Write History. Don’t Rewrite It.

I want to go on record that I fully endorse and support the concerns of the talented members of the Writers Guild of America in their battle with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that has led Hollywood, in the centennial year of its iconic sign and two of its largest studios, Warner Brothers and Disney, to a potential writers’ strike.  So, after a couple of tense weeks where article after article dropped on industry websites detailing the issues being debated and the potential degree of impact that a strike could produce, the Deadline article that dropped late Friday night authored by Peter WhiteDominic Patten and David Robb was heartening:

We might be getting somewhere after it emerged that the writers and studios could hold more talks over the next two weeks.

Deadline understands that there is a proposal in place for the two sides to potentially talk next Tuesday.

This is a significant step in the negotiations between the WGA and AMPTP as there was a planned two-week break starting from the end of today, with the original idea to come back to the table for eight days beginning on April 17. However, sources have told Deadline that there seems to be a willingness to keep discussions going, in some form, after some common ground was found between the WGA and AMPTP.

Some of this has been credited to the leadership of WGAW Assistant Executive Director Ellen Stutzman, who suddenly replaced David Young on February 28 after he went on medical leave.

A late addition to top of the guild’s 25-person negotiating committee, Stutzman has been singled out for her role in the talks. “There’s a different mood in the room with Ellen leading things,” said one WGA member. “It’s firm, thoughtful, not giving in, but not trying to start a fight over nothing,” she added.

Considering the drumbeats that were rising across other publications in the prior two weeks, this, to me, was a welcome sign.  These were a handful of the headlines that had dropped in the previous days:

Potential Writers Strike Presents Disruption (and Opportunity) to Global Content Creators

Hollywood braces for potential strike as writers begin high-stakes talks with studios

How Networks and Streamers Are Prepping for a Potential Writers Strike

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I am one of the unicorns among behind-the-scenes executives that passionately believes in the crucial role that creatives play in the media ecosystem.  There are no scripted series without writers, no wholly owned characters and titles that can be mined for ancillary value, often, no brand with which to attract viewers and subscribers to networks and/or platforms that rely heavily on it.

I saw first-hand how much the FX I worked for was hurt by the 2007-08 writers’ strike.  I practically had a front-row view for months of protests that raged outside my Century City office window; I could recognize faces of many I considered (and still consider) good industry friends holding picket signs and loudly chanting for much of each sun-drenched day for several months.  As an executive, I had to cross those picket lines, but I did so with a heavy heart.  Rarely a day went by where I did not honk my horn in solidarity, despite the fact that the momentum that the network had gotten with its first three series had hit a significant snag.  Two of the key original series launched just before this strike, the Courtney Cox paparazzi drama DIRT and the ambitious grifters-as-heroes THE RICHES, with the unlikely pairing of Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver (not to mention a breakout co-star role for Margo Martindale that arguably led to her becoming the first lady of FX) were among the dozens of series which had many ordered episodes never produced.  With shorter, aborted seasons, neither show had the opportunity for continuity or traction.  Needed tweaks to the plots and formats were delayed in being executed, let alone seen.  Both shows were casulaties that, along with a couple of other failed series in the late 2000s, created an early series of speed bumps that made my job all the more difficult to do, made my boss far more irritable and, in hindsight, contributed mightily to the deteriortation of my value to the network that, I believe, cost me millions in salary and far more in security.

So. trust me, when I urge these writers to fight, but be wary, I do so with a lot more than mere empathy.

As Rick Porter pointed out in his Hollywood Reporter article attached to the last of the above headlines, the strategic lessons that broadcasters utilized to address the needs of schedulers 15 years ago –and, more recently as well–are being revisited, and steps are already being taken to assure that there will not be a complete lack of scripted originals should a strike occur:

Remember during the early days of the pandemic how Fox aired the former Spectrum original drama L.A.’s Finest? Expect more of that — only it’ll likely now come from within networks’ own walled gardens. Freeform announced that it would air Hulu original How I Met Your Father starting in April and continuing into the end of May. HBO originals True Blood and Silicon Valley started airing on TBS in February as Warner Bros. Discovery experimented with using library content to keep viewers tuned into its fading cable networks that no longer have any U.S.-produced originals in the works. Such a trend is not only cheaper to program but it also effectively serves as a free promotional tool to get new subscribers to HBO Max. If this trend sounds familiar, it should: During the 2007-08 WGA strike, CBS aired edited episodes of Showtime’s Dexter.

ABC also aired episodes of MONK, a breakout hit for USA which they aggressively pursued prior to the solidification of the corporate alliance between USA and NBC.  But I digress.

