Cynthia Littleton and Gene Maddaus
Wed, 3 May 2023 at 1:01 am BST
The Met Gala may have been the last glitzy event to avoid picket signs.
As of 12:01 a.m. on May 2, members of the creative community on both coasts (and production hubs in between) have traded the finery of that event for fire and brimstone on picket lines. The breakdown of the Writers Guild of America’s contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has unleashed a torrent of emotion not seen among Hollywood union members since the last time the WGA went on strike, in 2007. The strike promises to bring even more upheaval to a marketplace that is already grappling with the fallout from technological disruption and still rebuilding from the pandemic. Six weeks of tense negotiations made it clear that the industry faces a reckoning after a decade of the Peak TV content boom that has strained Hollywood’s creative infrastructure to its breaking point.
“People strike for a reason,” actor Brian Tyree Henry said as he made his way inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue for the gala. “I hope they get what they deserve, and I hope that people listen to them.”
A prolonged walkout by TV and film writers will have ripple effects across the entertainment community. Now that the strike has been called, industry insiders are scrambling to shut down shows — late-night comedy programs, including “Saturday Night Live,” and daytime talk shows are the first to feel the hit. Studios are initiating emergency contingency plans to keep film production rolling on projects with completed scripts. The major networks are worried about pickets crashing upfront advertising presentations scheduled to be held in New York this month. Marketers and publicity mavens are trying to figure out how to salvage junkets and Emmy FYC season as a bumper crop of eligible programs have all manner of screenings and events lined up in the pursuit of viewers.
Now, the workaday stuff of Hollywood will take a back seat to the spectacle of WGA versus Disney, Netflix, Warner Bros. Discovery, NBCUniversal, Paramount Global, Amazon, Apple, Sony Pictures Entertainment and more.
“Hollywood is an industry that runs on stories, period. There’s nothing without the storytellers,” says “Jane the Virgin” writer Rafael Agustin. “I’m angry because the WGA is inevitably going to win, but the AMPTP insisted on stopping an entire industry as opposed to properly compensating the labor force that helps them make billions.”
In its messaging to about 11,500 members, the guild has gone so far as to accuse the major studios and streamers of handicapping their own industry through unrestrained spending on content to build up streaming platforms. The WGA has cast the issues on the table for writers as essential to ensuring the survival of screenwriting as a viable job.
“Here is what all writers know: the companies have broken this business,” the WGA stated in its message announcing the strike to members. “They have taken so much from the very people, the writers, who have made them wealthy. But what they cannot take from us is each other, our solidarity, our mutual commitment to save ourselves and this profession that we love. We had hoped to do this through reasonable conversation. Now we will do it through struggle. For the sake of our present and our future, we have been given no other choice.”
Guild member Abdi Nazemian sees the WGA strike as part of a larger battle over growing income inequality and efforts to “devalue” labor.
“This is about more than writers,” says Nazemian, whose credits include 2017’s “Call Me by Your Name” and the NBC sitcom “Ordinary Joe.” “It’s about how we value human labor. It’s about the truly alarming rise in wealth disparity. It’s about keeping unions strong so we can revitalize our middle class. And it’s about standing up to corporate greed, which impacts everyone everywhere these days.”
The issues on the table for the WGA and the AMPTP are complex. But the single biggest factor that pushed the scribes to strike is the glaring lack of trust between labor and management at a time of massive transformation for the entertainment industry. Streaming has changed the way movies and TV shows are produced and distributed. Those changes have benefited the WGA’s most elite members, with massive $200 million and $300 million production deals handed to proven hitmakers such as Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Greg Berlanti, Dick Wolf and J.J. Abrams. But the gap between the top echelon of earners and their closest competitors has widened, just as it has for the Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, both of which have new contracts to negotiate by a June 30 expiration deadline.
Nobody in the C-suites or the production trenches can say exactly where the streaming revolution will lead. But just about everyone with skin in the game is frightened that the new era will come with far lower pay scales for creatives and profit margins for corporations.
