From the first minute of this Wednesday, the screenwriters’ strike will become part of Hollywood history. The leaders of the screenwriters’ union, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), have ratified the agreement reached with the studios on Sunday. On Tuesday afternoon, WGA leaders endorsed the final text of the contract, putting an end to the 148 days in which the scriptwriters turned off their computers, and brought the entertainment industry to a halt. The agreement has an estimated value of $233 million a year, a much higher figure than the $83 million that executives put on the table in the first round of negotiations. Hollywood, however, is still a couple of weeks away from returning to normal. Actors are still on strike.
The 11,500 members of the WGA will vote between October 2 and 9 on the collective contract that is on the table. The WGA’s negotiating committee made it clear it was pleased with the deal struck on Sunday, describing it as “exceptional.” Following the tentative agreement, the leaders of the organization began to explain the benefits contained in the new 94-page text, which will be in force for three years. The deal will 5% increase writers’ basic pay in the first year of the contract’s term, 4% in the second year and 3.5% in the third. It also includes bonuses for hit shows online, and restricts the use of artificial intelligence. Now that WGA leaders have voted to recommend the tentative agreement, writers will be able to return to work, starting Wednesday. Talk show writers are expected to be the first to return, as they were the first to walk off the job when the strike was called. These shows are set to go back on air in the first days of October.
As the scriptwriters requested, the new collective contract will offer protections against the emergence of AI in the industry. Under the deal, the tool cannot be used to write a script or rewrite a new version of one, not can it be credited as a writer instead of a human. Studios will not be able to force a screenwriter to use an AI program, such as ChatGPT, to assist with a script. The WGA will have the final say, on behalf of its members, on whether or not to allow creative materials to be used to train or develop artificial intelligence software.
The studios also agreed to a new model for residuals, the payment that is given to members of a production when a program is broadcast in a new market or platform. Under the new system, the bigger the viewership, the more a screenwriter will be paid. This was one of the points that had stalled negotiations for weeks, as studios were adamant about not revealing audience numbers. In the new text, however, the studios will share with the union, through a confidentiality agreement, the total number of hours a title was streamed both domestically and internationally.
The new contract promises to compensate, from January 1, 2021, the screenwriters for a high-budget title that is considered a success. This is defined as any title that is viewed by 20% of domestic subscribers to a streaming service, such as Prime or Netflix, in the first 90 days of release. Screenwriters will receive residual bonuses for series and films that meet this threshold. The bonus will be calculated with a formula that takes into account a production’s budget, the length of the series or film and the number of views. This means, for example, that writers of a widely watched TV series will pocket about $9,000 for a half-hour episode and $14,600 for an hour-long episode. For a feature film that has cost more than $30 million to produce, screenwriters can expect a bonus of $40,500.
Under the new contract, studios must also hire a minimum number of writers to develop treatments for a TV season. At least three writers will be needed for a six-episode show, while six is the minimum for a 13-episode show. Three of these writers may have the position of writer and producer.
The wins achieved by the WGA have raised the hopes of actors on strike. Currently, no negotiations are being held between the actors union SAG-AFTRA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents Paramount, Sony, Universal, Walt Disney, Warner Bros., the major TV networks and streaming companies such as Netflix and Apple TV, among others.
Actors continue to picket outside Hollywood studios. The WGA has not called any demonstrations since Sunday, but the group’s leadership is allowing writers to show solidarity with their colleagues on the picket line. On Tuesday, the creator of the TV show Mad Men, writer Matthew Weiner, accompanied his friend, actor Noah Wyle, at one of the protests. “We would never have had the leverage we had if SAG had not gone out,” Weiner told AP. “They were very brave to do it.”
Meanwhile, the industry is coming under greater pressure. Striking actors voted on Monday to expand their walkout to include the lucrative video game market, which recorded nearly $35 billion in profits this year. The threat promises to extend the wave of strikes that the United States has been experiencing. The video game companies under fire are Activision, Electronic Arts, Epic Games, Take 2, as well as the corresponding divisions of Disney and Warner Bros.
“It’s time for the video game companies to stop playing games and get serious about reaching an agreement on this contract,” SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher said in a statement. The studios must sit down at the negotiating table if Hollywood wants to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
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