The mindset of those in charge, determined to make some impact on the massive debt of their centenary studios–Mr. Iger and Mr. Zaslav, among others–is even more resolute now than it was in 2008.  And both of them were aware enough to remember what happened when actors struck in 1980 and caused a delay to that fall’s series.  The reaction at that time was to order more unscripted series–in that era, they were called magazine series.  NBC actually achieved rare ratings success with REAL PEOPLE, a simplistic, often lame attempt to profile people with unique occupations or hobbies.  We first learned of Richard Simmons through this show,  They even devoted a segment to a weird UCLA undergrad who schlepped around Los Angeles on buses collecting TV tickets and loitering around studios frequently enough to get hired.  Wonder what happened to that person?

These days, unscripted series are just as viable for ratings potential as ever, even on streamers.  In the same week where THE NIGHT AGENT debuted as an overwhelming hit and earned an immediate renewal (yay, Shawn!), a third of the other nine Top 10 English-language series were either documenteries or reality competitions.  Two months earlier, the number one scripted series was LOCKWOOD AND COMPANY, a British import.  We all know about SQUID GAMES.  With the luxury of subtitling, there is nothing to stop any of these platforms from relying upon global suppliers to fill scripted appetites, especially to subscribers that have been open to embracing them sufficiently.

I love writers and actors, some more so than others.  But I also know that there are way too many options, and audiences are way too splintered and distracted, for there to be any unrealistic expectations among them to be leading the way at this time.   Indeed, even the encouraging Deadline piece by Patten and company ended with these daunting insights from other voices attached to the ongoing negotiations:

 ...One insider familiar with the negotiations told Deadline, “I’m 95% sure there is going to be a strike, everybody assumes it is coming at this point.”  

The two main issues for the writers, it seems, continue to be streaming residuals and mini-rooms.

The writers say that the studios have used streaming to cut writer pay, separate writing from production and “worsen” working conditions for series at all levels. They added that more writers are working at minimum “regardless of experience”, often for fewer weeks and despite rising budgets, say median writer-producer pay has fallen. The mini-room trend has exasperated this, they say, particularly for younger writers.

On the flip side,  the studios say that the writers achieved a 46% increase in high-budget streaming residuals from its last contract in 2020, some of which may not have entered their bank accounts yet due to timing. They also point out that they’re negotiating for minimums, and most writers work for above this scale. On a more fundamental level, the studios say they are having to cut costs and make layoffs as a result of a worsening financial outlook.

“I know we don’t talk about recession, but I don’t think enough attention has really paid to that,” said one studio source. For instance, the $2.1B loss in the fourth quarter of 2022 by Warner Bros. Discovery.

For now, it will be key to see how and when the two sides to return to discussions, admittedly close to Passover. The original plan was to return to the table on April 17, two weeks before the WGA’s contract with the AMPTP expires.

In those two weeks, the WGA is widely expected to ask its members for a strike authorization vote. In January, the WGA noted that the last time that writers took a strike authorization vote, in 2017, 96.3% voted in favor. “Throughout the history of the WGA, writers have proven that they can win new industry standards through collective action,” it said.  

Multiple sources in the room said that the vote was intended to “strike fear” towards the AMPTP, although the studios fully expected this move.

“I fully expect that that card to be played,” added another before the talks began. “It’s become something of just the standard tool in their toolbox and negotiations, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.”

As another put it, it’s “like they brought their divorce attorney to the wedding”.

THAT, I can even more readily identify with.

Any contract that does not involve negotiation is one where one ultimately feels taken advantage of .  So I truly get why so many writers feel that this process must continue, and solidarity is crucial.  I can snark that that even mini-room writers are being paid better than I am these days, but I also can barely write this, let alone several dozen pages of compelling content capable of generating millions of dollars.

But all of that needs to be put into the context of the level of despair the publicly traded companies they need to exploit their work are in, and the board-mandated determination they are under to protect their own interests.  As anyone associated with Batgirl can attest, Yosemite Zas doesn’t scare easily.

So keep negotiating, WGA members.   But do try to understand the realities of the exceptionally challenging times we’re all in.  Think about the thousands of executives (hand raised) that haven’t come close to earning a fraction of what you still continue to earn, even with diminished series orders and “entry-level” pay.  Whose careers are in limbo because we’ve been in a vicious cycle of pandemic disruption, technology arrogance and less sophisticated advice driving decisions among those you’re negotiating with, and they’re at least as dug in as you are.

Keep writing.  Write a happy ending to all of this for more than simply just your own interests.  Don’t rewrite a script that resulted in your employers realizing they do have viable options out there besides your work.

Reruns of your peers’ works, both past and global, as well as those talented enough to produce compelling content without scripts, are plentiful. Whatever gains were made in 2007-08 came with the learnings of those alternatives’ viabilities, just as it did three decades prior.  Those executives, especially those old enough to remember, know about it.  Don’t underestimate their desire to keep to their script.

Good luck and fight for what’s fair, writers.   But, as Sergeant Esterhaus warned on HILL STREET BLUES–the strike-delayed breakout hit that ultimately began NBC’s turnaround and pivoting away from REAL PEOPLE–warned: “Let’s be careful out there”.

Until next time…


Leave a Comment