A week after WGA leaders encouraged their members “to fight if necessary” in their upcoming TV/film contract talks, the union’s call to arms tonight onstage at the WGA Awards ceremony was radio silence.
Some rallying might have gone a long way with members in the room. While some writers Deadline spoke with tonight certainly were in the know about their wants for TV, streaming and new media residuals during the next round of talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, many admitted that they weren’t informed enough about the pressing issues at stake
“I don’t have any bandwidth to think about that until we’re past the awards season, and then I’m going to have to hunker down and do some serious research,” one Oscar-nominated screenwriter confessed tonight.
But there were those who had specific goals in mind for the next round of WGA talks. “All of these negotiations over streaming residuals — that’s the whole enchilada, and there’s going to come a time when that’s all we’re talking about,” said filmmaker Jeff Nichols, who was nominated for the screenplay to his film Loving tonight, “With the negotiations they’re making right now, we’ll look back in 10 to 20 years and say ‘Thank you’ to the people who negotiated because they’ll be the bedrock for how writers are paid.”
Oscar- and WGA-nominated Hidden Figures screenwriter Allison Schroeder, who also is co-chair of the guild’s Committee of Women Writers, concurs that in the upcoming WGA contract negotiation, “It’s residuals on streaming, that’s the big thing.” Ditto for new media, “because that’s where the young filmmakers are coming in. It’s the Wild West right now, and we need to protect them.”
However, making sure TV writers are compensated appropriately is also a vital point for Schroeder. Even though WGA TV annual salaries spiked between 2006 and 2015 from $136K a year to $194K, with total earnings also increasing from $454M to $803M, Schroeder said, “There’s fewer number of shows, and they don’t go as long, so it’s just the sheer model of it.” In 2015, TV residuals totaled $261.7 million, which was $123 million more than film residuals.
Screenwriters have it harder since the majors are making fewer films, with WGA screenwriting earnings sliding from $453.9M in 2005 to $362.1M in 2015. “Coming out of the 2007-08 strike, we were expecting a number of specs, and that didn’t happen,” one film lit agent told Deadline. “Some writers prefer to write on assignment, but those are few and far between and the pay is crappy. But lately the studios have been asking for material, particularly for 2018-19.”
In response to the tough tone taken in the WGA’s letter to its membership, one prolific screenwriter/TV series creator warned: “Don’t strike if we’re not going to go the whole way. I believe that the major corporations in the long run can afford to shut down the business, rather then shell out true residuals. They can outlast us. Personally, I can afford to go on strike for a year, but how many writers in our guild can? They have mortgages. Does the guild even have a war chest? Are we able to support paid writers’ mortgages? Do we have $10 million, and have we been accumulating that?
“They broke the strike too early last time when we all went out on the picket line,” the person added. “We should not have struck if we were going to do a one-time payout. Digital is what it’s all about this time.”
Nonetheless, the possibility of a strike has alarmed some who took the WGA letter as a warning shot. Said another motion picture agent, “We received an internal memo the other day at work: Get ready.” The agent also blasted the guild’s streaming concerns, asserting, “There’s no money in digital.”
The guild’s past two contract negotiations in 2010 and 2013 ended without a strike. Its last strike lasted 100 days in 2007-08. WGA is expected to begin contracts for a new TV/film contract next month.
But the “S-word” right now is too big for some to utter.
“Everyone would love to talk first,” said Schroeder, “I think everyone wants to just work it out.”