What Is A Mini-Room, And Why Do Striking Hollywood Writers Hate It So Much?

The battle for the mini-room isn't just about contract negotiations — it's about the future of the entertainment industry as we know it.

But what's a mini-room?

On May 2, 2023, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) put their pencils down and went on strike after a contract negotiation deal between the Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) could not be made. The WGA proposal and the AMPTP's counter offer (or lack of counter offer) are publicly available, and the results are laughably bad. For instance, the Guild proposed that there should be regulations in place regarding AI usage within writers' rooms, and the AMPTP's response was essentially "Nah, we'll just have annual meetings about it."

There were also proposals regarding a lack of streaming residuals, a factor that has shocked audiences who are only now realizing that the writers of their favorite shows and original movies aren't swimming in a vault of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck whenever their streaming platforms boast about the millions of hours watched, but are instead applying for minimum-wage jobs just to make ends meet. Productions are coming to a halt every day, but some are predicting the strike to last well into the fall.

Most of the WGA's demands are pretty easy to understand without having any familiarity with the inner workings of the film and television industry, but one aspect the general public seems to be confused about is WGA's quest to quell the growth of mini-rooms, mostly because a lot of folks have no idea what a mini-room actually is.

What is a mini-room?

Sometimes branded as "development rooms," mini-rooms are not a new concept, but something that gained popularity with studios somewhere around 2017 as the streaming wars took off and studios were desperately trying to produce exclusive programs that would entice new subscribers.

The size of a traditional writers' room varies greatly on factors like scope, budget, and experience level of those on staff, but the average writers' room is usually composed of 7-10 staff writers to write and produce 10 episodes of TV for 12-22 weeks. This time frame includes rewriting material as needed as the show starts to film episodes. Comparatively, mini-rooms are often 8-10 weeks long but occur before a show is even greenlit and features a smaller team of writers. Since the show has yet to be greenlit but is putting together an entire season, the writers are paid less to do more work, and the work is always at risk of never being seen because the studio can still decide not to greenlight the series, or shelve it for months at a time.

If the show never comes out, the writers have spent weeks of their life working on something that they can't put on their resume, and if the show does get the green light, it's unlikely that the writers from the mini-room will be staffed on the series as they typically need to secure other jobs in the interim.

And from what writers, script coordinators, and writer's assistants tell me — this is just the start of the problems.

How did we get here?

The boom of mini-rooms is two-fold. Some rooms exist as part of the new media landscape with streaming projects, while others were meant to serve as support for so-called "auteur" series where a sole creative steered the ship. In the wake of the successful Prestige TV era boasting shows like "The Sopranos" and "The Wire," the landscape of Hollywood blockbusters was also evolving.

"A lot of feature writers turned to the TV world because features were all becoming big-budget Marvel movies, and TV Shows were a way to maintain creative control," one script coordinator tells me. "And I think it was only a matter of time before the studio saw, 'Oh, if we can just hire one person to do this and they turn out pretty good numbers, then why don't we just minimize writers' rooms as it is and try to put as much load on one person?'"

According to the WGA, "mini-rooms are writers' rooms. Period." Unfortunately, the studios don't see mini-rooms the same way, which is something the Guild is fighting like hell to change. "Mini-rooms can be unpredictable," the Guild says. "Without the pressure and deadline of a production commitment, a room that is supposed to last just a few weeks can be extended for several months." This unpredictability has proved to be detrimental for writers. Alex O'Keefe, one of the writers of the smash-hit series, "The Bear," confessed to The New Yorker that he attended the WGA Award Ceremony with a negative bank account while wearing a bow tie he'd bought with a credit card. "The Bear" won Best Comedy Series that night. 

The idea that everyone who works in Hollywood is financially well-off is a manufactured myth. A majority of writers are working-class, with far too many unable to sustain a living. As WGA captain Catherine Renard tweeted, "We'll probably be on strike longer than the length of a mini room. And that's exactly why we're striking."

Auteur-led shows need minimum staffing too

One TV and film writer tells me that mini-rooms sound like a good idea on paper, but have since been used as a loophole for exploitation. "A room that was initially built as a means to help showrunners has since evolved into a money-saving tactic by the studio to get a season broken down and written without having to pay all of the fringe benefits a writer gets when there is an official production," they say. This is one of the contributing factors as to why the WGA is pushing for minimum staffing requirements on all shows, including those singular creative-led series.

On the creative side of things, minimum staffing has plenty of benefits. This isn't to shade the hard work and talent showcased on shows like "The White Lotus," "True Detective," or "Euphoria," but as one writer's assistant says, "I don't think it's blasphemous to say that having additional perspectives wouldn't have hurt." A hell of a lot of think-pieces from critics could have been avoided if someone in the writing process had the opportunity to make suggestions. And without a writer's room, if any problems arise, the showrunner is now tasked with writing their show as it's in production, oftentimes also serving as the director, which puts a lot of work on one person.

TV writer and producer Dan Signer took to Twitter with an incredibly informative thread about the "mini-rooms as auteur showrunner support staff" concept, and why minimum staffing is a must-have. "Minimum staff size is not about forcing writers on 3-4 "auteurs" who think they don't need them," he said. "It's about protecting showrunners' ability to hire the staff they need without having to take on the fight each time individually. It codifies a norm we shouldn't have to."

Are studios even saving money?

