UPDATED from original 9:20 a.m. story with additional details: The WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers will begin negotiations for a new film and TV contract on March 20.
“The AMPTP is fully committed to reaching a fair and reasonable deal that brings strength and stability to the industry,” the AMPTP said in a statement Wednesday. A spokesperson for the WGA West declined comment “except to confirm that we’ve agreed to that date.”
The WGA’s current contract expires May 1.
In a video posted last month on the guild’s website, Adam Conover, a WGA West board member and a member of the guild’s 2023 Negotiating Committee, warned members to “Be prepared. The AMPTP’s initial proposals always consist almost entirely of roll-backs and cuts to our compensation and other important protections and benefits.”
He urged members, however, to disregard rumors of a strike. “You’ve probably been hearing a lot of rumors and provocative claims about our upcoming negotiations in the press. So I want to remind you that anyone who claims they know what the guild is going to do this cycle, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. That’s because our guild is a democratic organization. We are the guild, all of us. And it’s we, the membership, who decide how to proceed.”
AMPTP President Carol Lombardini, meanwhile, has a perfect record of making deals with Hollywood’s guilds and unions without a single strike since she became president in March 2009.
The WGA is currently in the process of formulating its “pattern of demands,” which is a general outline of what the guild will be seeking at the bargaining table, and has been holding a series of membership meetings to discuss the upcoming contract talks. Two meetings earlier this month have drawn over 1,300 members, with two more scheduled for Thursday — one at the Sheraton Universal in Universal City, CA and at the other at the School of Visual Arts Theatre in New York City. Describing the two previous meetings, the guild said that “inspiration and unity are in the air.”
The DGA has gone first in each of the past three three-year bargaining cycles, even though its contracts expire at the same time as SAG-AFTRA’s – on June 30. Earlier this month, however, the DGA said it wouldn’t be the first guild at the bargaining table this year because “the studios are not yet prepared to address our key issues.”
The last time the DGA didn’t go first was in 2010, when pre-merger SAG and AFTRA came to the bargaining table first. The last time the WGA went first, back in 2007, resulted in a 100-day writers strike.
Residuals are expected to be a key issue in the negotiations. And for the guild, there’s considerable pent-up demand for major gains at the bargaining table. That’s because in 2020, when the WGA’s previous contract was set to expire, contractual advances it had hoped to achieve evaporated with the threat of a strike all but off the table as the industry was already shut down by the first wave of the Covid pandemic.
Residuals were one of the few bright spots in the WGA West’s latest earnings report, which found that residuals collected by the WGA in 2021 increased by 5.4% from 2020 to an all-time high of $493.6 million. Total television residuals increased 4.7%, while screenwriter residuals increased 6.9%. New media, the largest residual category overall, accounted for almost half of the total residuals collected at 45.2%. This is an increase over the prior year, when new media accounted for 36.7% of the total residuals collected.
Jobs and total earnings for WGA West writers, however, have both been on the decline in recent years. WGA West members got fewer jobs and less pay last year than they did in 2020, according to the guild’s 2022 annual report, which found that 5,951 writers reported employment in all work areas in 2021 – a 6.1% decline – while total writer earnings reported for dues purposes declined 7.7% to $1.55 billion. That’s the fewest jobs since 2016, and the lowest earnings since 2017.
Many candidates in last year’s WGA West and WGA East elections said that winning increased streaming residuals will be a major goal in the upcoming contract talks, along with a host of other issues including substantially higher minimum pay rates to offset inflation; more secure pension and health benefits; greater equity and inclusion; the elimination of free work; and the curbing of mini-rooms, where groups of underpaid writers gather in advance of the production of a television series to break stories and write scripts.
And in his annual report last May, Lowell Peterson, the WGA East’s executive director, harkened back to the strike of 2007-08, saying that “As the guild’s members anticipated by striking nearly 15 years ago, digital technology has transformed how content is created and distributed, and how our members earn a living. On the TV and features side, everything has changed with the advent of streaming video on demand, including basic changes in reuse and residuals payments; reductions in the number of weeks of work and the number of writers in the room; additional pressure for free development and other unpaid work, and reduced opportunities for members to move up the…career ladder and to produce.”
He also noted that under the WGA’s current contract, “residuals for made-for-SVOD comedy/variety programs are pitiful.”
Among the frequently asked questions posted on its website, the guild asks: “What happens if writers go on strike?”
The answer: “The WGA leadership may call a strike only after the membership has authorized it and the current contract has expired. If a strike is called, members are prohibited from performing covered writing services for companies that don’t have an agreement with the WGA. To demonstrate unity and resolve, writers picket and engage in other collective actions that help put pressure on the AMPTP to better their offer. Negotiations can continue during a strike.
“By striking and withholding their labor, writers use their leverage to secure meaningful economic gains for all union members. A strike can also be financially challenging for individual writers. In the event of a strike, a strike fund committee will oversee the WGAW’s strike fund for members facing economic hardships due to the action.”
The WGA West’s most recent financial report, filed with the U.S. Department of Labor for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2022, notes that 29 members still had not repaid $280,659 in strike loans incurred from the last strike. The loans are secured by written assignments of a portion of the members’ future residuals income. Over time, the amount of these outstanding loans has decreased dramatically – down from $841,151 in 2011.
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