The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers ended contract talks with the Writers Guild of America on Monday night, hours before the contract expiration deadline. The WGA responded by calling for a strike to begin on Tuesday.
The AMPTP cast the WGA as refusing to compromise on key issues and for “the magnitude” of its asks at the bargaining table.
“Negotiations between the AMPTP and the WGA concluded without an agreement today,” the AMPTP said in a statement issued Monday night. “The AMPTP presented a comprehensive package proposal to the Guild last night which included generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals. The AMPTP also indicated to the WGA that it is prepared to improve that offer, but was unwilling to do so because of the magnitude of other proposals still on the table that the Guild continues to insist upon. The primary sticking points are “mandatory staffing,” and “duration of employment” — Guild proposals that would require a company to staff a show with a certain number of writers for a specified period of time, whether needed or not.”
The WGA slammed Hollywood’s major players for not responding to fundamental shifts in the entertainment economy.
“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,” the WGA said. “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.”
The AMPTP in its statement left the door open for more negotiations, saying it was “willing to engage in discussions with the WGA in an effort to break this logjam.”
Labor action by the WGA will have widespread repercussions across the industry. Topical TV series such as late-night comedy and daytime talk shows will be the first to feel the pinch.
The sides had been meeting since March 20 at AMPTP headquarters in Sherman Oaks. AMPTP leaders left the building around 8 p.m. on Monday. WGA negotiating committee members followed about 30 minutes later.
The AMPTP’s statement points to issues around staffing of TV series as the primary sticking point for the talks. It’s understood that the WGA has sought guarantees for the number of writers to be hired on TV series as well as guarantees for the number of weeks that writers will be on the payroll. Concerns about the number of writers hired and the duration of their employment have been stirred up by massive changes in the way TV series are produced under the streaming and binge watching model.
As the contract expiration deadline approached, the WGA flexed its members muscle by conducting a strike authorization vote from April 11-17. Just shy of 98% of voters gave their OK for the WGA board to call a strike against Hollywood’s largest employers. The WGA’s latest strike authorization vote also drew a record voter turnout at 79% of eligible members in the WGA West and WGA East.
The impact of a strike would be far-reaching. Not only would a strike gradually shut down film and TV production across the country, the economic shock would have a ripple effect throughout Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta and other production hubs. According to FilmLA, production in Los Angeles has slowed sharply over the past three months, dropping 24% compared with the first quarter of last year. Though it is difficult to disentangle the effects of broader corporate reorganizations and the cost-cutting that has accompanied these moves, FilmLA president Paul Audley says the labor situation “seems to have delayed the start of some programming.”
That’s the opposite of what happened just ahead of the 2007 writers strike, when studios accelerated production in the months before the deadline. That work stoppage lasted 100 days, from early November 2007 to mid-February 2008.
This round of bargaining comes at the end of a decadelong ramp-up in TV production. From 2009 to 2019, the number of working TV writers increased by 70%, according to guild data, bringing a flood of fresh talent into the business. Newer writers typically make minimum salaries — $4,546 per week for a staff writer or $7,412 for anyone above entry level. The boom has greatly expanded the number of writing jobs available in a year, but it also led to structural changes that dramatically changed the way writers get paid, as well as the nature of how they work. More recently, less-experienced writers have struggled to break in as more seasoned writers are the first choices for jobs that run for a shorter number of weeks than the 27-30 week norm of traditional network television.
The pandemic hit in 2020, and then investors started souring on the economics of Netflix and other streaming services two years later, leaving many of those new writers without a clear path forward in their careers.
“A lot of production companies and streamers were doing lots of overproduction of shows,” says David Goodman, past WGA West president and co-chair of the WGA negotiating committee along with another past WGAW president, Christopher Keyser. “We had this peak number of shows that were being made, but that’s now starting to shrink,” Goodman said.
At the same time, the shows that are getting produced have fewer episodes, leaving many writers looking for other jobs or unemployed for most of the year. The guild is seeking to push back with a proposal to set minimum staffing levels for TV, to help ensure that younger and less experienced writers have the ability to break into the business. Writers also want a more robust streaming residual, to tide them over in periods of unemployment.
But the companies — faced with a streaming business model that doesn’t generate much profit — seem in no mood to accede to those demands.