The guild’s 700-plus-page master contract governing film and TV work was written for a different era. Updating that contract means not only wrangling over new deal terms, it also likely means revisiting the hard-won gains the WGA has made over decades. All of that is a very tough assignment to complete against a hard deadline, hence the cratering of the talks.
“With the advent of streaming and the pandemic changing people’s viewing habits, it’s another world,” says Paul Hardart, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business and director of its Entertainment, Media & Technology program. “And therefore it requires a different deal.”
On May 1, after a final day of negotiations, the AMPTP made a tactical decision to take the first step in ending the negotiations, about four hours before the midnight PT deadline. Sources close to the situation say that as it became clear the sides were too far apart to bridge the gap, they engaged in a game of bargaining chicken. The AMPTP told WGA negotiators that a better offer would come only if the guild budged on some of its key asks. The WGA did not comply — and then both camps waited to see who would be the first to break it off. Some WGA negotiating committee members hung around AMPTP headquarters in Sherman Oaks until about 8:45 p.m. PT, after their counterparts had left the building.
WGA leadership had no faith that a few more days at the bargaining table would make enough of a difference to reach a deal. Meanwhile, AMPTP member companies are adamant that they came in with a generous offer that has only been sweetened since the formal negotiations began on March 20. But the level of change across the industry over the past decade has been so significant that fear of future unknowns overwhelmed the two parties’ ability to find compromises.
The sides struggled to reach agreement even on a basic set of facts. Depending on whose data you believe, either total writer compensation has never been higher or overall writer pay rates have never been lower. In this environment, with everyone feeling so much trepidation about what the future holds for film and TV, both sides reverted to defensive postures. After the penultimate WGA-AMPTP meeting ended on the evening of April 30, word began to spread throughout the creative community that the chances of avoiding a strike were slim to none.
“I’m feeling the historical gravity of this moment. I’m worried about how this will affect not just writers but our entire industry,” says Charise Castro Smith, a writer whose credits include 2021’s “Encanto.” “The guild’s proposals are fair, and they reflect the reality that writers shape culture and deserve to be able to provide for their families. So many young writers of color coming into the industry get boxed out or stuck at staff writer or forced to do free work. The future of writing as a profession is at stake.”
There’s no doubt that the WGA has the upper hand in the court of public opinion. It’s harder to muster sympathy for corporations. But the truth is, not only are corporations coming through the shock of the pandemic, but they’ve absorbed big losses on streaming investments. So the prospect of seeing their costs of doing business with writers increase significantly is sobering, particularly as they also have to forge new deals with the DGA and SAG-AFTRA this summer.
Working actors are closely watching the WGA drama unfold as they deal with some of the same pressures as writers in the transition to streaming. “Everything changed with streaming, and everybody needs to be compensated for their work,” says Amanda Seyfried, the Emmy-winning star of “The Dropout.” “That’s fucking easy.”
The seismic shifts in TV production in recent years mean that the norm for employment for writers has changed from getting hired on a show that produces 22 to 24 episodes per season over an eight- or nine-month time frame to being hired on a series that may produce only six or eight or 10 episodes (that is, a “short-order show”). In the six years since the WGA last had a robust contract negotiation with the AMPTP — bargaining in 2020 was muted because of the pandemic — those short-order shows are now the norm.
The ramifications of this are significant for writers, who are typically paid by the episode. In the new world order, short-order series hire writers to pen all the scripts over a 10- or 13-week period before physical production begins. All of this adds up to lower paychecks overall. Plus, a huge problem that has come to the fore as part of the negotiation is the growing experience gap between more established scribes and greener writers. Writers who are cut loose before production begins don’t have the same opportunities to gain on-the-set training on how to oversee production and post-production functions, which are vital steps for those who aim to become showrunners. Those apprenticeship opportunities were plentiful under the old 22-episode system, in which lensing on Episodes 1 and 2 would begin while the writers’ room chipped away at Epiodes 5 and 6, and so on.
