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For many people outside the negotiating room, the Hollywood writers’ strike felt inevitable.
But I didn’t feel that way inside the room. Until the last day or two, negotiators from both workers and management believed that the other side would give, and that an agreement would be reached at the last minute.
But picket lines in Los Angeles and New York this week tell a different story. The conflict that led to the breakdown of the talks on the night of 1 May began the day before. On April 30, the Motion Picture and Television Producers Alliance submitted a 40-page package of proposals to the WGA’s negotiating committee. It did not include the key elements that the Writers Guild of America insisted were necessary for a new three-year contract, including mandatory minimum number of weeks for television writers and minimum staff size for writers’ rooms.
AMPTP thought the syndicate might agree to drop those – and other studios it deems uninitiated -. But on May 1st, the WGA responded to 40 AMPTP Pages with a few sentences, pulling out two minor elements.
“At that point, that really changed the perception,” said one of the studio executives. “It was like, ‘Oh crap, it’s 2007 again. “
From the WGA’s perspective, the strike became inevitable when longtime AMPTP president Carole Lombardini told negotiators that the studios would not take any further steps on several of the union’s “fundamental issues.”
said Michelle Mulroney, Vice President of WGA West.
Chris Keyser, co-chair of the WGA Negotiating Committee and former WGA West chair, said the AMPTP was willing to facilitate the deal on the sidelines, but only if the union withdrew those major proposals. “At that point there was nowhere to go,” Keyser said. “There is no point in continuing.”
Negotiations were expected to continue until the previous contract’s official expiry date of midnight Pacific Time on May 1st. But at 7:54 p.m. AMPTP issued a statement announcing that the talks had ceased. Union negotiators stayed inside the AMPTP building at the Sherman Oaks Galleria until 8:30 p.m., when they walked out looking distressed. They voted unanimously to recommend a strike, which was officially announced 10 minutes later.
“It was a very, very difficult decision for us to make,” said WGA West Treasurer Betsy Thomas. “I think we really wish we had a way forward.”
For now, the two sides are still miles apart, and there is no clear path to resuming negotiations. WGA leaders say the studios refuse to accept that “structural change” is necessary to stop the weekly hiring cannibalization. The studios counter that syndication can’t turn back the clock to a different era of television.
AMPTP Companies says it has already delivered historic improvements to its syndication contract, including an 11% increase in minimum rates in the first year for bibliographers. This includes a 4% increase on all thresholds, as well as a 7% increase to create a premium category for everyone at or above the participating product level. A 4% increase wasn’t a final offer, and it could have been higher, they say.
AMPTP also agreed to tie streaming residuals to the level of foreign subscriber numbers each broadcaster counts, though not to the level proposed by the WGA. And she would have agreed to create a pay premium for the so-called “small rooms,” but again, not at the level or with the criteria of the WGA’s initial request.
There have been some signs of progress in the last few days of formal negotiations, which began on March 20. This created some optimism on the part of the studio that the strike could be averted. The WGA wanted to get rid of the “cap” – which limits protections on “excess” income to those earning less than $400,000 a year. They agreed to keep the cap in place but raise it to $450,000 (meaning a studio could not require a writer to work longer than 2.4 weeks on an episode without paying them a prorated portion of their episode fee for any work beyond the initial period). 2.4 weeks). And the studios agreed to pay entry-level staff writers a script fee—a longstanding WGA request.
But as he got to the final 48 hours, studio negotiators complained that the WGA still wouldn’t set its top priority. And from the union’s perspective, there was frustration because AMPTP simply refused to talk about what it saw as several of the most important elements.
“We were clear with them from day one that the way they broke the system required us to talk about multiple things,” Keyser said. “Everyone knows something was very wrong, and the studios did it. About a lot of what writers need to do to make this profession viable, they won’t talk.”
For the studios, the biggest nonstarter is the minimum TV staff. The Guild suggests that pre-greenlight rooms use at least six writers. After a series is ordered, they want at least one writer for every episode, up to six episodes, and one writer for every two episodes after that, up to 12 writers. To prevent the studios from filling all of those positions with entry-level writers, they also want to set aside a portion of that bottom line for writing producers.
The syndicate also wanted writers to be guaranteed at least three weeks of work for each episode.
For the Syndicate, simply raising the minimum rates for writers was not enough, given the eroding terms of employment and the number of writers per show.
