I'm joining the Hollywood writer's strike!
I'm sick and tired of Ruppert Murdoch making millions of my content while I get paid a pittance. Besides, who's going to write all those Marvel cartoon movies with all the stuff blowing up? Chat GPT?
OMG...that's a great idea. Nobody would know the difference.
Hollywood Braces for Potential Writers’ Strike Spurred by Shift to Streaming
Fans of late-night television could be the first to feel the effects of what would be second walkout in four decades
By Joe Flint, WSJ
Updated April 30, 2023 12:59 pm ET
Hollywood is running out of time to script a happy ending.
The entertainment industry’s writers and the major networks, streamers and studios are struggling to agree on their next contract. If a deal isn’t reached by the end of Monday, the writers are expected to go on strike for only the second time in four decades.
This is the labor dispute that streaming has wrought. As the major players of the entertainment industry charge ahead in their efforts to build successful streaming services, writers say they are being shortchanged by the new rulebooks that studios, networks and streamers are using when it comes to compensation.
The coalition representing the major content providers privately counters that the growth of streaming has boosted opportunities for work and pay for writers, and that residuals—the money coming from licensing and syndication—have grown exponentially in recent years.
Fans of late-night television such as NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” could be the first to feel the effects of a strike. In a letter to Wall Street analysts and media investors, the Writers Guild has warned that those shows and other talk shows, including HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” would likely go dark without writers.
During the most recent strike, in 2007-08, some late-night shows eventually returned to the air before a deal was reached, trying to make do without the writers who crafted material such as opening monologues and skits. That strike also helped fuel the growth in so-called reality and unscripted shows, which aren’t part of the Writers Guild.
If a strike were to continue through the summer, the fall TV season for broadcast networks could be delayed as well. Writers typically gather in late spring and summer to begin working on new episodes for the fall.
HBO’s ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’ is among the late-night talk shows that would be affected by a potential strike. PHOTO: GREG ENDRIES/HBO/EVERETT COLLECTION
Because movie studios, streaming services and premium cable channels make scripted material far in advance, the impact for them and on audiences wouldn’t be immediate. There is also a rush to finish products and find content from overseas to fill any void.
“We have a large base of upcoming shows and films from around the world,” Netflix Inc. Co-Chief Executive Ted Sarandos said when discussing a possible strike during the company’s latest quarterly earnings call.
Writers aren’t the only cogs in the entertainment machine who might be walking off. Contracts for directors and actors also are expiring in the coming months.
There are myriad issues dividing the writers and their corporate partners. Some are historical sticking points, such as salaries and royalties. Others are unique to the streaming era that has upended the movie and TV industry, changing how content is made and distributed and how writers are compensated.
Also discussed is artificial intelligence and the concerns it raises about the creative process, although it isn’t a priority, people close to the talks said.
Netflix Co-CEO Ted Sarandos says the company expects to rely on shows and films from around the world if a strike occurs. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGE
At its core, this is a debate between media behemoths, who say they are struggling to adjust their business models to the new ways content is consumed, and the writers, who say entertainment companies want to turn writing into a gig-economy job.
On one side is the Writers Guild of America, which represents about 11,500 writers who work on movies, sitcoms, dramas, comedies and variety shows. This month, the writers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike.
Negotiating on behalf of the purveyors of content is the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), a coalition representing streaming services such as Netflix, movie and TV studios including Warner Bros. and Disney, and broadcast and cable networks.
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Talks that began March 20 are starting to heat up as the current contract is hours away from expiration. Negotiations are taking place far away from Hollywood glamour: in a bland office furnished with desk chairs and six long tables in a mall in the San Fernando Valley.
The past several years have seen an explosion of platforms with an insatiable appetite for movies and TV shows, but the Writers Guild says that it isn’t sharing in the success. If all its proposals were taken with no changes, they would amount to roughly 2% of the major producers’ operating profits, a person close to the union said.
The AMPTP said in a written statement that it is “fully committed to reaching a mutually beneficial deal.”
While the majority of debate is over TV, there are some flashpoints on the movie side. Screenwriters are looking to standardize compensation and residuals regardless of whether a movie is released in theaters or streaming. Residuals in streaming are set at a fixed rate, while theatrical releases are based on performance, offering a potentially higher upside.
In TV, the Writers Guild of America said 49% of writers are being paid minimum rates, an increase of 16 percentage points over the past decade. The minimum weekly rates range from $4,154 to $9,888, depending on the level of writer and the number of weeks of guaranteed work.
Striking writers walked a picket line outside Paramount Studios in 2007, during the most recent strike by the Writers Guild. PHOTO: NICK UT/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Nearly 25% of TV showrunners—the creatives in charge of making shows—are also working at minimum rate, an increase of more than 20 percentage points from 10 years ago. The minimum pay for a showrunner is $7,412 a week, according to the WGA.
“We’ve seen a deliberate downward pressure on writer pay,” said Chris Keyser, a co-chair of the WGA’s negotiating team. Mr. Keyser, a writer and producer whose credits include the 1990s hit “Party of Five,” said “the salaries are no longer efficient to exist in this business.”
Writers are also concerned about changes to the process of making shows.
Traditionally, a TV writer would work on a show from conception to the end of production. Now, many shows—particularly in the streaming world—have fewer episodes and don’t go into production until most if not all the scripts have been written or mapped out. Once the show goes from preproduction into production and postproduction, many of the writers involved in the creative process are often let go, and only a couple remain for rewrites.
“Writing happens in all three of those phases,” said Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, a WGA negotiating-committee member. The new system, she said, “is not the model that has made the studios billions of dollars off of television.”
The move to fewer episodes and fewer writers to produce a show is driven by economics and changing viewer habits, said a person familiar with the AMPTP’s thinking.
After a yearslong content-spending spree as they were building their streaming services, Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. Discovery Inc. and Paramount Global are now looking to cut costs.
Writers counter that they aren’t trying to turn back the clock to a bygone era, but see these moves as a way for their employers to squeeze them for problems of their own making.
“They are eroding protections writers have had for 70 years,” said comedy writer and WGA negotiator Adam Conover.
Write to Joe Flint at Joe.Flint@wsj.com