Well, it’s a new month, and for many of us, it’s not off to a good start.
Take the hard-working members of the WGA, who awaken today with the knowledge that by day’s end, they may be returning to the picket lines for the first time since 2008. As The LOS ANGELES TIMES’ Anousha Sakoui reported on Friday, the caissons are already locked and loaded:
As talks between writers and the major studios come down to the wire, a deal to negotiate a new contract that would avoid Hollywood’s first strike in 15 years remains elusive, according to three people with knowledge of the talks.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers this week made counterproposals to the Writers Guild of America, which began negotiations March 20. The union is seeking nearly $600 million in wage increases and other demands.
While there has been some progress in the talks, the sides remain far from reaching an agreement on a new contract, according to three people with knowledge of the negotiations who were not authorized to comment.
WGA members have already voted by a record margin to authorize their leaders to call a strike as early as Tuesday 12:01 a.m. if no deal is reached with the studios.
Although it’s possible the union could allow members to continue to work under the old contract even after it expires, such an outcome appears unlikely. The WGA has already told its 11,500 members that “rumors” of an extension to allow more time for talks were unfounded. The high-stakes bargaining is being closely watched by entertainment industry companies and workers. Writers have said they believe their profession faces an existential crisis as streaming has upended the economics of Hollywood. Meanwhile, studios are under pressure from Wall Street to shore up their balance sheets and improve the profitability of their streaming platforms.
I’ve already written at length about this. I’ve politely pointed out that the landscape and the executives running Hollywood/Silicon Beach today vs. 2008 are dramatically different. Streaming, as well as the pandemic, have mortally wounded any growth trajectory, and despite all evidence that suggests that something has to give, to date, not only has the battle for eyeballs anywhere intensified, no one of scale yet seems poised to give up the ghost. And the executives at the top of the food chains–Disney’s Bob Iger, Warner Discovery’s David Zaslav, Paramount Global’s Bob Bakish, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, and so many others, are business people beholded to stockholders first and foremost. Talent-friendly types like Leslie Moonves and Peter Chernin are now merely observers. They take the attitude that writers are exceptionally well compensated for their work and need to acknowledge these sea changes.
I know that world and those executives, as well as the top-tier writers and showrunners that are often used as examples of what are portrayed as petty and entitled millionaires. Several of those top-tier creatives quietly urged me to consider the plight of the rank and file writers. Fortunately, the TIMES’ Shouki and Stacy Perman recently collaborated on a lengthy piece that profiled several of them. The link to the full article is below; I strongly urge you to read it. But allow me to highlight one writer’s plight that struck me as particularly relatable:
One of the most hotly debated issues is the pervasiveness of “mini-rooms,” in which fewer writers are hired for shorter periods of time. They’re a direct result of the profound shift in the way television is made and fueled by the rise of dominant streamers like Netflix.
The traditional network television model of ordering a 22-episode series based on a pilot show is rarer. Instead, studios and networks now frequently arrange what are known as “short orders,” series of perhaps eight or 10 episodes, convening small groups of writers to flesh out the themes of a show before deciding whether to go into production.
The upshot, the guild argues, is that fewer writers are squeezed to work more for less pay.
Television writer Kamran Pasha says the practice has turned what was once a remunerative and relatively steady job into just another gig-economy hustle. “A lot of these streamers, cable networks as well, are using mini-rooms,” Pasha said. “Studios are relying on these more and more, upending the traditional method of hiring writing staffs, which can be more expensive.
Pasha recalled being invited by a major cable network, which he declined to identify, to participate in a writers room in 2017 as a producer with six other writers for a series about terrorism. In Pasha’s case, the group of seven writers was tasked with laying out the foundation of the proposed show. Pasha had budgeted that about three months’ work would include weekly pay as well as the script fee for writing one episode.
He was paid $7,373 per week for 16 weeks. A script fee would have added another roughly $30,000, he said. According to Pasha’s calculations, he would need at least two such gigs a year to exceed his budgeted $200,000 annual salary. However, Pasha later discovered the network had commissioned six episodes and that all the writers would get a script fee — except for him. The showrunner called me into the room and said, ‘Unfortunately, I just want to let you know we don’t have a script for you,’ and I was quite shocked. When I took the position, I budgeted the weekly rate, plus the presumed script fee that I was going to get. Working gig to gig, you’re budgeting, ‘How do I pay my rent the next seven months?’”
Yes, how does one pay rent? A question I am sadly, sobbingly, despairingly pondering myself this morning. Let’s just say that overnight, my world was rocked in a way that has me far more sympathetic to folks like Pasha, even if when they do work they are being far better compensated than I have been lately. Driving for Uber pays roughly a dollar a mile, and gas is close to $5 a gallon. That’s assuming you have enough money to actually pay for gas, let alone the insurance, car payment and phone service needed to be able to work for even that wage.