Mini-rooms have been pitched as a cost-saving measure, but as one script coordinator tells me, that doesn't seem to hold much water. "The efforts to save so much money upfront end up costing so much more in the long run, and I've just seen that happen multiple times because I don't think the studio execs realize that the show that you write and the show that you shoot are just so different," they say. A writer's assistant said something similar, adding that studios are often forced to "unload a money hose" on a struggling series, "when a writer's room could have prevented it weeks ago, and for a percentage of the cost." Lest we forget, it would only cost the studios roughly 2 percent of their operating profits to meet every single proposal laid out by the WGA.

This is echoed by a Twitter thread by Jori Felker, who said, "It's been multiple shows for me now where 'mini-rooms' (prev 'The Idol') have burned more money trying to SAVE the show because [showrunners] aren't given the appropriate resources and time to write to do it right the first time." Felker continued in the thread referencing how often mini-room disasters seem to take place around the middle of a season when suddenly the approved ending from the mini-room suddenly doesn't make sense with what was actually shot, and massive rewrites are needed ... but the mini-room has already been disbanded and the showrunner is left to solve the problem alone while still having to run the entire show.

"So we all go on 'hiatus' while the writers 'work on the ending,' but in reality, the studio just realized they hate everything and just fire them," the script coordinator tells me. "So all the suffering to get it done was worthless and the studios just spend more money trying to fix the mistakes they could have caught before by using a normal amount of people to do a normal amount of work."

A lack of upward mobility

One of the biggest drawbacks to a mini-room is that with the writers typically being kicked to the curb before production begins, this also eliminates the ability to be on set. This means writers are being denied access to production experience, which is the only way for writers to move their way up the ladder. This makes it especially difficult for newer writers to gain the necessary experience to allow them to progress in their careers and also keeps writers from historically marginalized communities from equitable treatment. "They're trying to keep us out without admitting why they're keeping us out," a writer tells me.

George R.R. Martin recently disavowed the mini-room on his personal website, saying that ridding the industry of the mini-room "is the most important of the things that the Guild is fighting for, continuing with, "Streamers and shortened seasons have blown the ladder to splinters." The mini-room has also all but eliminated the role of a junior writer, as they're forced to jump from mini-room gig to mini-room gig just to stay afloat.

"Mini-rooms are abominations, and the refusal of the AMPTP to pay writers to stay with their shows through production — as part of the JOB, for which they need to be paid, not as a tourist — is not only wrong, it is incredibly short-sighted," Martin wrote. "If the story editors of 2023 are not allowed to get any production experience, where do the studios think the showrunners of 2033 are going to come from? If nothing else, the WGA needs to win on that issue. No matter how long it may take."

The general consensus from everyone I spoke to has been that studios are trying to replicate the singular vision often found in films with television production, while completely forgetting (or failing to realize in the first place) that the mediums operate very differently. Even if they got their "singular vision" model, who do they expect to have once the current generation retires if there aren't any writers with production experience?

(Let's be real, they're trying to replace them with AI but that's a different article.)

Minimum staff sizes protect the industry

TV writer/producer Ingrid Escajeda went viral on Twitter with a terrifyingly accurate assessment of the core problem with mini-rooms; they seek to destroy the existence of writers' rooms, writers, and the entire WGA as an institution. "Showrunners shared stories of tech execs pitching them AI as a good thing because it will reduce 'grunt work' and make things more 'efficient,' she wrote, "that's why the AMPTP finally agreed to staff writers getting a script fee because, in their future, staff writers no longer exist."

Escajeda noted that TV writers make up the majority of the WGA, which is in direct opposition to the "ideal world" of a studio, where a TV show is "written by one machine and one writer." She used the example that if 500 shows existed, studios would prefer that there would only be 500 writers, which means the guild would whittle down to a fraction of its size, thereby limiting the joint power of the union.

"We lose our power. Which means rollbacks. Which means no more pension and health insurance. For ANY of us," she wrote. "Minimum staff size is not just about job creation, or maximizing creativity, nor is it the Guild dictating to showrunners how to run their rooms. It is about protecting the very EXISTENCE of TV writers' rooms, period, and by extension, the WGA itself."

WGA is fighting for the future

As important as streaming residuals, post-production minimums, and pension/health insurance demands are (AND THEY ARE VERY IMPORTANT), the battle around the mini-room should be seen as the main attraction. "It really is for an exponential crisis of what the world looks like in terms of writing in the next decade, next lifetime, next generation," the script supervisor tells me. "If mini-rooms continue, the industry as we know it will no longer exist," a TV writer muses. And it's clear that the studios know it too, considering how hard they're resisting abolishing them.

As writer/producer/actor/comedian Ashley Nicole Black noted on Twitter, "The companies (through the trades) will tell you that they offered writers a bit more money and we are striking anyway. The truth is, that money was conditioned on keeping open the loopholes they will use to not actually ever give us the money." As she elaborated, "We know this because they currently use those loopholes not to pay us. What is the point of setting a rate for writers' rooms, when they've invented something called a mini-room, and if they call it a mini-room, they've decided that means they can pay you less?" The result of the WGA strike will have a ripple effect for years to come, as the industry is on the precipice of the evolutionary next step. The industry cannot function without writers and until the powers at be recognize and value the role writers play in bringing TV and film to life, the problems will continue. 

This isn't an instance of the Hollywood machine being "broken," it's an instance of the machine working exactly as designed, and the cogs caught in it all finally saying, "No more."