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TV And Movie Writers Strike Over 'Gig Economy' Conditions. What’s At Stake In The WGA Walkout

A group of people wearing blue T-shirts and holding black and white signs with the words "Writers Guild of America on Strike!" are picketing underneath a big sign that reads "Walt Disney." Scattered wisps of clouds break up the otherwise blue sky on a sunny day, and the man and woman closest to the viewer are wearing sunglasses.
Members of the Writer's Guild of America picketing in front of Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.
(Brian Feinzimer
for LAist)
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Since Tuesday, members of the Writers Guild of America have been picketing outside movie studios and streamer HQ's across Los Angeles, from Sony and Amazon in Culver City to Warner Brothers and Disney in Burbank.

Negotiations between the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television producers broke down Monday night, just hours before the current contract expired at midnight.

Tweet reads: The Board of Directors of the @WGAwest and the Council of the @WGA east, acting on the authority granted to them by their membershps, have voted unanimously to call a strike, effective 12:01 a.m., Tuesday, May 2
(WGA via Twitter)

It is the first WGA strike in 15 years; the last work stoppage began in November 2007 and lasted 100 days. Late night television shows have already gone off the air, and there won't be a Pete Davidson-hosted edition ofSaturday Night Live this weekend.

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The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers issued a statement Monday night saying the talks had ended.

“Negotiations between the AMPTP and the WGA concluded without an agreement today,” the statement said. “The AMPTP presented a comprehensive package proposal to the [WGA] last night which included generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals.“

The AMPTP also indicated to the WGA that it is prepared to improve that offer, but was unwilling to do so because of the magnitude of other proposals still on the table that the guild continues to insist upon.

full statement from AMPTP

We want to hear from you

How is the WGA strike affecting you?

What went wrong

"The primary sticking points are 'mandatory staffing,' and 'duration of employment' — guild proposals that would require a company to staff a show with a certain number of writers for a specified period of time, whether needed or not,” the statement concluded.

For more than a month, the WGA and the AMPTP have been in contract talks, negotiating largely over base-level pay and residual compensation.

The WGA released a detailed list of where the negotiations stand:

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When the WGA put its members on alert on Sunday night to be ready to picket, they told members in an email:

“The greatest amount of leverage we collectively bring to a strike action is the withdrawal of our labor. Picketing is a key tactic to demonstrate that we are all in this together, and that until a strike is resolved, it’s not business as usual.”

Mayor Bass reaction

On Tuesday morning, Mayor Karen Bass said she was "very concerned."

"We understand that the entertainment industry is one of our number one industries and I'm hoping that they will reach resolution soon."

The Mayor said she was hoping to get "a handle on what's going on by talking to all parties involved."

The issues: Writers

The WGA says that most of its nearly 12,000 members are making less than they once did, and that after factoring for inflation, average WGA pay has actually dropped 14% over the last five years.

The union says about half of WGA members are earning scale — the bare minimum wages stipulated by the contract with the AMPTP. Ten years ago, it was only a third.

In addition to asking for higher minimum compensation for all forms of writing, the guild also wants its screenwriters to collect a better share of supplementary compensation like residuals for series and movies produced for streaming platforms.

(Writers who work for reality shows and broadcast, cable and online news stations aren’t part of the current WGA contract.)

While a strike would hurt its members in the short term, the WGA says it has to improve its contract for the long-term financial and creative health of its screenwriters.

The guild says current contract terms failed to anticipate the explosive growth of streaming content (the last pact was negotiated during the pandemic, with little gains for writers).

Read the union's demands below:

A list of demands from the Writers Guild of America in its current contract talks with studios and producers.
A list of demands as agreed to by members of the Writers Guild of America in its current contract talks with studios and producers.

The issues: Film and TV executives

Executives at studios and streamers maintain that they are still recovering from pandemic losses and have spent billions of dollars creating and buying content for new streaming platforms, some of which are far from profitable.

While some streamers are thriving (Netflix recently reported $1.71 billion in quarterly operating income), the finances of others are unknown: Apple, the parent of Apple TV Plus, and Amazon, the parent of Amazon Studios, do not break out returns for their entertainment divisions.

A large billboard outlined against the sky shows Mickey mouse in a sequinned jacket welcoming people to the magic castle. The words say Join the celebration, and Disney 100, Disneyland
A billboard advertises Disneyland
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)

The Walt Disney Co. is currently firing thousands of employees to save money, having lost close to $10 billion to date on its streaming platforms. Warner Bros. Discovery is making deep cuts because of its $50 billion of debt. (In their most recent quarterly earnings, however, Disney reported $1.28 billion in net income, while Warners said its studios made $768 million.)

For Hollywood executives, the stakes are high: if the AMPTP deal for writers increases pay and residual payments, their profit margins could shrink. Furthermore, other Hollywood unions would likely use any WGA gains as the template for their demands; contracts for the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America both expire in the coming weeks.