For writer David H. Steinberg, what’s at stake is a whole model of TV production that has served the industry since the days of “I Love Lucy,” “Gunsmoke” and “Father Knows Best.” Steinberg created and ran “No Good Nick,” a traditional multi-camera sitcom on Netflix. The show was ordered straight to series, with 20 episodes and 11 writers who worked for 40 weeks. “That was a great system,” he says. “Everyone loved it. It trained the writers and made what worked out to be a better show than if it were just six episodes.”
The fear is that the streaming companies have figured out that they don’t need to hire so many writers, or make so many episodes, to attract subscribers. ”The people who run these companies are just tech people and Wall Street people who are trying to churn out product to have subscriber growth,” Steinberg says.
There’s a level of quality control that also comes from the traditional model. “The writers’ room is a tested formula for making good television,” he says. “The auteur model doesn’t work as well for television. It’s hard for one person to keep the story in their head for that many episodes. It’s better as a collaborative process. Collaborating with other writers gets you a better product.”
On top of the change in viewing habits and business models, writers are also confronting the threat of artificial intelligence; they fear the studios will use AI to replace them. The guild offered a proposal that would protect writers from encroachment by AI on their credits and compensation, but the AMPTP rejected that proposal, and suggested meeting annually to discuss advances in technology.
Dave Schilling, an up-and-coming writer who is not yet in the guild, says he is particularly troubled by that response. “We know where this road leads: automation,” he says. “The idea that writers would or should just allow this steamroller to run us over is not realistic.”
But some also think it could prove to be a useful tool. Austin Bunn, a screenwriter and associate professor at Cornell University, says that while AI could never produce the kinds of screenplays he’s interested in writing, he could see it being helpful in creating “para-literary material,” like pitch decks and look books. “I’m kind of boosterish on AI and its role in the creative process,” Bunn says. “I don’t feel threatened by it at all. Storytelling ultimately does come down to some part of me that wants to express itself. A machine can craft a sentence, but there’s no passion behind it.”
So what comes next? TV production will gradually come to a halt — not overnight, but as soon as programs run out of existing scripts. Movies with completed scripts may go before the cameras, but directors and producers could find themselves stuck if rewrites are needed.
Late-night comedy series and daytime talk shows will be the first to feel the impact. “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” are expected to immediately go into reruns. Daytime talk shows including “The Drew Barrymore Show,” “Tamron Hall” and “The Kelly Clarkson Show” may be able to produce a few more episodes this week but will soon revert to reruns.
Linear broadcast and cable networks may load up with more unscripted shows, newscasts and live-event coverage. But Netflix, Amazon, Apple and other streaming-only platforms will have more options to recirculate older original series or promote vintage series. The streaming model gives them more flexibility than linear networks, where fans of “Chicago Med” and “Grey’s Anatomy” expect to tune in Wednesdays at 8 p.m. or Thursdays at 9 p.m. for new episodes. (The early-May timing of this work stoppage provides a little relief, as the broadcast networks are already shifting into summer programming mode, which is typically heavy on unscripted content.)
It’s anybody’s guess how long the strike will last. The 2007 strike went on for 100 days, into 2008. The longest WGA strike, in 1988, lasted 153 days. “In general, the most successful strikes are the shorter ones,” says Ileen A. DeVault, professor of labor history at Cornell. She notes that TV writing operates on a longer timeline than most industries, “so it could be different.” She adds, “But the longer a strike, the less likely it is to turn into a victory.”
The unrest that exploded this week has been building for years. Writers walked up to the edge of a strike over many of the same issues in 2017 before reaching a last-minute deal. In 2020, they lost the chance to negotiate due to the pandemic.
Now, the strike comes amid a rising climate of labor activism, both in Hollywood and in the broader economy. In 2021, many members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees rallied for a strike authorization and then rebelled when their leaders chose not to exercise it. And there have been high-profile organizing campaigns at Starbucks locations and Amazon warehouses.
“There is a broader feeling right now, across industries and across the private sector, that workers who can fight are doing so,” says Alex N. Press, labor reporter at Jacobin Magazine. “There’s a wind-at-their-backs feeling for a lot of workers in this country.”
Clayton Davis, Marc Malkin, Jazz Tangcay and Brent Lang contributed to this report.