- Text by Molly Lipson
- Photography by Pacific Press Media Production Corp./Alamy Live News
The sky was a hazy orange, the air thick and malignant, the smell of burning overwhelming even indoors, the sun glowing, nuclear. New York City’s famous skyline was unrecognisable beneath the fog. Usually heaving sidewalks were peppered with just a few people, all masked-up and staring in disbelief at the apparent apocalypse that had descended upon the city.
Reports claimed that the city’s air quality was, for about 24 hours, the worst in the world. The smog was caused by massive wildfires in Canada that both devastated acres there and blew toxic air across vast swathes of North America. As Manhattan emptied and news reports showed scenes from the city reminiscent of Blade Runner, the fear of impending climate collapse was dragged stubbornly, unyielding and looming into the present.
Against this backdrop, two other major New York events were taking place – the Tribeca Film Festival and the ongoing WGA (Writers Guild of America) strikes. Having started back on May 1st, the strikes were in their sixth week when Tribeca kicked off, with TV and film writers withholding their labour to demand better pay, conditions and to raise concerns about the growing reliance on AI.
“We last left the [writer’s] room on May 1st, and the group of studios that are negotiating together have not called us back to the table since we walked away,” explains Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, the WGA East’s Vice President. “There were proposals that they did not even deign to comment on, and we can't go back until and unless they decide to negotiate with us on all of our proposals.”
WGA East covers New York City, where on Monday June 12, a huge group gathered outside Amazon’s offices in Manhattan to walk the picket line. For renowned screenwriter Tom Fontana, this strike marks his fourth. “I think this particular strike is the most impressive I've ever been a part of,” he says. “Not just because the membership is completely enthusiastic about what we're striking for, but all the other unions seem to be backing us.”
Showing up alongside WGA strikers were members of other entertainment unions like SAG-AFTRA (The Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), the actor’s union that has itself just voted in favour of strike action and is awaiting confirmation following negotiations, alongside non-entertainment groups like the union collective AFL-CIO (The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) and the UAW (United Auto Workers).
Takeuchi Cullen is also excited about this solidarity. “The membership is feeling tremendously energised and unified,” she says. “It's truly inspiring how the entire labour movement in the United States has been fired up by our strike, and they see themselves, I think, in our issues.”
According to Fontana, those issues are relatively simple: “These are not just a bunch of writers whining, this is about people having to earn a living, support their families, pay their rent or their mortgage, put food on their table. The corporations keep making more and more and more and more money, and they keep giving the people who earn the money and create the products that give them the money less and less.”
The Tribeca Film Festival is a huge annual event, one of the biggest film festivals in the world and features both high-profile and debut filmmakers, with a slant on social justice and equity. Festival organisers say that they’ve been in touch with WGA East and have made sure to run the festival in accordance with strike rules. This has mainly meant switching up one of their big pitching events called the Creators’ Market, which they hold annually to connect writers with industry insiders. This year, the event is running as a peer-to-peer workshop instead.
“While we stand in solidarity with the strike, the intention is that these creators do not lose precious time in, at the very least, continuing to perfect their project presentations or pitches,” explains programme organiser Jose Rodriguez. His colleague Liza Domnitz adds that they did this all in concert with the WGA. “We would send them drafts of our run of show and make sure that it aligned with everything that they're doing. We feel good that we have their sort of stamp of approval,” she says.
It would be unfair to completely upend a film festival that provides an opportunity for first-time filmmakers and indie films to show on the big screen in front of renowned audiences. Given that these films were already completed prior to the WGA declaring a strike, there’s no direct conflict with strike rules. However, the reality is that a festival like Tribeca only exists because of writers. Its own profit margins and clout – whether directly or indirectly– rely on the work of the same people who are currently on strike.
It seems that Tribeca could have taken more responsibility to make this clear and honour the WGA. Rodriguez and Domnitz emphasise that the festival’s co-founder Robert de Niro referenced the strikes in his opening speech, and the festival published a statement of support when the strike was declared. But words mean little without concrete action.
Given the levity of Tribeca’s response, it would have been powerful to have WGA members speak at every screening, especially at the big premieres which had extensive press coverage and high-profile audience members. If that was too difficult due to the demands on strikers, at the very least a Tribeca representative could have read out a statement at each screening. They could have scheduled an event – or multiple events – where WGA members could speak about the strike, their demands and how people can support them, or even organised regular visits to the picket line for Tribeca attendees. The scope is endless, yet imagination seemed to run dry.
Only one celebrity took a solid stance – comedian John Early, whose Netflix comedy special is premiering at the festival, issued a short statement to say he would not be attending nor undertaking any publicity in honour of the strikes. Other celebrities have showed up in different ways - Sex And The City actor and SAG-AFTRA member Evan Handler was in attendance on the Amazon picket line, snapping selfies and proudly wielding a solidarity placard. LA-based, he was in town to visit his daughter at university and to do some publicity for And Just Like That..., the SATC spin-off. He also stars in a film premiering at Tribeca, but didn’t fly in for that due to the smoke. “I picketed the air,” he jokes, but there is a serious connection between the strikes and the smog that deserves some attention. Namely, exploitation.
The Canadian wildfires were undeniably precipitated by climate collapse, in their scale, ferocity and early timing – or all the above. Climate breakdown is a physical process, but its root causes are socio-economic. We know this, yet it can be easy to forget when all we can see and feel is burning air. Exploitation of workers is the baseline of a capitalist system that prioritises profit over people, therefore leading to a world in which we extract and burn fossil fuels at the expense, mainly, of marginalised and racialised people. In both the development of the product and the results of its usage, it is these same people who are impacted first and worst.
Exploitation of low-paid writers to the benefit of studio bosses follows the same pattern, leaving the same people struggling to survive, whilst also putting so much on the line to strike for their rights. Frontline workers always face the brunt of capitalist elites and the WGA strikes have highlighted this by bringing so many different unions together. This is a fight for all working people, for all those whose product is exploited to the benefit of a small minority. There are differences between how this plays out in Hollywood and in the Global South, of course, but the structures that create, maintain and worsen working conditions, air quality and the overall collapse of civilisation as we know it, are the same.
The smoke was a terrifying portent, but one that we quickly forgot once it cleared from over our skies and moved onto other parts of the country. Whilst the WGA cancelled picket lines during the worst days of the smog, the festival continued despite everything. Given its foundation as a festival of social justice, created to revive the Tribeca area that was so devastated after 9/11, it could have been the perfect platform to truly stand in solidarity with strikers. Good intentions and supportive words help, but they won’t bring about change. Hope remains that those on strike right now – bringing such energy, dedication and solidarity to picket lines across the country – surely will.
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