, and I think about that every day. I think about how other unions are affected every day. Making TV is a team effort, and I am worried about this team, this family,” said Saunders.
Since the strike began, Saunders has seen its “huge effects” on workers. People have had to sell their houses or cars, wait tables and move in with others to make rent, share childcare, pull their kids out of private school and even rely on the strike line for a meal.
“Young families with babies seem to be struggling the most, based on folks I’ve talked to,” said Saunders.
She said she is “fortunate to have a long-established career” and has used some of that good fortune to assist others through the strike and has participated and helped to organize pickets.
She’s been organizing pickets and picketing for shows she’s written for, like “The Boys” and “Battlestar Galactica.” She’s also picketing with Women in Genre, a group that encourages women to write in genres like sci-fi or horror, where women are often not as represented in writers’ rooms. When Saunders began TV writing, she was often the only woman writer.
Saunders has also helped organize and provide meals at pickets.
“For some writers, they count on that free breakfast and lunch. We can’t work. Also, I can’t work. At all.
“[I] am doing everything I can to donate to strike funds, to picket, to be seen out on the line supporting our Guild, in the hopes that the strike will end soon,” said Saunders.
When the strike ends, Saunders has some exciting work to get back to. One, is a TV adaptation of the book “From Blood and Ash.”
“I’m excited to jump back into that,” said Saunders.
Another project is personal to Saunders—the pilot she is writing for a series that takes place on a ranch in South Dakota. She says it’s a dream of hers to bring business to South Dakota and to shoot a series here. She says it’s “important to tell stories about South Dakota” because not a lot of people are.


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