“In order to get writers decent salaries, we also needed to make sure the writers were hired and employed for a certain number of weeks,” Keyser said. “A writer who is not hired does not receive a minimum.”
But the studios say they made it clear initially that minimal staffing would not be part of the deal. They argue that it is not creatively necessary and that it robs the show’s owners—who are members of the WGA—the discretion to hire as many or as few writers as they want.
The concept strikes many as a throwback to an earlier era of unionization, when unions bargained for guaranteed jobs for their members, regardless of whether there was work for them or not.
“It feels like a feather,” said John McClain, a former CBS labor relations executive who became executive director of the WGA in 1998 and was fired in 2005. In the short run it sounds great, but in the long run it will be bad role model.” “One of the things the Writers Guild can always say is, ‘We are meritocracy.’”
Keizer replied that it wasn’t about the feathers, because those writers would actually have work to do.
“What John McClain ought to know is that it is customary in employment contracts to require a certain number of employees, who are employed for a certain period of time, who are necessary to do the job,” Keyser said.
Featherbedding is illegal if it requires the employment of workers who do no work. But many unions have minimal staffing, including firefighters and nurses. An employee’s workload is also a “mandatory” subject of bargaining under the law, so employers have to negotiate it in good faith, even if they don’t ultimately accept the union’s proposal.
The studios say they have explained their reasons for rejecting the idea. They have referred to authors who write entire programs themselves, such as “The White Lotus” creator Mike White. They argue that these writers should not be forced to hire staff to do little or nothing. But the syndication counters that nearly all shows have a writing staff — many even coming from just one person — and uncredited writers can nonetheless be helpful in contributing to the process.
The WGA is also quick to say that this isn’t their only problem, and that there are also major deal-breakers for assorted film and comedy writers as well.
“It was a deal breaker about a whole agenda,” said David Goodman, the other co-chair of the WGA’s negotiating committee and former WGA West chair. “They flatly refused any discussion of these issues — about essay writers, about comedy-variety issues. And on all of our major TV issues, they said, ‘We’re not going to talk about this,’ which means they weren’t willing to get into a discussion about our show. editorial. They wouldn’t even consider entering into negotiations to see if there was a compromise.”
Studios also rejected the idea of paying higher streaming remainder for hit shows, as they refused to share their viewership data that would be needed to calculate what’s called a performance-based residual. This problem seems to have subsided, as the focus turns to finding a way to count international subscribers to live broadcasts in the residual formula.
Among the most difficult issues is artificial intelligence. The WGA made a motion to prevent AI from being considered “literary” or “source material” under the contract. This means that even if AI material is used in the screenwriting process, it will not affect writers’ compensation or credits. That would deny studios any economic incentive to use AI, at least for projects covered by syndicates. But as written, the proposal would also allow writers who want to use AI to do so — and could give them an economic incentive to do so.
The WGA said its goal was actually to prevent the “use” of AI, and argued that AI material couldn’t be copyrighted anyway.
The topic was a source of deep, mutual suspicion, and there was little, if any, constructive engagement in the room. AMPTP has already provided a “side letter” that would underscore language, already in the contract, that specifies that the writer “shall not be deemed to include any company or impersonal financier of literary material.”
The studios also offered to meet annually to discuss the topic. It wasn’t enough to allay the guild’s fears.
Although AI may seem like a minor issue now, union leaders say they fear what could happen in the future. AMPTP has refused to rule out its use at some point in the future, as the technology advances, according to union leaders.
“We fear the possibility of artificial intelligence, which would mean that hundreds and hundreds of shows could run with a single writer and machine,” Keyser said.
For now, there are no plans to return to the table anytime soon. Keyser and Goodman both declined to talk about the “bottom line,” but Keyser said any final agreement would have to address structural issues, such as length of employment, and “return the writers the money that’s been taken from them in the last 10 years.”
AMPTP turns its focus to the Directors Guild of America, which has its own set of issues to discuss when bargaining begins a week from today. A studio source said that if talks were to resume, the WGA would have to make the first call.
The Syndicate focuses instead on charging an economic price for studio hardening. No one guesses how long the strike will last.
“As the strike progresses, of course, there is pressure on our members,” Mulroney said. But at the same time, we know that there is pain and pressure on the companies that we hit. So change is never free…we have as strong a backbone as you can get. We are united, and we are very clear about what we are here for.”
Cynthia Littleton and Adam B. Varey contributed to this story.
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