Editors Note: As talks resume Monday that many hope will lead to a new deal for the Writers Guild Of America, we wanted to lend some perspective and voice to the TV and feature writers whose fortunes will be tied directly to the deal their union makes. The following is a story by preeminent Hollywood labor reporter David Robb that attempts to answer what has been an elusive question: What, exactly did the writers gain from the last strike? After that, we will run five pointed questions from a panel of established and new writers of TV, features and both. They answer anonymously, sometimes provocatively, about the issues that worry them most as their work is monetized in this fast changing digital age. Hopefully other writers can weigh in in the comment thread. — MF
As negotiators prepare to return to the bargaining table Monday to resume talks for a new WGA contract, many in the industry who saw the crippling writers strike of 2007-08 as an avoidable debacle worry about the prospect of a repeat of that disastrous walkout. Based on the variables, that concern seems misplaced. While many who suffered the last time still remember the pain and wonder if the writers gained much of anything for all that strife, consider this: The gains in new media won by striking writers six years ago is a major reason it’s all but certain that writers won’t be standing under picket signs this spring.
Nearly all the major issues for a new WGA contract already have been worked out in prior rounds of bargaining, leaving only options and exclusivity to be resolved. These are vitally important issues for writers, and in a philosophical sense some compare them to free agency in baseball that came from the players union and its membership fighting in the courts and on the picket line. Unhappy writers aren’t the most predictable bunch, but producers aren’t seeking any takeaways on these issues. Without any onerous rollbacks to crusade against, the chance of a strike over options and exclusivity is widely viewed as negligible. Expect a deal as soon as next week, with modest gains for writers in these areas.
As to the long discussion of whether the writers gained anything else during that strike, I spent years covering showbiz labor unions and have observed you have to look far down the road for the answer. Past writers strikes are like forest fires: They can be very destructive and suffocating, but they’re a necessary mechanism to clear out the old brush — or an antiquated contract that hasn’t kept pace with the rapidly changing way people receive entertainment content. Nearly all past entertainment industry strikes have that one thing in common: They are the result of new technologies and the uncertainty created about the revenue streams they will deliver.
That was certainly the case in 1959 when writers went on strike for six months over residuals from theatrical films shown on the relatively new medium of television. It was true again in 1988 when writers went on strike for six months over residuals from films and TV shows distributed on home video and cable TV. And it was true in 2007 when writers took to the picket lines for 100 days in a fight over the potential revenues from content made directly for the rapidly evolving field of new media, including Internet and cellular technologies.
Burning down the forest every three years is unhealthy, as would be writers striking thrice a decade to catch up with the latest content-delivery innovation. That is why the strike of 2007-08 was so important in hindsight, and why it will go down as a victory not only for writers but for the industry as well. For while it’s true that only a relatively small amount of money has been earned by writers of product made for new media, the agreement that ended the strike might very well ensure that there will never be another writers strike over new technologies and new delivery systems.
Indeed, the contract’s new-media provisions are broad enough that if, in a few years, films and TV shows are delivered directly into our heads through electronic chip implants, the writers of those shows will be covered and compensated.
This doesn’t rule out future strikes over other important issues. Writers still could go out on strike if producers try to roll back their wages and benefits. But the vexing, decades-long problem of writer compensation for work delivered via new media finally might have been settled once and for all. As writer-director Tony Gilroy observed shortly after the 2007-08 strike ended, the new-media provisions of the agreement made the strike worthwhile — not only for today’s writers but for those not yet born. “As writers and directors, we have our nose in the tent for real for the first time,” he said of the new-media provisions. “There are question marks about how it will be implemented, but there is no one who can argue that the strike was not necessary. We would never be in the position we are without it. Anybody who says the strike was a bad idea is dead wrong.”
There were writers who shook their heads over this, after losing millions during the strike when their production and development deals were canceled. Some of them might never recoup their losses. But that always has been the case when writers of the past stopped working and lost their swanky houses so that future generations of writers could live in even swankier ones.
This is part of being a union member. When you join a union, you enter a social contract in which you acknowledge you might be asked to sacrifice for future writers. That happened during the six-month writers strike of 1959-60; writers made a huge sacrifice so that the writers of today could enjoy pension and health benefits and residuals from films shown on television. All that ground was won because of that strike. There were naysayers back in 1960 who complained they would never recoup money lost to the strike; few writers today would argue that that strike wasn’t worth it.
Writers who lost jobs during, or watched their quotes get tossed out the window and one-step deals proliferate after, still might not see it, but a future generation of writers might look back on the strike of 2007-08 with the same sense of gratitude as contemporary writers feel about that past generation of writers who walked picket line in 1959-60. It also would not be surprising if anyone but writers feels that way.
