In November 2007, the Writers Guild of America voted to go on strike for fairer payment in relation to studio profits from new media. The Guild represents around 13,000 film and television writers and the 100 day strike led to around 60 TV shows shutting down production altogether, as the steady flow of scripts dried up and other unions refused to cross the picket line, before a deal was agreed in February 2008.
Older readers may remember the 2007-8 television season for shortened episode orders on shows like Lost and Heroes – some will argue that the latter show never recovered the creative heights of its debut year after the truncated second season. You may also remember various half-baked blockbusters that came out in summer 2009, many of which went into production without a completed script, or a writer on set to tinker with the script as many tentpole movies need these days. The knock-on effect, which is estimated to have cost California’s economy over a billion dollars, was obvious in TV and movies for months afterwards.
With that in mind, it’s not for nothing that the WGA have come to the cusp of striking again. The Guild’s negotiating committee is currently unable to reach an agreement on a new three year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the trade association which represents all of the major movie studios and television networks. The WGA boards wrote to their membership in March, outlining how “new models of development, production and distribution, while making the companies richer, have not worked to your individual or collective advantage.”
But what does this mean? The last strike was focused largely on residuals from DVD and online content, and on the Guild’s jurisdiction in the increasingly profitable fields of animation and reality TV. In the last decade, the playing field has almost completely changed again and understandably, the WGA leadership feels there are new grounds to be settled.
Netflix and streaming
For starters, the digital deliberations in the last strike seem like small potatoes next to the development of streaming services since then. Netflix and Amazon are major new players on the production scene, both influencing and capitalising upon the transformation of how we watch TV and movies.
The existing model of residual payments for writers, for revenue from repeats or DVD sales, is based on audience figures and box office receipts. Netflix’s relative lack of transparency in this regard presents a problem as far as residuals are concerned, with their massive back catalogue of licensed TV and film content.
They don’t release audience figures, but their nebulous secret formula for success – which led them to commission the Full House sequel series, give Adam Sandler a four-film extension on his current contract for original films and name, and declare the widely panned Iron Fist to be the most watched Marvel show to date – must confound existing terms for syndication. Furthermore, their ability to release original series every couple of weeks probably means they’ll be better equipped to wait out the strike than conventional television broadcasters.
At an IndieWire panel at this year’s WonderCon, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, who created Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, said: “Nobody wants a strike… but also the writers would like to be paid fairly for the work that we’re doing. The business has changed a lot.”
The WGA will be emboldened by the results of the Directors’ Guild negotiations with AMPTP in January, in which they got a better deal on streaming residuals, and given the massive growth of Netflix and other streaming services in Hollywood over the last few years, this has to be seen as a major factor in the current dispute.
As it was last time, broadcast television will likely be worst affected by any new strike. It’s often been said that there’s too much TV on the air right now, or rather too much good TV. The age of so-called quality television that was already well underway back in 2007 has really exploded since then, with more providers making more shows than ever before.
The consequence has been a huge increase in profit for studios and production companies, but writers’ salaries have decreased somewhere along the way. For instance, a WGA survey conducted in 2016 showed that the average pay for a writer-producer has fallen by 23%, a change that is in part due to the way in which television scheduling and season orders have changed.
More shows have shorter runs than the traditional 22 episode orders that have made the year-round American television season sustainable. Shows are designed to start mid-season, rather than to replace something that failed, and orders of 10 to 13 episodes are far more common.
While shows have generally enjoyed an increase in production value, this model becomes a problem if you’re a writer who is paid per episode, on a show that takes the same amount of time to produce fewer episodes. Furthermore, many television writers have exclusivity clauses in their contracts, meaning that they can only work on the show to which they’re contracted. That can mean they only work for six months of the year nowadays, which is tough if they’re supporting a family or paying rent or a mortgage.
Benefits are a major issue too, with the WGA writing to members about strike action after the AMPTP reportedly countered their request for an increase in contributions to their healthcare and pension funds by proposing rollbacks instead. The unconscionable accounting of Hollywood allows the studios to claim that they’re suffering in the age of peak TV too and that’s another major point of contention.
