Hollywood writers go on strike, late-night shows go dark

New York • TV and film writers, soured by Hollywood’s low streaming-era pay, went on strike Tuesday for the first time in 15 years, meaning late-night and variety shows would be the first programs to pay getting dark.

The industrial action could have a cascading impact on TV and film productions depending on the length of the strike, and streaming services are under mounting pressure from Wall Street to report profits.

The Writers Guild of America’s 11,500 unionized screenwriters prepared to picket lines after negotiations with the studios, which began in March, failed to secure a new contract by Monday’s deadline. All screenwriting is to be stopped immediately, the guild has informed its members.

The guild is aiming for higher minimum wages, less understaffed clerical offices, shorter exclusivity contracts, and an overhaul of residual compensation — all terms that the WGA says have fallen in the streaming-driven content boom.

“The behavior of the companies has created a gig economy within a unionized workforce, and their unwavering stance in this negotiation has betrayed their commitment to further debase the writing profession,” the WGA said in a statement.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the trade association that negotiates on behalf of studios and production companies, said it had presented an offer with “generous increases in author compensation, as well as improvements in streaming residuals.”

In a statement, the trade association said it was ready to improve its offering, “but was unwilling to do so because there are many other proposals on the table that the guild continues to insist on.”

A shutdown has been forecast for months due to the scale of the discord. The authors voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike last month, with 98% of members in favour.

It’s about how writers are rewarded in an industry where streaming has changed the rules of the Hollywood economy. Writers say they aren’t being paid enough, the spaces for television writers have shrunk too much, and the old calculus for paying out residuals needs to be reassessed.

“The survival of our profession is at stake,” the guild said.

Streaming has exploded the number of series and films produced each year, meaning more jobs for writers. But WGA members say they make far less money and work under more strained conditions. Showrunners in streaming series receive only 46% of the pay shown runners in television series, according to the WGA.

The guild is looking for more compensation for the front end of deals. Many of the back-end payment authors that benefited in the past – like syndication and international licensing – were largely phased out by the start of streaming. More authors—roughly half—are receiving minimum rates, a 16% increase over the past decade. The use of so-called mini-writer rooms has increased significantly.

Hollywood’s trade association said Monday the main issues with a deal revolved around these mini-rooms – the guild is targeting a minimum number of writers per writer’s room – and the length of the employment restrictions. The guild has said more flexibility is needed for writers when contracted for series, which tend to be more limited and short-lived than the once-standard 20+ episode broadcast season.

Many studios and production companies are cutting back on spending. The Walt Disney Co. is cutting 7,000 jobs. Warner Bros. Discovery is cutting costs to reduce its debt. Netflix has pumped the pauses in spending growth.

When Hollywood writers have gone on strike, it has often taken a long time. In 1988, a WGA strike lasted 153 days. The last WGA strike lasted 100 days, beginning in 2007 and ending in 2008.

Viewers are likely to feel the most immediate impact of the strike on late-night shows and Saturday Night Live. All are expected to go dark immediately. Eventually, during the 2007 strike, late-night presenters returned to the air and improvised material. Jay Leno wrote his own monologues, which angered the union leadership.

On Friday’s episode of “Late Night,” Seth Meyers, a WGA member who said he supports the union’s demands, braced viewers for a replay while lamenting the hardship a strike brings.

“It’s not just affecting the writers, it’s affecting all of the incredible non-writing staff on these shows,” Meyers said. “And it would really be miserable for people to have to go through that, especially considering we’re on the heels of this terrible pandemic that’s affecting not just show business but all of us.”

Scripted series and films will take longer to be affected. But if a strike lasts through the summer, autumn plans could be upended. And in the meantime, not having writers available for paraphrases can have a dramatic impact on quality. The James Bond film Quantum of Solace was one of many films that went into production during the 2007-2008 strike with what Daniel Craig called “the bare skeleton of a screenplay”.

“Then there was a writers’ strike and there was nothing we could do,” Craig later said. “We couldn’t hire a writer to finish it. I tell myself never again, but who knows? I tried to rewrite scenes – and I’m not a writer.”

With a long-awaited strike, writers have rushed to submit scripts and studios have tried to prepare their pipelines to continue producing content, at least in the short term.

“From a business standpoint, we’re assuming the worst,” David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, said last month. “We got ready. We had a lot of content being produced.”

Overseas series could also fill part of the gap. “If there is one, we have a large base of upcoming shows and movies from around the world,” Netflix co-head Ted Sarandos said on the company’s April conference call.

But the WGA strike could be just the beginning. Both the Directors Guild of America and the actors’ union SAG-AFTRA have contracts that expire in June. Some of the same issues surrounding the streaming business model will feed into these rounds of negotiations. The DGA is expected to begin negotiations with AMPTP on May 10th.

The cost of the WGA’s most recent strike cost Southern California $2.1 billion, according to the Milken Institute. How painful this strike is remains to be seen. But laptops were shut down across Hollywood late Monday night.

“Pens down,” Halt and Catch Fire showrunner and co-creator Christopher Cantwell said on Twitter shortly after the strike announcement. “Don’t even type the document.”

Justin Scaccy

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