Launched during the worst recession since the Great Depression, the 2007-08 strike hit the fragile state and local economies hard. Eleven weeks into the 14-week-long action, Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp, projected that the strike already had cost the city’s economy a whopping $1.5 billion. The pain spread beyond L.A.: A study conducted shortly after the strike by the Milken Institute projected that the walkout would cost California 37,000 jobs, $2.3 billion in lost wages and salaries and $3.1 billion in lost personal income. The study recognized the long-term benefit for the strikers: “Although in the short term it seems unlikely that the net economic gains from the new contract will help the writers recoup their losses from the strike quickly or easily, the precedent has clearly been set for sharing revenues from the digital realm in the future,” it said.
“The strike had the most profound effect on the performance of major television networks as the work stoppage helped to cause ratings for the top five broadcasting networks to drop 21% from the week of January 21-27, 2007, to the corresponding week in 2008,” economist Anusuya Chatterjee, one of the authors of the Milken report, told Deadline. “Some shows did not resume until the 2008-09 season, and the disruptions led to the networks scrambling to win back audiences and secure advertising dollars.”
One of the unintended consequences of the strike was to spur the TV networks to turn to unscripted reality shows to replace the scripted shows being struck by writers. The trend caught on and soared even after the strike. Today, even though there are many more channels and programs available, it isn’t translating into more WGA-covered jobs for writers. This can be seen in the WGA West’s most recent employment report, which found that the employment of writers under the guild’s contract has yet to reach pre-strike employment levels, and that that writer earnings post-strike earnings have only recently topped pre-strike levels:
The guild’s annual earnings reports do not list separately earnings from shows made directly for new media — which was what the strike was all about — but they do show that residuals from films and TV shows re-used in new media are the fastest-growing segments of guild earnings. In 2007, the year before the strike, guild members earned only $10,000 in residuals from TV shows re-used in new media. This rose to $70,000 the next year, to $1.98 million in 2009, to $2.94 million in 2010, to $4.21 million in 2011 and to $11.26 million in 2012. You can see the exponential growth — 156.5% from 2011 and 2012.
Similar growth ratios are evident in theatrical film residuals from: The number was $490,000 in 2009, $820,000 in 2010 and $2.47 million in 2011. It reached $5.18 million in 2012, a 109.8% increase over 2011.
It won’t happen overnight, but writers’ earnings from shows made for new media — from the Netflix series House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black to even Funny or Die’s Between Two Ferns — one day could rival writers’ film and TV earnings.
Writer income wasn’t the only loss due to that strike. The WGA formed to protect the creative and economic rights of writers, but during strikes, the former are sacrificed. That meant the loss of two months of biting satire when shows such as The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report went on hiatus. What does two months mean during a productive period in a writer’s life? Ernest Hemingway wrote both The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man And The Sea. It took Ian Fleming the same time to write his first 007 novel Casino Royale, William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler in less than two months, and Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road in just three weeks.
Tina Fey lost seven episodes of 30 Rock when the show was peaking, two episodes of Breaking Bad were scratched and five from The Big Bang Theory. Every series lost episodes. Imagine if seven episodes of the original Star Trek had been lost to a strike, or that many from the original Twilight Zone? Then again, many shows might not exist anyway were it not for the 1959 strike that brought residuals and pension and health benefits. Without those gains, how many writers would have pursued more lucrative careers, in advertising, accounting, or dentistry.
For union members, the strike created bonds for many members and strained others. Writers are a notoriously independent breed, but most pulled the rope in the same direction. But even unity has a dark side. The aftermath of the 2008 strike included “scab trials” held in secret against more than a dozen writers suspected of writing during the strike, with other writers accused of failing to inform on peers they suspected of writing during the strike. Following that was a public shaming, as guild presidents Patric Verrone and Michael Winship excoriated the culprits, though only three writers were found guilty. To many, this ugly aftermath was reminiscent of the last time Hollywood creative were strong armed into naming names — the 1950s Blacklist.
Also blasted were writers who went financial core, refusing to join the picket line. One of those, John Ridley, just won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 12 Years A Slave, proof perhaps that writers either don’t hold a grudge forever, have a short institutional memory or don’t read their guild newsletters.
What does all of this mean for the talks that resume Monday? I suspect it will mean a quick deal, thanks in no small part to the damage done during the last walkout. Neither side wants to go to war again so soon. The exclusivity and options issues that prevent TV writers from moving on to other jobs while the shows they’ve written sit in limbo are long-simmering problems that have been exacerbated by quicker turnaround times for the growing number of cable TV shows that have eight- or 10-episode seasons instead of the traditional 22 at the networks. With a little give between both sides and the realization by studios that writers will walk if provoked, it ought to ensure this issue isn’t fatal.