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Hollywood screenwriters go on first strike in 15 years, halting production

The writers’ union says no agreement has been reached to improve their working conditions after six weeks of negotiations with eight major studios

Hollywood
Some of the banners prepared by Writers Guild of America members for the writers' strike starting this Tuesday.WGAWest

Starting this Tuesday, thousands of Hollywood screenwriters will go on strike, the first since 2007. Fifteen years later, writers will gather at the gates of the eight major studios as an act of protest. The Writers Guild of America, a 10,000-member union, announced Monday night that no agreement has been reached after six weeks of negotiations with industry representatives. “We will be on strike after the contract expires at midnight,” read the email received last night by thousands of WGA members, a majority of whom had already voted to strike a few weeks ago.

“Though our Negotiating Committee began this process intent on making a fair deal, the studios’ responses have been wholly insufficient given the existential crisis writers are facing,” the organization said on Twitter. The WGA had been engaged for months in dialogue with the major players in the entertainment industry — Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Warner Brothers, NBCUniversal, Paramount and Sony. The union was seeking an annual wage increase of $429 million. The studios, grouped under the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), only offered an increase of about $86 million intended only to improve conditions for first-time screenwriters.

Across Los Angeles, protests will be held at the gates of the major studios, where hundreds of screenwriters will father to demand improvements and an end to the precariousness caused by the explosion of streaming platforms in the wake of the pandemic. The WGA, which has about 6,000 active screenwriters, says the average income has dropped from $277,000 a year in 2005 to $260,000 in 2021. Many writers claim they have stagnated at the weekly minimum of $4,546, despite a multiplying number of projects.

Monday night’s announcement dashes the possibility of a last-minute agreement. Something similar happened in 2007, when a large majority of the WGA backed a strike. The strike by this important Hollywood sector began in November 2007 and lasted until February 12, 2008. A report by the Milken Institute put the impact of those weeks of protest on California’s economy at $2.1 billion, in addition to the destruction of 37,700 jobs.

The strike will mainly affect late night shows and, in general, live broadcasts. Jimmy Fallon’s show on NBC, Jimmy Kimmel’s show on ABC, and Stephen Colbert’s show on CBS will broadcast reruns as of Tuesday because they will not have writers. Throughout the protest, the productions will not have professionals who can modify the scripts. Nor will it be possible to propose new television productions, a medium where scriptwriters are more important than in the movies.

What’s at the core of the negotiations?

Television is at the center of the negotiation discussion. The WGA wanted the studios to accept 10 weeks of work for so-called mini-writers rooms, that is, for teams of six writers who, with the supervision of producers, develop a project. The union claims that the entertainment giants abuse this resource, since they only need a handful of writers to close a season of a series of eight or 10 episodes in less time than those 10 weeks. This more economical model threatens the traditional way of working that was used for series of more than 20 episodes whose production took several months. The studios rejected the point and made no counterproposal.

Another key issue is the so-called residuals or compensation, that is, the amount of money received by the member of a production every time a film or series is broadcast on free-to-air television or streaming platforms. This income was $467 million in 2020, while last year it increased to $493 million. The union proposed a minimum of $6,600 for each episode broadcast on a digital platform with fewer than 20 million subscribers and a maximum of $20,000 for those with more than 75 million subscribers. The studios, on the other hand, proposed $1,000 for smaller services and $8,000 for larger ones.

The studios have maintained a discreet profile during the negotiations. Their messages have focused on the economic crisis that the sector is going through, and they have assured that the big companies have had to make layoffs and eliminate productions and series in order to stay afloat after the pandemic. Film LA, a Los Angeles County organization, claims that the pace of productions fell by 24% in the first months of 2023 compared to the same period last year. The second quarter will also suffer from the first strike to rock Hollywood in the streaming era.

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