Justin Simien

‘It Feels Bloodbathy:’ Justin Simien Defends the Staffers Who Won’t Survive the Writers Strike

On Friday, “Dear White People” creator Justin Simien revealed that he is one of many writer-producers or showrunners who saw their overall deals with the studios suspended amid the ongoing writers strike. But in a conversation with IndieWire, Simien explained that production companies like his Culture Machine depend on such deals to support their staffs and continue keeping the lights on.

And he’s not alone. Letters suspending such deals started arriving from all the major studios back on May 7, about a week after the strike began, and only a handful who have shows in active production are still getting paid. It’s meant a lot of writers in Simien’s position have quietly had to make tough choices, furloughing or laying off staff and finding other ways to cut costs.

Instead of going down that road, Simien launched a GoFundMe to support his Culture Machine staff, and it’s already raised over $47,000 of its $60,000 goal. The money will go to paying the salaries of his six staffers, none of whom are WGA members, as well as rent on their office space, for the remainder of the summer. Any additional money raised will be put into a writers fund to help others in a similar situation.

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You may recall that Simien started his career by crowdfunding his debut film from 2014, “Dear White People,” a movie that launched the careers of Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, and Teyonah Parris before it later became the hit Netflix series. Just as back then, Simien told IndieWire he felt hopeless and that the best move was to make a video that could explain to people the situation.

“I love my team, I feel like what we’re doing is really special, and I didn’t want to turn to a majority Black, queer staff and say, ‘Thanks for coming. So glad you believed in the Hollywood dream, go back home.’ I didn’t know how to do that as the next step, even though that was the next step that everyone was advising me to do,” Simien told IndieWire. “I’m not proud to beg. I feel very vulnerable and nauseous doing it, but I believe in what I’m doing, and I’m trying to figure out how to do Hollywood my way, a different way.”

Simien and Culture Machine’s overall deal was with Paramount TV, where they had several projects in development, including a few that had just been announced and some that weren’t, and he says his producer was even still having casting meetings with the studio up until their deal was suspended. The fear is that in the near future, many overall deals might be outright terminated.

But there’s a bigger picture at stake, which is that the underrepresented individuals just getting their foot in the door at a place like Culture Machine won’t be the ones to survive a prolonged writers strike, especially if some of these overall deals don’t come back.

“There are people who just got here that are going to turn around and go back home and never come back. Because what a devastating entry into this business this would be and this is to people. That’s what really scares me,” he said, adding that this is exactly what happened during the pandemic. “Who’s eventually going to be able to hang in there long enough to be at that table? I feel like that table won’t be filled with people that look like me anymore. Not that it was to begin with, but it literally feels like the gains we’ve made in the industry, the past five years and six years, remarkable though they be, a lot of that gets wiped away. It gets wiped away in terms of people the general public doesn’t know.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

IndieWire: What has been happening since you learned of the deal’s suspension on May 7, and what led you to launch the GoFundMe?

Justin Simien: We’ve been in triage mode. That’s just the reality. Looking around at our peers, seeing what other people were doing, and the options were layoffs, furlough. In my case, it’s a small team, people of color, queer folks, and young people that really just came into my orbit because I was able to hire them through the financing of the overall deal. I hired a president of my company, Kyle Larson, and I moved into an office space, all because those are parts of the deal. If we do a deal with you, we will pay for a president to run your company, we will pay for an office space, and that allows me to stretch my dollars and beef up my staff so that I can be developing TV while shooting “Haunted Mansion,” and I’m also developing another feature or writing my own TV series. I’m able to do more with more folks. Otherwise I of course wouldn’t have brought on anybody else.

Is this complicated even further knowing you have a movie, “Haunted Mansion,” coming out really soon?

Extremely! Extremely complicated. I’m so proud of everything I’ve done, and I don’t want everything to get eroded or erased or go out like that, but at the same time, I’m kind of struggling here.