I had somehow continued to heed the advice of those that claim to be supportive friends that somehow, some way, something would have worked out by now. I’ve gotten some help, thanks to some of you. I’m honestly up for a few gigs that are still pending, though a writer’s strike could very well impact that timeline. But let’s just say that overnight I learned that more often than not the power of money supercedes the concept of friendship.
Pasha’s story is among many that the showrunners who are in far better shape than he claim to be fighting for. When executives like Zaslav and Iger and even Roku’s Charlie Collier get eight-figure bonuses, the scale that Pasha and others work for pales. Per the TIMES:
The minimum weekly rate that applies to staff writers’ employment starts at $4,154 if they are guaranteed for 40+ weeks. Minimums are higher if staff writers are employed for shorter periods of time. For all writers above staff writer, the minimum weekly rate starts at $7,412 and also goes up for shorter employment periods.
So I’m a bit more sympathetic to stories like Pasha’s than I was. But I’d like to think that he may have friends, family members or even fellow writers that are inclined to at least want to help him out during his struggles. I’d like to think he may have a little more savings in hand than I do. Fewer bills, including legal ones. Perhaps less adversarial people in his life who have real resources.
Maybe he even has a link just like mine. Or perhaps should. But, as I’ve been reminded time and time again by detached former friends, to do so is a cry for help and desperation that doesn’t play very well in a unforgiving Hollywood.
To many who are not writers, the act of striking is seen as just as desperate. But as THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Katie Kilkenny reported this morning, the WGA is as dug in as ever:
The Writers Guild of America told its members Sunday that they should be ready to picket if a new deal isn’t reached with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers by the May 1 deadline.
In an email sent to its members Sunday night, the guild’s negotiating committee also asked the writers to complete a survey on their preferred strike locations and times. “
While the WGA Negotiating Committee continues to bargain with the AMPTP with the goal of reaching a fair deal by tomorrow’s May 1st contract deadline, we need to be ready for a potential strike,” the email read. “The greatest amount of leverage we collectively bring to a strike action is the withdrawal of our labor. Picketing is a key tactic to demonstrate that we are all in this together, and that until a strike is resolved, it’s not business as usual.”
This, despite the disparate advice that DEADLINE’s David Robb reported last night is coming from those who perform those lines and support all who contribute to productions:
On the eve of a threatened writers’ strike, SAG-AFTRA is advising its members that they should “continue to work” in the event of a writers’ strike, which could come as soon as Monday night at midnight.
A statement SAG-AFTRA put out to its members tonight asks: “If the WGA goes on strike and I am required to show up to work, should I refuse to cross a picket line as a SAG-AFTRA member?”
The answer, SAG-AFTRA says, is: “If you are contracted to work on a project that continues production while the WGA is on strike, you are legally obligated to continue working by your personal services agreement and the ‘no strike’ clause in our collective bargaining agreements.” Actors can also “continue to audition for work” if they choose to.
The guild went on to say that “like most unions, SAG-AFTRA has a no-strike clause in our Codified Basic Agreement,” which states: “The Union agrees that, during the effective term hereof, it will not call or engage in a strike affecting motion picture production against any Producer signatory hereto.”
IATSE and the Teamsters also have “no strike” clauses in their contracts, but their leaders have told their members that their contract give their members “the legal right” to honor the WGA’s picket lines, if it comes to that. The Directors Guild, meanwhile, has told its members that while its “no-strike clauses are clear … as an individual, you cannot be forced to work. If you, as an individual, refuse to cross a picket line and perform your DGA-covered services, then your employer has the right to replace you; if you have a personal services agreement, you may be subject to claims for breach of contract.”
So I suppose some productions will continue, at least for now. Maybe you are, or might know, a performer who might have a few dollars to spare? I used to, and the fact that person isn’t in my life any more only makes my tears flow even more emphatically.
I can’t tell you when I may be motivated to write again. At this rate. I may have bigger things to worry about. You can privately message me for details. I truly hope someone might.
So, folks, if you indeed do care, I’ll yet again–and Good Lord, with a picture that includes GRASS AND TREES–post a link that I feverishly, whiningly, passionately ask you share or contribute to. No, it’s not the best look. But it’s all I’ve got. Swear on my parents’ graves.
And if any writer wants me to grab a picket sign and help you protest in solidarity, if you can offer me a bite I live within walking distance of a studio. It’s not like I have many other options
I guess we’re all on the clock now. May Day was never a more appropriate name for a day I now wish I hadn’t awoken to. Which, of course, would only align my thoughts with way too many others’.
Until next time… (whenever that may be)