'It's going to be a while': No end in sight for Hollywood strike

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'It's going to be a while': No end in sight for Hollywood strike
Members of the Writers Guild of America and supporters walk on the picket line on the third day of a nationwide strike outside Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif., May 4, 2023. One analyst speculated that the writers’ strike, could go on long enough to affect the Emmy Awards, scheduled for Sept. 18, and delay the fall TV season. (Mark Abramson/The New York Times)

by Brooks Barnes and John Koblin

NEW YORK, NY.- It’s not just posturing: As screenwriters continue their strike against Hollywood companies, the two sides remain a galaxy apart, portending a potentially long and destructive standoff.

“Any hope that this would be fast has faded,” said Tara Kole, a founding partner of JSSK, an entertainment law firm that counts Emma Stone, Adam McKay and Halle Berry as clients. “I hate to say it, but it’s going to be a while.”

The Writers Guild of America, which represents 11,500 screenwriters, went on strike Tuesday after contract negotiations with studios, streaming services and networks failed. By the end of the week, as companies punched back at the union in the news media, and striking writers celebrated the disruption of shows filming from finished scripts, Doug Creutz, an analyst at TD Cowen, told clients that a “protracted affair seems likely.” He defined protracted as more than three months — perhaps long enough to affect the Emmy Awards, scheduled for Sept. 18, and delay the fall TV season.

The WGA has vowed to stay on strike for as long as it takes. “The week has shown, I think, just how committed and fervent writers’ feelings are about all of this,” Chris Keyser, a chair of the WGA negotiating committee, said in an interview Friday. “They’re going to stay out until something changes because they can’t afford not to.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of studios, streaming services and networks, has maintained that it hopes “to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial to writers and the health and longevity of the industry.” Privately, however, member companies say they are prepared to weather a strike of at least 100 days. The most recent writers strike, which began in 2007 and ended in 2008, lasted that long.

“It’s fair to say there’s a pretty big gap,” Bob Bakish, CEO of Paramount Global, told analysts and investors on a conference call Thursday. Paramount and its CBS subsidiary are prepared to “manage through this strike,” he added, “even if it’s for an extended duration.”

Both sides have insisted that the other needs to make the first move to restart talks. None are scheduled. For the moment, media companies have turned to contract renewal negotiations with the Directors Guild of America, which start Wednesday. That contract expires June 30.

Like writers, directors want more money, especially regarding residual payments (a type of royalty) from streaming services, which have rapidly expanded overseas. Before streaming, writers and directors (and other creative contributors, including actors) could receive residual payments whenever a show was licensed, whether that was for syndication, an international deal or DVD sales. In the streaming era, as global services including Netflix and Amazon have been reluctant to license their series, those distribution arms have been cut off.

In addition to raises, however, writers want media companies — Netflix, in particular — to make structural changes to the way they do business. The companies — Netflix, in particular — say that is a bridge too far.

The WGA has proposals for mandatory staffing and employment guarantees, for instance. The union contends that the proposals are necessary because entertainment companies are increasingly relying on what is known in Hollywood slang as a miniroom. In one example of a miniroom, studios hire a small group of writers to develop a series and write several scripts over two or three months. Because they have not officially ordered the series, studios pay writers less than if they were in a large, traditional writers’ room.

And given the relatively short duration of the positions, those writers are then left scrambling to find another job if the show is not picked up. If a show does get a green light, fewer writers are sometimes hired because blueprints and several scripts have been created.

“While the WGA has argued” that mandatory staffing and duration of employment “is necessary to preserve the writers’ room, it is in reality a hiring quota that is incompatible with the creative nature of our industry,” the studio alliance said in a statement Thursday.

Writers responded with indignation. “We don’t need the companies protecting us from our own creativity,” said Keyser, whose writing credits include “Party of Five” and “The Last Tycoon.” “What we need is protection from them essentially eliminating the job of the writer.”

Writers also want companies to agree to guarantee that artificial intelligence will not encroach on writers’ credits and compensation. Such guarantees are a nonstarter, the studio alliance has said, instead suggesting an annual meeting on advances in the technology. “AI raises hard, important creative and legal questions for everyone,” the studios said Thursday. “It’s something that requires a lot more discussion, which we have committed to doing.”

Keyser’s response: Go pound sand.

“This is exactly what they offered us with the internet in 2007 — let’s chat about it every year, until it progresses so far that there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.

In that case, have fun on the picket lines, studio executives have said privately: It’s going to be hot out there in July.

Over the past week, media companies conveyed an air of business as usual. On Thursday, HBO hosted a red carpet premiere for a documentary, while the Fox broadcast network announced a survivalist reality show called “Stars on Mars” hosted by William Shatner.

“3 … 2 … 1 … LIFT OFF!” the network’s promotional materials read.

With the exception of late-night shows, which immediately went dark, Bakish assured Wall Street, “consumers really won’t notice anything for a while.” Networks and streaming services have a large amount of banked content. Reality shows, news programs and some scripted series made by overseas companies are unaffected by the strike. Most movies scheduled for release this year are well past the writing stage.

Shares climbed Friday for every company involved with the failed contract talks; investors tend to like it when costs go down, which is what happens when production slows, as during a strike. If the strike drags into July, analysts pointed out, studios can exit pricey deals with writers under “force majeure” clauses of contracts.

“The sorry news for writers is that, in declaring a strike, they may in fact be helping the streaming giants and their parent companies,” Luke Landis, a media and internet analyst at SBV MoffettNathanson, wrote in a report Wednesday.

Writers, however, succeeded in making things difficult for studios over the first week. Apple TV+ was forced to postpone the premiere of “Still,” about Michael J. Fox and his struggle with Parkinson’s disease, because Fox refused to cross a picket line. In Los Angeles, writers picketed the Apple TV+ set for “Loot,” starring Maya Rudolph, causing taping to halt. In New York, similar actions disrupted production for shows such as “Billions,” the Showtime drama. Other affected shows included “Stranger Things” on Netflix, “Hacks” on HBO Max and the MTV Movie & TV Awards telecast Sunday, which was scheduled to go forward without a host after Drew Barrymore pulled out, citing the strike.

“The corporations have gotten too greedy,” Sasha Stewart, a writer for the Netflix documentary series, “Amend: The Fight for America” as well as “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore,” said from a picket line last week. “They want to break us. We have to show them we will not be broken.”

Writers went into the strike energized. But a rally at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Wednesday seemed to supercharge the group, in part because leaders from other entertainment unions turned out to support them — and in fiery fashion. During the 2007 strike, writers were largely left to stand alone, while a union representing camera operators, set electricians, makeup artists and other crafts workers blasted the writers for causing “devastation.”

Ellen Stutzman, chief negotiator for the writers, received a standing ovation from the estimated 1,800 people who attended the rally. During the session, writers suggested expanding picket lines to the homes of studio CEOs and starting a public campaign to get people to cancel their streaming subscriptions.

Some writers realized that Teamsters locals, which represent the many drivers whom studios rely on to transport materials (and people), would not cross picket lines. So they started to picket before dawn to intercept them. (The WGA has advised a 9 a.m. starting time.) At least one show, the Apple TV+ dystopian workplace drama “Severance,” was forced to shut down production Friday as a result of Teamsters drivers’ refusing to cross.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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