The AMPTP released a statement addressing many of the WGA concerns below. Here are a few: (see full statement below)

  • "Gig economy" for writers: It says screenwriting has almost nothing in common with standard “gigs" jobs. Writers often have a guarantee of specific weeks or episodes, and writing jobs come with benefits such as employer-paid health care and pension plan contributions.
  • Mandatory staffing and duration of employment: The AMPT sees this essentially as a hiring quota that's "incompatible with the creative nature of our industry", and says it's a one-size-fits-all solution to shows that are each unique.
  • Overall Numbers: The AMTP disputes the WGA's claim that it's only offering $41 million a year in minimum wage increases. It says it's nearer $97 million per year, which doesn't take into account other wage and residual increases it's offered.
  • Wage Increases: It's offering the highest first-year general wage increase in more than 25 years, while also offering to create "an entirely new category of rates that will establish a new and higher floor for mid-level writers’ compensation".
  • Streaming Residuals: A 46% increase in residuals took effect in 2020, and many writers have yet to see these in their paychecks. For a one-hour episode of a Netflix or Amazon Prime series, a writer receives $72,000 in residuals over three years, growing to $114,000 over seven years.
  • Artificial Intelligence: "AI raises hard, important creative and legal questions for everyone. For example, writers want to be able to use this technology as part of their creative process, without changing how credits are determined, which is complicated given AI material can't be copyrighted. So it's something that requires a lot more discussion, which we've committed to doing."

What happens now to TV shows and movies?

Ahead of the WGA contract’s expiration, studios and streamers stockpiled scripts so they would have content to produce if there were a strike. But there are still differences between platforms:

  • Late night talk shows: Late night talk shows rely on being topical, so scripts are usually written just hours before taping. Without writers, they immediately went off the air, including NBC's Late Night With Seth Meyers, CBS's The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live 
  • Streamers: Because companies like Netflix release series in multiple languages, their production schedules often run many months ahead of traditional TV networks, so streamers tend to have a bigger shelf of completed shows. So there may be less of a chance of a streaming series running out of episodes than a primetime network series.
  • Movies: Movies have a fairly long lead time, so almost all of the movies due to come out through the end of the year already have finished filming. Movies that were slated to begin production soon and come out next year or later could be pushed back.
A group of men and women wearing blue T shirts and holding signs that say Writers Guild of America on strike walk around outside CBS studios, a glass fronted building in the background
Members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and its supporters picket outside of CBS Television City
(Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images
Getty Images North America)

What happens if other Hollywood guilds refuse to cross WGA picket lines?

If other guilds refuse to work, production could cease almost immediately.

  • The Screen Actors Guild has told its members that if they honored WGA pickets and refused to work, they would be in violation of SAG’S deal with the AMPTP. 

     “If you are contracted to work on a project that continues production while the WGA is on strike, you are legally obligated to continue working by your personal services agreement and the ‘no strike’ clause in our collective bargaining agreements,” it said.

  • The Directors Guild of America has instructed its members to cross picket lines, saying that they are also contractually obligated to continue working regardless of any strikes. 
  • Teamsters Local 399, which represents thousands of below-the-line workers such as casting directors, location managers, couriers, animal handlers and drivers, said they will not cross any WGA picket lines.

     “We're getting reports daily of the drivers that are turning away" rather than cross picket lines, said Lindsay Dougherty, principal officer of Teamsters Local 399. She says about 100 drivers have decided to honor the WGA picket lines, and that the union has told its members that those who refuse to cross lines will not be disciplined.“That’s the going theme of the Teamsters," she said. "We like to say as Teamsters that ‘Teamsters don’t cross picket lines.’”

Meanwhile the WGA has made clear to its members that it will not allow any work related to writing at all, such as pitching an idea to a producer. The guild said screenwriters can work on spec scripts (stories they are writing on their own), but cannot work on a project with a producer or an actor. Talent agents cannot work on deals or book work for WGA members.

What's the history of WGA strikes?

The Writers Guild of America is Hollywood’s most militant guild, having called for more strikes than any other industry union. Since 1960, the WGA has been on strike six times, more than all the other guilds combined.

The work stoppages generally have been prompted by screenwriters’ attempting to be paid more for emerging distribution platforms. For example:

  • 1981 The WGA went on strike for three months, largely hinged on payments for the then-nascent pay television channels (1981 was the first year that Showtime and HBO both launched 24-hour schedules) and home video.
  • 1985 The same year that the very first Blockbuster Video store opened, the WGA called a strike, seeking a larger share of film and TV programming resold on videocassettes. But Guild members were divided over the negotiations, as as internal dissent mounted, the WGA canceled the strike after two weeks, accepting what proved to be a disastrously tiny slice of home video revenues.
  • 1988 As international markets grew rapidly, the WGA went on strike for 22 weeks (the longest in guild history) over sales of TV shows to basic cable networks like TBS and foreign distributors.
  • 2007 The WGA held a 100-day walkout, in part tied to a dispute over content created for “new media,” which many people today would call the Internet.

What happened to TV and movies during the last writers strike?

Within a month of the 2007-2008 strike starting in early November, a few TV series ran out of new episodes.

By mid-December, a little more than a month after the walkout began, almost all scripted TV production stopped.

Late-night shows, such as The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Late Show With David Letterman had to broadcast reruns.

A variety of network hits, including Two and a Half Men, The Office and Desperate Housewives went off the air.

What was the economic impact?

The Milken Institute estimated:

  • $2.1 billion in economic losses
  • Net loss of 37,700 jobs directly and indirectly tied to the entertainment industry.

Those 2007-08 losses worked out to about $20 million a day, or close to $30 million in today’s dollars. But the number of scripted series and streaming movies has grown exponentially since then.

The financial and job loss estimate includes not only lost pay for screenwriters, but also for people who work in production, and businesses that either cater to or depend on production: everything from costume and prop rental companies to caterers and equipment rental outfits.

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Corrected May 1, 2023 at 5:25 AM PDT
An earlier version incorrectly reported that a strike could be called as early as 12:01 a.m. Monday, May 1. The contract expiration is at 12:01a.m. Tuesday May 2. LAist regrets the error.
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