I know it doesn’t fit the vision that people think of what goes on in Hollywood and what a “successful” director-writer’s life is supposed to look and how it’s put together, and maybe that’s because it didn’t have to be put together in this way. But I didn’t get rich off “Dear White People” at all. I really didn’t make a ton of money making that show, and the money I’ve made that has paid my bills and my rent and then eventually my office rent and my kids, staff’s rent, that came from overall deals. I didn’t get that from writing and directing and producing. I literally don’t know how else to put it together. I’m in the 2013 playbook at this point.

I think those economics would surprise most people, even those who have been following the strike. What is it that people have to understand about why these dollars don’t stretch as far as one would think?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say for me and a lot of my peers and friends, the overall deals function as make-goods. Especially in the streaming era, at least it did for me. It was pretty clear that what I was making as a creator-writer-director as “Dear White People” was not really up to par to other people in that position. We’re talking about a “hit TV show,” and we’re in an industry where (for) the first one you take the hit on the chin because of the exposure that you get and the career you’re able to have with the hopes you can build upon that.

This is industry standard, or at least how I understood it at the time in 2015-16 when I was starting the show. And you sign the contract and you say yes because it’s the only time in my life that anyone has ever offered me anything to make something. It’s not until you get into it that you realize my deal is really different with the deals who are making shows on “traditional television,” even though they’re sort of all the same. I’m under this internet deal that pays me upfront and doesn’t give me a backend, and doesn’t give me any transparency in terms of the numbers. I just have to accept this many people watched or didn’t watch, this is the budget you’re getting this year.

So my first overall deal was to get me into something that felt respectable, to be honest with you. To be doing as much work as I was doing at the time, and when “Dear White People” finished, it was a chance to strike a new overall deal to not only maintain my life, pay my own rent and live, all that good stuff, but to expand the operation a bit.

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, front, from left: Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon P Bell, 2014. ©Roadside Attractions/courtesy Everett Collection
Justin Simien’s debut film “Dear White People” (2014)©Roadside Attractions/Courtesy Everett C / Everett Collection

One of the things I felt was happening on the set of “Dear White People” is we were actually having success doing that lofty crazy thing that I would talk about and dream about, but we were doing it. We were creating an environment where artists of color were coming and doing things they weren’t able to do on other shows. We were able to make pretty significant discoveries in terms of talent on that series. And I thought, what if that was my business? What if I can do that at scale? That was the thing that made me want to go out and keep expanding, so it wasn’t just me in a cave.

I think it’s admirable that any Black artists that are able to make the space to do their own work, but I think most of us, especially my generation that had to break in during the streaming era, there’s a real sense that we want to be part of some kind of systemic change. So it was in my DNA to expand, to help other writers do what I was able to do with “Dear White People” and recognize I squeezed through a very specific window in time.  

Are you concerned that the overall deals could be outright terminated? I know there’s precedent for that during the last strike in 2007-08. What is the feeling among your peers, and what would be your situation then?

It’s definitely worse than it was the last time around. The conventional wisdom is that a force majeure could be used as an excuse or a valid reason, depending on who you talk to, for the networks and studios to clear out the deals that aren’t making them money. Everyone knew that was in the air. It happened a few months into the last strike, and it happened to a select group of people.

This situation was different. This was like one week into the strike, and in fact the letter that we got was backdated. It felt pre-meditated. I don’t know if it was, but it felt like they were ready to go. Our feeling was, if we’re getting suspended a week in, with projects in development, some things that we have literally just announced, why wouldn’t they terminate us?

Everywhere you look, someone’s show is getting pulled down off something or getting canceled outright. It feels bloodbath-y Red Wedding out there. I don’t think anyone expected that move to come that quickly, and that really took us by surprise and made us feel like, we better be ready for whatever is next. Let’s look at the soonest we could actually get terminated, what would our money look like in that case, and I know we’re not alone in thinking we could only make it a month or two. Maybe that’s the option, we go a couple of months, send everyone home and board up the windows. But in real time we’re just trying to react to the situation.

‘It Feels Bloodbathy Justin Simien Defends the Staffers Who Wont | SoxGame.info

What are the challenges among the haves and have-nots who are caught up in this strike? Are you observing other multi-hyphenates who have not had their deals suspended?

