Last week, president and CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery David Zaslav was asked about the possibility that the more than eleven thousand television and feature writers in the Writers Guild of America (WGA) West and WGA East may go on strike when their three-year contract expires on May 1.
Zaslav, who was paid $246.6 million in 2021, expressed hope that “we can get through this in a way that’s fair to all parties.” “For this industry to succeed, everybody needs to feel fully valued,” he added. “Our objective would be that everybody gets fairly compensated for work they do.”
Hollywood’s writers, who don’t make nearly a quarter of a billion dollars per year, do not currently feel fairly compensated for their work. The workers have just overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike if their leadership does not reach a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers (AMPTP) by May 1; 97.85 percent of ballots cast were in favor of authorizing a strike, with a record 79 percent of eligible members turning out to vote.
“Our membership has spoken,” the unions’ negotiating committee said in an email to members. “You have expressed your collective strength, solidarity, and the demand for meaningful change in overwhelming numbers.”
While a strike authorization vote does not necessarily mean a strike will follow — members nearly unanimously authorized a strike in 2017, too, but reached a tentative agreement in time to avoid a work stoppage — many in the industry are predicting the first writers’ strike since 2007, when WGA members walked picket lines for one hundred days.
Despite a downtick over the past two years, profitability for the AMPTP’s members — in addition to Zaslav’s company, the group includes Amazon, Apple, CBS, Disney, NBCU, Netflix, Paramount Global, and Sony — has consistently gone up in recent decades. But as the pandemic accelerated the shift to streaming, which now accounts for the majority of writing work in the industry, writers haven’t shared in the prosperity. A March WGA report finds that writer pay has declined 4 percent over the past decade (23 percent when adjusted for inflation), and 49 percent of television-series writers are compensated at the contract minimum, compared to 33 percent in 2013.
While writers won a toehold in streaming thanks to the 2007 strike, they say the streaming-first model has led to shrinking residuals (pay for the reuse of their work in, say, television reruns or DVDs) and the abuse of “mini-rooms,” smaller writers’ rooms consisting of a showrunner and a few writers developing a script, which also serve as a loophole around pay minimums. Mini-rooms in particular have transformed a once stable job into a gig-like, understaffed nightmare. Streaming’s shorter seasons and longer production times for each episode — a problem for writers paid per episode rather than by the day — mean a raw deal, one that WGA members say does not add up to a full-time living.
In a message to members, the WGA said the AMPTP has pushed for “rollbacks designed to offset any gains” in contract negotiations. “In short, the studios have shown no sign that they intend to address the problems our members are determined to fix.” (The AMPTP has denied that claim.) In another message, the union argued that “the survival of writing as a profession is at stake in this negotiation.”
Hollywood’s “Most Important” Workers
Irving Thalberg, the early Hollywood “Boy Wonder” superproducer who helped build MGM Studios into a powerhouse alongside Louis B. Mayer, once said, “If it isn’t for the writing, we’ve got nothing. Writers are the most important people in Hollywood — and we must never let them know it.”
His boss, Mayer, was one of the original Tinseltown executives with an outsize personality, as adept at spinning a yarn to his studio’s contract players as to moviegoing audiences. Famously, in March 1933, Mayer used a weeklong bank holiday declared by Franklin D. Roosevelt to pull off one of his greatest gambits: getting his employees to accept a 50 percent pay cut.
After gathering the talent in the studio’s biggest screening room, Mayer warned the workers that every studio was on the brink of shutting down, and only the voluntary pay cut for those making more than $50 a week could save MGM from such a fate.
Some of the assembled group expressed skepticism about the pay cut’s necessity, but actor Lionel Barrymore stepped forward and announced that he would accept the loss in wages. The others should too, he argued, “for the good of MGM, of Hollywood, and of the country.” He succeeded in swaying the group, which eventually agreed (though character actor Wallace Beery walked out of the meeting after asking “L. B.” Mayer if he would take the pay cut too, to which his boss replied, “Well, no”). Though Mayer promised to pay them back, he never did.
