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Potential for Hollywood Writers Strike Increases as Tensions Grow in Contract Negotiations

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Something very important is happening in Hollywood right now, something that could have huge ramifications for the television and movies you love, and you probably didn’t even know it. No, it’s not the Ant-Man versus Batman Marvel-DC crossover of our dreams, but it does involve some little guys versus some billionaires: it’s the contract talks between the Writers Guild of America and The Alliance Of Motion Picture And Television Producers. Yes, the time has come again for the studios and the creators we all love to renegotiate their contract, and things are going … well, let’s say that the Ant-Man vs Batman fight would look easy compared to this.

As of the writing of his article, negotiations are on hold, set to resume on April 25th, and the WGA is seeking permission from its membership to strike. That means if a deal is not reached by midnight on May 1st, all the keyboards in Hollywood stop clicking. 

If you’re having flashback to the writer’s strike 2007, you’re not alone. So, how did we end up here again?

The main issue of the 2007-8 strike—where writers walked out for 100 days—was easy to understand. Writers wanted a piece of the internet. They asked to be better compensated (or simply compensated at all) when their work was disseminated digitally. This may seem obvious now, when so much of what we watch is online, but it was a big issue 10 years ago as streaming and video on demand were just taking off. In the new contract negotiations between the WGA and AMPTP (who represents the studios), the current issues are harder to understand for people who don’t make their living as writers, but they’re still just as important.

The WGA’s asks are based on several years of surveys and conversations with their members, but their main focus is that it is increasingly hard for writers in Hollywood to make ends meet. According to the WGA, while corporate profits for the studios are at an all time high (over 50 BILLION last year) writer salaries have decreased by 23%. There’s lots of reasons for this, but a big one is the prevalence of deals that ask for shorter TV seasons paired with options and exclusivity clauses in writer contracts, which prevents them from working on other shows while in hiatus.

This means that while a writer may get paid the same per episode as in previous years, they have fewer episodes and then must to stretch that money over a longer period—not great. There’s also the issue that writers working in streaming or on basic cable—where a huge chunk of the work is now—are not paid as much as writers working for the big networks. There are other issues at play, like parental leave, health benefits, increased digital residuals, royalties from DVD sales, film screenwriter pay (they don’t make much unless it’s a giant blockbuster) and diversity. In a recent podcast, the WGA negotiation team maintained that writers are looking to go back to where they were, not move up from where they are.

Negotiations began mid-March and have been extremely contentious. So far, the parties have walked away from the table twice and things are looking bleak. That’s where the strike threat comes in. The negotiation committee, which represents the writers, is seeking permission from the membership of the WGA to authorize a strike. Voting on whether to authorize a strike opened Tuesday and will finalize on Monday the 24th before negotiations restart. Authorization doesn’t mean for sure that writers will strike, but it means that negotiators will have that card in their pocket to play if negotiations continue to be unproductive from their point of view. The studios for their part contend that writers are asking too much and should be happy with things as they are.

A strike is a risky move, and it puts not just writers’ welfares at risk for the short term, but jobs for most of Hollywood. Writers are the source from which everything flows and if they stop, everything stops, from blockbuster production to the catering on the set of Wynona Earp. Looking back at 2007-8, we can see other consequences. Many new TV series that showed great promise never recovered from the strike. And there was also the pesky rise of reality TV (and we know how that worked out) and weeks without late night comedy when we needed it the most.

A strike is a huge move, but it may be the only move the writers have in order to get what they feel is a fair share of the pie. Writers are voicing their support for the authorization and a successful yes vote looks likely. A strike has huge consequences because Hollywood’s product is stories, and if the stories stop, nothing happens. But because those stories are the foundation of the industry, it’s so much more important that the creators of those stories get their fair share.

(image: Shutterstock)

Jessica Mason is a writer and lawyer living in Portland, Oregon passionate about corgis, fandom, and awesome girls.  Follow her on Twitter at @FangirlingJess.

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