Negotiations for a new WGA film and TV contract get underway Monday, and if the two sides fail to reach an agreement in a couple of weeks, expect a rush to get film scripts completed in anticipation of a strike come May 1, when the union’s current contract expires.
That’s what happened 10 years ago before the WGA launched a strike over new media that lasted 100 days. And despite the walkout, which shortened the 2007 writing season by nearly two months, “Earnings reported by WGA West writers surprisingly reached a new all-time record” that year, according to the guild’s 2008 annual report. “Much of the increased work appears to be related to accelerated employment prior to the strike.”
Such speed-ups are not uncommon when producers of greenlighted films fear a strike could leave them without polished scripts on the expiration date of a WGA contract. In the event of a strike, productions without finished scripts could be stalled for weeks or months until their writers return to work.
The recent round of membership meetings on the guild’s bargaining positions suggest that writers are ready to strike if they don’t get what they want. Typical of the responses coming out of the informational meetings was this one: “Writers deserve more and the companies can afford to pay it, and we may just have to fight for it.” As for a strike, the same person said, “I pray that there will not be one, but I fear that there will be one.”
Suggesting that another showdown with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers might be coming over new media, guild leaders told their members last month that “new models of development, production and distribution, while making the companies richer, have not worked to your individual or collective advantage.”
Another issue that has emerged as a rallying point for a potential strike is the downturn in weekly compensation for series TV writer-producers. Two guild surveys, which polled some 2,000 working writer-producers, found a 23% overall decline in their median incomes from the 2013-14 season to the 2015-16 season.
And despite a rapidly expanding marketplace for American TV shows, many writers are feeling pinched by shorter orders on episodic series. That’s especially hard for writing teams, which afford producers two writers for the price of one.
Hollywood’s screenwriters have been hit especially hard by the steady decline in the number of films released during the past decade. In 2006, MPAA-member companies, which include all the major studios, released 296 films, and it’s been downhill ever since. In 2015, they released just 167 films – nearly 45% fewer than in 2006.
In fact, Hollywood’s film writers have seen their wages steadily erode during the past two decades. According to the WGA West’s annual reports, they earned more in 1996 ($364.4 million) than they did in 2015 ($362.1 million) – and that’s in real dollars. Adjusted for inflation, they collectively earned about a third less in 2015 than they did in 1996.
The guild’s ailing health plan, which could be out of money in three years at the present rate of income and expenditures, will be another key issue in the upcoming talks.
Other issues included in the WGA’s “pattern of demands” include:
- Increased minimum compensation in all areas.
- Increase residuals for undercompensated reuse markets.
- An expansion of the types of made-for new media programs subject to the contract’s minimums.
- Increased contributions to the guild’s Pension Plan.
- Strengthened economic and workplace protections for television and new media writers employed and compensated on per episode basis.
- Stronger regulations of options and exclusivity provisions in television and new media employment contracts.
- Inequities in compensation of writing teams employed under term deals for television and new media series.
- Paid family leave for writers employed under term deals for television and new media series.
- An amended definition of a professional writer to include writing for new media.
- Increased funding for the Showrunner Training Program and the Tri-Guild Audit Program.
- A modification and expansion of all arbitrator panels.
- Modified requirements for work lists and other information submitted by companies.