Hollywood is on pins and needles at the prospect of a Writers Guild of America (WGA) walkout, which could occur as early as May 2. On April 24, the Guild announced that a strike authorization vote had passed with 96% support. Although the vote is largely symbolic–a second vote would be required to begin an actual strike–it succeeded in sending the message that writers are ready and willing to take that next step.
The last writers’ strike, in 2007-08, lasted 100 days and created severe hardships throughout the industry, although the WGA claims the strike was ultimately a win for its members. The threat of another strike has created an atmosphere of mild panic as studios rush to close deals and stockpile scripts. Although many insiders express optimism that a walkout can be averted, the consensus is that this is too close to call.
There are three critical issues on the table as negotiations enter their home stretch.
- Compensation: The WGA asserts that average writers’ earnings have been going down despite the explosion of “peak TV.” Staff writers are paid on an episodic basis. Wage scales were historically set on the expectation that a typical television season would comprise 22 episodes. While this may still be the case on broadcast TV, most shows on cable and streaming services have seasons of 12 episodes or fewer. Yet despite this cutback, the exclusivity provisions in writers’ contracts prohibit them from finding other work during hiatus periods.
- Pension & Health: This Guild made this less of a priority in previous negotiations. As a result, it predicts that the Pension & Health Plans will be out of money by 2020. The shortfall is exacerbated by an aging membership and the overall decline in compensation. The Guild is looking for a big boost in contributions from employers in order to shore up the plans.
- Streaming Residuals: Budgets for series on subscription streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon are frequently higher than those for broadcast television, but the residuals structure is much less favorable. The Directors Guild reached a deal in December that tripled residual payments from such services, so the studios and networks clearly have room to move on this issue. It’s an open question, however, whether the concessions they are prepared to make will be adequate to the writers’ particular needs.
We will know very shortly whether the industry is facing another shutdown. Meanwhile, dust off those unscripted projects.