As of today, thousands of Hollywood television and movie writers are going on strike for the first time in 15 years.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) voted unanimously to strike on Tuesday after contract negotiations with the major Hollywood studios collapsed. The WGA is attempting to secure higher wages and better working conditions from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) — a group representing around 350 major studios and streaming services like Netflix, Disney, Amazon, Apple, and Sony — for the thousands of movie and television writers the union represents. Picket lines are expected to form starting Tuesday afternoon.
The last WGA strike in 2007 and 2008 lasted 100 days and was credited with tipping California into a recession, causing a loss of around $2.1 billion to the state’s economy.
Shows like Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon will be the first affected and are expected to immediately stop production. Other TV shows like scripted dramas or soap operas are also expected to be impacted, either cutting production short (and thereby reducing the number of episodes per season) or halting entirely. Movies could also be affected depending on how long the strikes go on for, though studios, networks, and producers have been stockpiling scripts and boosting international productions in preparation for this outcome.
The WGA is trying to secure a new three-year contract for its 11,500 members, arguing that the shift to streaming has made it difficult for writers to make a living. There are a lot of complex reasons for this, but the biggest issues boil down to TV shows on streaming services having shorter seasons, residual payments being lower than those for broadcast TV, and the rise of “mini rooms” — small groups that quickly produce scripts — that make writers more disposable.
A report published by the union on March 14th found that half of TV series writers are currently being paid the basic minimum rate, up from 33 percent between 2013-2014. “The companies have used the transition to streaming to cut writer pay and separate writing from production, worsening working conditions for series writers at all levels,” said the WGA, adding that more writers are “working at minimum regardless of experience.”
The union’s demands include increasing minimum wage rates and residuals payments, addressing the “abuses of mini-rooms,” and increased contributions to the union’s health and pension plan. The WGA also wants safeguards to regulate the use of artificial intelligence in scriptwriting, preventing it from being used to generate content or rewrite work already contracted by human writers.
The AMPTP provided a statement claiming it had offered “generous increases in compensation” that included an improvement in streaming residuals and had been willing to “improve that offer.” It was unwilling to compromise on the union’s demands for “mandatory staffing” and “duration of employment” however, saying these “primary sticking points” would require companies to staff shows with writers even if they’re not needed.
“The companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing,” said the WGA West on Monday. “From their refusal to guarantee any level of weekly employment in episodic television, to the creation of a ‘day rate’ in comedy variety, to their stonewalling on free work for screenwriters and on AI for all writers, they have closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession. No such deal could ever be contemplated by this membership.”
Tensions over contracts have been rising between the WGA and AMPTP for several years now. The last full-fledged contract negotiations took place in 2017, reaching a tentative agreement minutes after the previous contract expiration deadline had passed. The covid pandemic then made it difficult for both sides to negotiate terms for the following three-year contract agreement in 2020.
Today’s strike may only be the start of Hollywood’s woes as contracts at The Screen Actors Guild American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA) are set to expire on June 30th. Should SAG-AFTRA and the DGA also agree to a strike action following their own negotiations, production could completely cease on scripted shows and movies for the foreseeable future.