At least according to some tellings of the story, Samuel Marx, a young story editor who would go on to become a Hollywood legend in his own right, followed Mayer and another executive after the meeting adjourned. He overheard the studio boss turn to his colleague and ask with delight, “How did I do it?”
As it turned out, executives from all the major studios had decided to use the financial crisis to lower pay rates, and Mayer’s pleas were just the latest con in an industry built on them. The workers realized that, had they been unionized like their “below-the-line” colleagues (workers who aren’t actors, directors, or writers) in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), they wouldn’t have been suckered into such a deal.
The development added urgency to an idea that had begun forming the previous month, when more than fifty screenwriters met at the Knickerbocker Hotel to revive the then dormant Screen Writers’ Guild. On April 6, the new, reorganized guild was born.
No Trickling Down in Hollywood
Much has changed since the WGA’s founding, but film executives’ unwillingness to share their wealth with writers has not. The hostility for this particular subset of their workers, the ones who Thalberg saw as the industry’s foundation, has made the WGA the Hollywood union most likely to strike. Judging by the union’s authorization vote, a new writers’ strike may soon be upon us.
In addition to standard issues like higher minimum compensation and increased contributions to health care and retirement funds, writers’ priorities include standardizing residuals for feature writers regardless of whether their work is released in theaters or on streaming, curbing the use of the much-hated mini-rooms, applying contract minimums to comedy-variety shows made for new media, and addressing the issue of artificial intelligence.
“Studios have been getting away with murder and they know it. I think that the money is still there,” said Ashley Lyle, a writer on Yellowjackets, in a message to WGA members. As David Goodman, a cochair of the WGA negotiating committee, told the New York Times, “the streaming model has created an environment where there’s been enormous downward pressure on writer income across the board.”
Operating profits in 2021 at the biggest entertainment media companies in 2021 were about $28 billion, a slight decrease from pre-pandemic profit levels. But in a March report on the state of the industry, the WGA emphasized employers’ investments in streaming services, mergers, and billions of dollars in stock buybacks.
“Over the past decade, while our employers have increased their profits by tens of billions, they have embraced business practices that have slashed our compensation and residuals and undermined our working conditions,” said the WGA in an email to members ahead of the strike authorization vote. “We’ve met and talked with thousands of you about our bargaining agenda and heard loud and clear that this negotiation can’t be business as usual. The compensation increases and protections we’re demanding are designed to restore what has been taken away from writers.”
During the 2007 strike, studios leaned heavily on reality television, an “unscripted” alternative — though, in truth, even these shows have some level of scripting, and there have been efforts to organize this work as well — accelerating its growth into a now ubiquitous form of entertainment. (It is impossible not to mention that Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the strike.) That reality and other forms of unscripted television is now a massive chunk of television programming undoubtedly poses a problem for writers’ leverage.
Viewers will likely see late-night talk shows — first nightly shows, then when the scripts run out, Saturday Night Live — go dark first. Soap operas would run out of episodes in about a month, and scripted series might delay their fall premiere dates. The Hollywood Reporter has noted that networks and streamers are “offering more early renewals than usual, stockpiling unscripted series, emphasizing more animated shows (many of which are not WGA-affiliated), and looking to their own libraries to fill airtime.”
As for movies, the effects of a strike wouldn’t be felt immediately. Films that premiere this year have already been shot, so the impact would be in 2024 (and one can imagine films going into production with scripts that could’ve used a bit more work).
According to Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation during the 2007 writers’ strike, that work stoppage cost $772 million in lost wages for writers and production workers and a total of roughly $3 billion to the city’s economy (a number that, as Mary McNamara at the Los Angeles Times notes, is around $4.5 billion in today’s dollars). For an industry that just underwent a pandemic-induced slowdown, the stakes of another interruption could not be higher.
The Directors Guild of America (DGA) is set to begin negotiations with the AMPTP on May 10; their contract expires on June 30, as does the contract of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which has not yet set an initial bargaining date. The industry has long considered the DGA the easiest above-the-line union with which to negotiate, and sore feelings persist among writers over the directors taking an agreement during their 2007 strike; that the DGA did not begin negotiating before the WGA contract expires suggests that Hollywood’s unions might at last be presenting a more united front.