The Writers Guild of America strike reaches its 100th day on Wednesday, equaling the duration of the last strike with no signs that labor or management is about to back down from hardened positions that have fueled the contract impasse.
The WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) had their first meeting in three months on Aug. 4. But no one emerged with much optimism about getting a deal any time soon, and the war of attrition continues.
Chris Keyser and David Goodman, both former WGA West presidents who are co-chairs of the guild’s negotiating committee, issued a statement Aug. 8 calling the 100-day marker “a milestone of shame for the AMPTP.” The atmosphere in the industry went from tense to “civil war,” in the words of a veteran producer, once SAG-AFTRA joined the scribe tribe July 14 in the industry’s first simultaneous labor action by writers and actors since 1960.
Hollywood’s bargaining agent “and their member studios are wholly responsible for the over three month shutdown of the industry and the pain it has caused workers and all others whose livelihoods depends on this business,” Keyser and Goodman stated. “Ultimately, the studios have no choice but to make a fair deal. Until then, we remain resolved and united.”
To reinforce that message, the WGA has called for a big turnout of members Wednesday at picket locations in Los Angeles and outside of Netflix offices in Manhattan.
The AMPTP declined to comment. A seasoned industry labor executive painted a grim picture of the mood in the C-suites amid a work stoppage of this scale and length.
“It’s this medieval siege,” said Jeff Ruthizer, a former longtime labor relations VP for ABC. “They’ve crossed the moat. They’re banging at the gates. The employers are on the top of the gates throwing rocks. They’re hoping that inside the castle, they start eating shoe leather. It’s just absolutely outright war. Whoever has greater resources and willpower and a larder of supplies is going to win.”
On the union side, some members argue that writers can afford to hold out longer than during the previous strike, thanks to the many changes in the business. Sixteen years ago, scribes pounded the pavement from Nov. 5, 2007 until Feb. 12, 2008, when a hard-fought contract that greatly expanded the WGA’s jurisdiction over what was quaintly dubbed “new media” was ratified by a 92.5% margin of 3,775 votes cast.
Back then, experienced writers felt deeply the loss of income during the work stoppage because pay scales were higher and overall deals were more plentiful. In recent years, pay rates are squeezed and working conditions are generally tougher for all but A-list scribes. Yet guild membership has grown significantly.
“Writers were struggling so much that being on strike was not that big a step down for them,” screenwriter Billy Ray, a former co-chair of the WGA negotiating committee, told Variety as he picketed outside Fox Studios in West L.A. on Tuesday. “They’re already going a year between jobs, so this feels like the normal course of business.”
TV series episode orders have shrunk dramatically in the streaming TV era, leaving writers searching for work much of the year.
“A hundred days doesn’t sound as daunting as it did maybe in 2007, when everyone was used to working 10 out of 12 months a year,” said Emma Soren, a writer who picketed outside Sony Pictures Entertainment in Culver City on Tuesday. “Now people are used to working maybe no more than 20 weeks a year.”
On the TV side, the strike has yet to have a clear impact on ratings. Broadcast ratings have continued their long downward trend this summer. But the top summer programs, as usual, are most unscripted and reality-competition shows, including “America’s Got Talent,” “Big Brother,” “MasterChef” and “The Bachelorette.” None of those long-running franchises have been affected by the strike.
However, networks are gearing up for a fall season launch that is just around the corner. That’s when the lack of new and returning drama and comedy series will start to put a dent in ratings and ad revenue. Broadcast schedules will feature a mix of sports, unscripted shows, series acquired from Canada and the U.K., and shows that have already aired on streaming platforms.
The lack of new content development, feature film writing and TV episodic work being done since May 2 will be harmful to the companies in the long run. But for now the majors including Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount Global, have noted in second-quarter earnings calls in recent days that they are saving big money in the short term with the vast majority of content production (and associated costs) suspended.
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For now at least, there does not appear to be much pressure on negotiators on either side to make the kind of major concession that might end the stalemate.
“It always comes down to which side is going to have internal fractures that force it to make a step forward,” said screenwriter Howard Gould, who was a member of the WGA negotiating committee during the 2007-08 strike. “I certainly don’t see the least bit of that on the writers’ side.”
Among the writers, there has been a hope that the AMPTP companies will start to split apart, given that they are competitors with different business models. But there has been no clear sign of that either.
By this point in the 2007-08 strike, the WGA leadership was facing urgent pleas from within the union to take a deal.
“At 100 days, 15 years ago, we were pushing it exactly as far as we could push it,” Gould said. “I don’t think we could have made it to 110.”
At the time, the guild was facing pressure to accept terms that had been offered to the Directors Guild of America. But this strike has gone differently, thanks to SAG-AFTRA’s decision to mount its first industry-wide strike since 1980.
WGA member Ray said SAG-AFTRA’s determination has helped quell the longstanding management narrative that the writers are just plain crazy.
“You just couldn’t say that out loud anymore,” he said. “That was a gigantic, gigantic factor.”
He also cited a change in the tone of media coverage. This time, it has been much more favorable to the writers, he said.
“Every single reporter knows that the things we’re talking about in the film and television business are all true for the journalism business,” Ray said. “And so the coverage is so different than it was last time. The Writers Guild was just getting pounded. And that’s just not happening.”
Howard Rodman, a former president of WGA West, said that there is also a much greater esprit de corps on the picket lines.
“The membership is a lot younger now, and social media has happened in a much bigger way,” he said. “It’s much livelier and there’s much, much more solidarity.”
The sides are at odds on a range of issues, including a viewership-based streaming residual, a minimum staff size for TV writers rooms and weekly pay for film writers. The meeting on Friday confirmed that there has been no movement in the positions of the WGA nor the AMPTP companies on any of those line-in-the-sand items.
“We just seem to be speaking a completely different language,” Gould said. “We have things we know we need to make screen and TV writing a viable career. And they’re just not interested in making that work for us.”
John McLean, a former executive director of the WGA West who also worked as industrial relations VP for CBS, said he doesn’t see a resolution any time soon.
“I just see a 15-round slugfest here,” he said. “See who falls.”
Jennifer Maas and Cynthia Littleton contributed to this story.
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