The cinematic writers’ room
Some have observed that the gold rush for movie scripts before strike action will be more profitable for more writers, although studios are more likely to dust off unproduced scripts they’ve already paid for. In the run up to the strike in 2007, Fox fast-tracked the Dragonball movie they’d been developing since 2002 so as to get an established property on the slate before the strike began, and the result was 2009’s much-maligned Dragonball: Evolution.
There are inevitably areas of contention for the WGA in the movie industry, where studios will frequently buy a script and then hire other writers to change the things they don’t like, resulting in various arbitration disputes over credits before the film reaches cinemas.
But with cinema attendances and DVD sales in decline, traditional modes of distribution have taken a hit in recent years, and as a result, the number of films produced by studios has halved in the last decade. Disney and Warner Bros have been particularly ebullient about doubling down on franchise films and existing properties, and look set to build more tentpoles than tents in years to come.
As part of that shift towards franchise films, some studios have even set up TV-style writers’ rooms to work on the future of certain franchises. Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen was hit by the 2007 strike, leaving director Michael Bay to write a script from a preliminary outline by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzmann, until they returned towards the end of filming. Now, the Transformers franchise is set for its second soft reboot in a row, with this summer’s The Last Knight coming out of a writers’ room led by Akiva Goldsman.
This model may yet yield interesting results, and is certainly preferable to Warner’s practice of reportedly assigning properties to several competing writers at the same time, rather than developing one take. The issue with this is that if one writer ‘wins’, the studio still owns the other drafts and the ideas therein, and will likely pay even more new writers to rewrite the chosen draft. You end up with a lot of writers who don’t get paid as much for their creative efforts, exploiting the WGA’s own arbitration rules to cheat other writers out of a credit and/or salary.
Overall, movie studios weren’t hurt too badly by the last strike, thanks to the pre-strike rush to either get scripts ready for production or greenlight pre-bought scripts. Star Trek and Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince were both bumped back a bit in order to populate the barren summer 2009 slate, and a lot of movies were financial successes anyway. Revenge Of The Fallen was a global mega-hit, despite having arguably one of the worst blockbuster scripts ever filmed.
But it did mean that writers weren’t on set to fix any problems during production, something that becomes necessary on the hectic schedule where many movies have a release date before a script.
In a 2011 interview with Time Out, Daniel Craig was typically candid about how this affected the production of the James Bond film Quantum Of Solace:
“On Quantum, we were fucked. We had the bare bones of a script and then there was a writers strike and there was nothing we could do. We couldn’t employ a writer to finish it. I say to myself, ‘Never again’, but who knows? There was me trying to rewrite scenes – and a writer I am not.”
This might be a bigger deal this time for movies this time, with cinematic universes either operating on the writers room model that presented trouble for TV, or comprising many different films in the works at all times.
For instance, it might spell worse tidings for Warner. Their already fluctuating DC extended universe still lacks a project that’s ready to go along with Aquaman in next year’s slate, and although JK Rowling is British, she’ll almost certainly have had to join the WGA to write her Fantastic Beasts movies (and even if she wasn’t a member, there’s good chance she’d support her fellow writers). That said, it feels depressingly likely that studios will press on anyway and we’ll have summer 2009 all over again.
How might a strike be averted?
Later this month, around 13,000 Guild members will vote on whether or not to authorise the board to call another strike. If they vote yes, and there isn’t an acceptable deal before the current contract expires on 1st May, there will be another strike and that means the writers of every American TV or movie production will down tools until terms can be agreed. The Guild will continue to negotiate up until that deadline, but unless the studios budge, it seems likely that Hollywood will face another bout of industrial action.
Of course, the union might vote not to give the board the authorisation to strike. The last strike was a resounding victory for the WGA, but the experience has left some members reluctant to strike again. Detractors have noted that younger and less known writers were hit harder by the strike than their more established colleagues, who also found it easier to get rehired afterwards.
On the WGA’s side this time though is that the actors’ union is also due to negotiate a new deal in the coming months, and they may benefit if the AMPTP is reluctant to negotiate two deals at once. Actors refusing to cross the picket line last time around was a major factor in the strike’s success and the organisation might not want to face two guilds sticking together.
Talks are set to resume this month and will continue up until the deadline in May, but if the two sides can’t reach an agreement and there’s another strike, we could be seeing the effects in the TV and movies we watch for the next couple of years.