Pretty much everyone I know personally has had their deals suspended, but they don’t want to talk about it because they’ve had to make some really tough decisions in terms of their workforce, their staff, or in terms of their personal lives. In Hollywood, it doesn’t work to talk about how bad you have it, especially when you work in the so-called dream factory.

What I’m seeing is a lot of folks scared and not willing to talk about it. They feel like they have to uphold a certain kind of image, both because I don’t think the average person understands what it means to make a life in Hollywood, especially for folks who are mid-tier, especially for multi-hyphenates.

But most of the Black folks I know, we’re multi-hyphenates. We came up in here by any means necessary. Oh you want me to write? You want me to direct? I’ll do it all! That’s how we got the opportunities in the first place. When this happened, those are the folks I was commiserating with the most, the multi-hyphenates who don’t make enough to run a whole production company or to expand in their business or ambition on just directing or just writing. They have to cobble it together. That was a really sad frickin’ weekend. It was absolutely devastating to have that rug pulled from under us. It’s not my place to mention anyone, but I think people would be really surprised honestly at who is affected by this and is just braving it as best they can. We’re all taught to not publicize our pain. I already crossed that bridge in 2013.

What are the key issues for you in these ongoing negotiations, the factors that will contribute the most to keeping your staff going and sustain writers?

The residual situation has got to get better in streaming. I understand that the business is still figuring out its own business. But that just has to get better. I’m sorry, it’s crazy. “Dear White People” was not canceled. We went four complete seasons. And four seasons in the streaming era is a lot. I’m not saying I should be rich or have a gold house or anything, but the struggle bus is just not what I thought would happen when I make something that makes a ton of money for a company but also opens up an entire audience for them and brings in other artists to do similar things. That compensation just feels a little off for me. In 2015 when I signed up to do the series, we just didn’t know where streaming was going. I’m not putting the blame on anyone, but clearly we know that is the business now. That is the TV business. So we’ve got to get that right for the artists because if the artists aren’t able to make, then y’all got nothing to sell.

The other thing I think is important is AI. These companies are in cost-cutting mode. I think everyone is really terrified of being literally erased. And this isn’t just erase our sexuality thing, this is all writers and directors across the board I think are feeling like, they’re looking to save money by any means necessary. What’s to stop a company from figuring out how to do most of the work with a computer and bring me in for punch-ups or for the dialogue scenes or do a small little section, and further carve away at this thing that really wasn’t enough to sustain me in the first place?

Data transparency, which I know is a long shot. Having had the experience of doing a “successful TV show” in the streaming era, you can get told a lot of things based on data that you never see. This data has a huge impact on you, both in terms of whether or not you’re coming back, how you prepare for the future, how much money you’re going to make personally, also how much budget the show is going to get, if it’s going to marketed. All that stuff is based on a data set that you’re not allowed to see, and that feels fundamentally unfair if I’m being honest.

What’s the big picture at stake when it comes to people trying to live and work in this industry?

When stuff like this happens, it always hits the marginalized communities way harder. There are plenty of people who will be able to ride this storm, and most of those people don’t look like me. Most of those people already didn’t look like me, but damn sure the folks that are going to be able to weather this storm and all the people they are going to bring with them, all the artists they’re mentoring, all the writers whose work they’re producing, all the assistants who are just learning and getting their foot in the door, I’ve got creatives on my team who are getting their foot in the door, and it’s only possible because I’m here able to pay for a door to open for them. It’s not easy to break into this business when you don’t look and come from traditional places.

I feel like there’s a whole class of us that are getting exterminated and erased. That’s a shame. It feels like so many things in the industry were moving in the right direction from when I was able to break in until now, and just like with Covid, I feel like a lot of things are going to get taken back and pushed back, and those are not the sorts of things people are going to report on. Those are not the stories we’re going to hear. These people didn’t have a voice or weren’t empowered anyway. We’re going to focus on the big deals or the people who are completely out of work, we’re going to focus on the extremes because that’s how we’re geared to think about things. As a society, as an industry, we’re just trying to cut out the fat. We do it every day.

I just feel like people like me, voices like mine, no one even notices you’re gone until it’s been a few years. I just don’t want that to happen.