As Strike Continues, Writers Turn Focus to Ryan Murphy’s Productions

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By Ketrin Agustine

Even as other movie and television projects have paused their work during the weekslong stoppage, “American Horror Story” has continued.

As the Hollywood writers’ strike has pressed on for the past 10 weeks, the vast majority of movie and television productions from New York to Los Angeles have gone on pause. Some have been all but forced to suspend work because of union picketing and crew members’ refusal to cross the picket lines. In other instances, showrunners have decided to stop their work out of solidarity.

But more than two months into the work stoppage, a few outliers remain, including “American Horror Story,” the series led by Ryan Murphy, a showrunner who is one of Hollywood’s big-name producers.

Last week, members of the Writers Guild of America, and their allies from other unions, trained their focus on Murphy’s show as dozens of union members picketed for hours outside Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, one of several locations across New York where production of the show is continuing.

Some dressed as Vikings. One wore a cat mask. They carried signs that decried “horror wages” and an unfolding “horror show,” as they marched in front of the studio’s red front awning to the sound of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and the theme song to “The Addams Family.”

If all picketing is animated by grievances, this one also had something of an individualized tint in part because Murphy, in addition to being the showrunner on the acclaimed and long-running anthology series, is also a member of the Writers Guild.

“He’s a member and it just feels like keeping these things up and running is counterproductive to our overall mission,” T Cooper, a strike captain, said of Murphy.

“We just want a fair deal,” Cooper added. And the only way to get the studios “to do that is to shut down productions.”

Union members said they had hoped that Murphy would follow the lead of other showrunners sympathetic to their cause who have halted their productions, understanding that in so doing, they could potentially help bring the major studios back to the bargaining table.

Some picketers said they were disappointed that the production in Queens is being overseen by Ryan Murphy, the high-profile showrunner, who is himself a member of the writers’ union.Ramona Rosales for The New York Times

Murphy has not commented on his reasoning for moving forward with production and could not be reached to respond to questions about the picketers’ concerns. His listed publicists did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

The union has not done much to stir the pot specifically against Murphy and has focused its concerns on the continuing work being done on the show. He is among the high-profile showrunners who have donated during the strike to the Entertainment Community Fund, which provides grants to those working in film, TV and other disciplines. Murphy is not known to be working in his capacity as a writer during the strike, and union officials said he is within his rights to continue working as a director and producer.

In interviews, several union members said they did not hold animus toward Murphy, who is poised to move to the Walt Disney Company, from Netflix, where he signed on several years ago as part of a $300 million deal. Disney owns the FX cable channel, which is home to his “American Horror Story” franchise, which began airing in 2011.

“We’re not here in protest of Ryan Murphy, the guy, we’re here in protest of production happening without writers and while writers are on strike,” said Josh Gondelman, a member of WGA-East’s leadership, who was out picketing on Thursday.

The Writers Guild had summoned its members to a so-called Horror/Fantasy Theme Day in Queens as the writers’ strike entered its third month. The East and West branches of the W.G.A., which represents roughly 11,500 writers of TV and film, have been locked in a dispute with the major Hollywood studios over compensation and many other issues raised in the era of streaming.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of Hollywood companies, has said that its contract offer includes “generous increases in compensation for writers.”

Union members and officials say that with the help of crew members who have refused to cross picket lines, most film and TV productions have shut down or have been temporarily suspended. The Max series “The Penguin,” “Daredevil: Born Again” on Disney+, and the Netflix series “Zero Day” are among the many shows that have been affected, union officials said.

The work stoppage has now gone on for more than two months.Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
Organizers had asked union members to wear costumes that went along with a horror or fantasy theme, in keeping with the genre of the “American Horror Story” production they hope will soon pause. Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Sarah Montana, a screenwriter and a strike and picket captain, estimated that union members have been picketing the dwindling number of shows and movies in production at least once a week since the strike began.

“Writing doesn’t stop with the script,” she said. “It’s the tiny choices and large choices you make on a set that can change the character, that can change the arc of the story. So a lot of showrunners from the jump, and even a couple of weeks in, said, ‘We’re going to shut down production because writing is writing.’”

“I would say that the majority of showrunners have been in enormous solidarity,” she added. And as such, “it is disheartening to see a production continue” because “it’s not in the spirit of what we’re fighting for.”

Union members and officials said there were at least three Murphy shows still in production at different locations in the New York metro area: the original “American Horror Story” and two spinoffs. The continuing work on “American Horror Story” has drawn particular attention in part because Kim Kardashian tweeted in June about being on the set.

Actors, too, could soon find themselves on the picket lines. The union representing some 160,000 television and movie actors, known as SAG-AFTRA, has extended its contract negotiations with the major Hollywood studios and streaming services through July 12. The union’s current deal had been set to expire at the end of June. And although the extension offered a brief reprieve, a scenario in which both the actors’ and writers’ unions are on strike at the same time would essentially shut Hollywood down.

As the writers’ strike enters its third month with no apparent end in sight, Gondelman, the WGA-East leadership member, said that broadly speaking, “there’s an enormous amount of resolve to get a deal that is fair and that preserves writing for TV and film as a sustainable career — and that offer is just not on the table.”

“I have not heard a single member,” he said, “that’s like, ‘Maybe we should go back and take their garbage offer.’”


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