As the economy slouches deeper into the economic weeds with inflation rates not seen since 1981 and studios tightening their Lap-Bands while their parent corps merge and mutate into evermore cynical entities that murder movies for tax breaks, the money-counters in Hollywood are gearing up for a costly labor dispute this spring with some ornery writers who insist on getting paid.
The last time the studios and the Writers Guild of America—the union that represents most working screenwriters in the U.S.—faced-off under threat of a work stoppage was at the beginning of the 2007-2008 predatory lending world financial crisis. Back in those days when streaming was somewhat exotic and only a handful of twisted, friendless leet freaks had ever “tweeted” anything to anyone, both sides dispatched their their shrewdest negotiators.
Those deliberations between the WGA and the industry’s representatives at the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers resulted in all 12,000 members of WGA West and East striking for the first time in nearly 20 years in a labor action that lasted 100 days and scored members some rights to what was then called “new media”—basically, streaming. It also ended just in time to bring the world those two sad, final, recession-budgeted seasons of Scrubs after ABC picked it out of NBC’s dumpster in 2008.
Now, as Variety reports, one indication of how optimistic the producers and studios are for the success of the upcoming talks is the fact that they have already started stockpiling scripts in advance of the May 1 deadline for setting a new Minimum Basic Agreement for most scripted TV and film productions between the WGA and the studio-producer axis.
Further imperiling the chances of seeing new entertainment written by humans in the relevant future, actors’ union SAG-AFTRA and the Directors Guild of America have contracts with the studios, networks and streamers that expire on June 30, Variety notes.
One sign, however, that the three unions and the studios plan to start bargaining came this week when the WGA announced the 24 members of the negotiating committee that will lead upcoming talks. The group is co-chaired by two former WGA West presidents, Futurama co-executive producer David Goodman and Party of Five creator Chris Keyser, who helped lead the guild’s crusade of 2019-2021 against the practice of agents charging writers “packaging fees” for “helping” studios assemble their TV and movie projects—ending in masses of writers firing their agents, those agents then suing those clients through the WGA, and other mixed results.
The chances of a peaceful reckoning aren’t looking great now, either.
“Everything changed after Labor Day,” Variety quotes someone it identifies as a veteran network executive. “Everybody’s calling around trying to find anyone with a desk-drawer project that has a few scripts done.”
Sources tell the trade that one can’t miss the mad dash of creative executives furiously trying to get scripts scripted and schedules shortened so that the writing can get done long before the May 1 deadline. Work timetables are also being scrambled for existing series, with Variety citing “anecdotal reports” of networks pressuring shows to take their planned winter holiday hiatus some other time in order to buckle down and hoard as many episodes as possible against the potential that all deliberations will go totally fubar.
And there’s plenty of reason to assume that they will, as studio execs are already banking on the premise that the exponential rise of streamers and other outlets since the last strike have cut deep into the writers’ leverage.
“What if Netflix decides it doesn’t need a new show every week?” a source described as a senior talent agency exec mused. “What if Amazon decides to drop to only a few big shows a year? If they don’t lose Prime customers, are they going to care? Every writer I know that makes more than $1 million a year is freaking out about a strike.”
If you’re thinking these outlets still need original content other than assisted reality fare such as Housewives and Kardashians, which technically have no writers, those canny agents and studio brains have that all sewn-up as well.
During a panel at the MIA Market in Rome last month, CAA head of Global TV Ted Miller predicted, “I think there’s likely going to be a writers strike.” And while that’ll be tough for writers stateside, he added, “For producers making content outside of the U.S., especially English language content, I think there’ll be a really interesting opportunity as we head towards that strike date in May. There will be an appetite at the U.S. buyers, streamers or otherwise for content.”
Not surprisingly, one literary agent and talent manager told Variety that a strike “should be avoided at all costs,” urging, “We need to turn the temperature down now.”