The union representing 11,500 writers of film, television and other entertainment forms are now on strike. It’s the first writers’ strike — and the first Hollywood strike of any kind — in 15 years. Here’s a look at the storylines the fight has spawned.
WHY ARE THE WRITERS STRIKING?
Streaming and its ripple effects are at the center of the dispute. The guild says that even as series budgets have increased, writers’ share of that money has consistently shrunk.
Streaming services’ use of smaller staffs — known in the industry as “mini rooms” — for shorter stints has made sustained income harder to come by, the guild says. And the number of writers working at guild minimums has gone from about a third to about half in the past decade.
“On TV staffs, more writers are working at minimum regardless of experience, often for fewer weeks,” the guild said in a March report.
The lack of a regular seasonal calendar in streaming has depressed pay further, the report says. And scheduled annual pay bumps under the current contract have fallen well short of increases in inflation.
The weekly minimum for a staff writer on a television series in the 2019-2020 season was $4,546, according to industry trade outlet Variety. They work an average of 29 weeks on a network show for $131,834 annually, or an average of 20 weeks on a streaming show for $90,920. For a writer-producer, the figure is $6,967 per week. Writers of comedy-variety shows for streaming have no minimum protections at all, the guild says.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents Hollywood’s studios, streamers and production companies, says the writers’ demands would require that they be kept on staff and paid when there is no work for them. “If writing needs to be done, writers are hired, but these proposals require the employment of writers whether they’re needed for the creative process or not,” the group said in a document outlining its positions.
And the AMPTP says its offers included the first-ever minimums for streaming comedy-variety writers.
The group also said that writers’ healthcare, child care and pension benefits set them far apart from the “gig economy” workers the writers have compared themselves to.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Months of negotiations still left considerable distance between writers and the AMPTP. The Writers Guild of America — whose East and West versions are technically two unions that act as a unit in these negotiations.
Talks, which often extend for hours or days past a contract deadline, instead ended hours before the most recent contract expired Monday night. By that point writers, who voted overwhelmingly to authorize their leaders to call a strike, had already begun making signs for picket lines, Which they promptly put to use Tuesday.
The AMPTP said that it had offered “generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals,” including the highest first-year wage increase in a WGA contract in more than 25 years, and the creation of a new category of rates that would mean a new, higher minimum for mid-level writers. The group said it was prepared to improve its offers, but the union was asking for so much more than companies were willing to offer that it cut off negotiations hours before the contract expired.
WHAT SHOWS WILL BE AFFECTED FIRST?
Late-night talk shows, heavily dependent on same-day, current-events-based comedy writing, were the first to feel the strike’s effect. The shows have been the de facto frontline during previous writers strikes. NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” ABC’s “ Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” all went immediately into hiatus and will air reruns. James Corden’s Thursday night farewell to his “Late Late Show” was well-timed.
“Saturday Night Live,” nearly as dependent on last-minute writing, has already axed this week’s episode with host Pete Davidson. The final two episodes in the season that follow it are in serious jeopardy.
Forthcoming awards shows are keeping plans in place for now, but those could easily fall apart.
HOW WILL THE STRIKE AFFECT SCRIPTED SERIES AND MOVIES?
The strike’s impact on scripted series could take far longer to manifest. Noticeable effects on the movie release calendar could take even longer.
Shows where writers had begun work on forthcoming seasons — including Showtime’s “Yellowjackets” — have now paused the process, and would have to scramble after the strike to stay on schedule.
Production on finished screenplays can proceed as planned (without the benefit of last-minute rewrites). In general, Hollywood’s other unions — including guilds for actors and directors, both of which face expiring deals with AMPTP in the coming months — are forbidden by their contracts to join the current strike and must continue working, though both members and leaders have expressed solidarity with the WGA.
Productions, long aware of the looming deadline, sought to wrap before it arrived. FilmLA, which hands out location permits for the Los Angeles area, say that none have been requested for television dramas or sitcoms this week.
Depending on their media consumption methods, many viewers and moviegoers may not notice the effects of a strike until long after it’s over, if at all. The menus on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video will look no different next week, but because this would be the first writers’ strike of the streaming era, there is no template for how they will look months down the line.
During the last strike, when broadcast and cable networks with well-established seasonal schedules were still predominant, many shows, including “30 Rock,” “CSI,” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” shortened their seasons.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW FOR THE WRITERS?
The full stop to work will mean major economic losses for screenwriters, though many say it’s worth it to fight the day-to-day dwindling of income.
Guild strike rules prevent members from striking new deals, making new pitches, or turning in new scripts. They are allowed to accept payment for any writing that’s already been done.
Those known in the industry as “hyphenates,” including showrunners who act as head writer-producers, performer-writers, and people like Quinta Brunson of “Abbot Elementary” who do all the above, are allowed to do the non-writing parts of their jobs under union rules, though that work may be minimal as they seek solidarity with their writing staffs. (At Monday’s Met Gala, Bruson said “I’m a member of the WGA and support WGA and … We, us, us getting what we need. … No one wants a strike, but I hope that we’re able to rectify this, whatever that means”)
HOW PREVIOUS WRITERS STRIKES HAVE PLAYED OUT
Writers have gone on strike six times, more than any group in Hollywood.
The first came in 1960, a Writers Guild walkout that lasted nearly five months. Strikes followed in 1973, 1981, and 1985. The longest work stoppage, lasting exactly five months, came in 1988.
The 2007-2008 strike was resolved after three months. Among the main concessions the writers won were requirements that fledgling streaming shows would have to hire guild writers if their budgets were big enough. It was an early harbinger of nearly every entertainment labor fight in the years that followed.