On Tuesday, more than 11,000 film and TV writers went on strike after contract negotiations between their union, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), and the studios and streamers they work for, represented by the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), fell apart.
On a practical level, that means that production in Hollywood has effectively shut down—and that America’s screenwriters will have to scrape by on their savings for as long as they can manage. The previous writers’ strike, in 2007-2008, lasted for 100 days, and the longest strike on record, in 1988, lasted for 153. This fight could drag on for months.
The two sides have been at odds over a whole host of issues, from pay increases to the use of AI in scripting. But after six weeks of negotiations, the studios have remained “immovable” against the WGA’s demands, the guild wrote in a statement. (For its part, the AMPTP said it had offered writers “generous increases in compensation” and that it wanted to “break this logjam.”)
For help understanding what the WGA is asking for and what it would take for the strike to end, VICE called up Tom Nunan, a former network executive, the founder of the production company Bull’s Eye Entertainment, and a lecturer at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. Nunan walked us through how the rise of streaming has caused a “generational shift” in the way writers get paid and weighed in on just how long he thinks the strike could last.
VICE: How did we get here? How has the industry changed over the past few years in ways that have made life harder for writers?
Tom Nunan: Back in the day, if you were doing a TV show, you would assume that the goal is to ultimately be doing 22 episodes a season, ideally for about five years, so that then you could syndicate that show and see it live on a basic cable network or on some other platform outside of the original network. When premium cable came along, those numbers came down a little bit. You’d see, like, 13-episode orders—but still, the goal was to get between 70 and 100 episodes so that the shows could be resold. If you were a writer on those shows, you’d get residuals for those future platforms.
Most people don’t even make residuals on streaming right now. The writers are saying, “We need some kind of secondary income, beyond just what we got paid up front, to survive.” That’s how writers pay the bills between gigs. They get these magic checks in the mail for shows that have been sold around the world or on different cable platforms or wherever. Those magic checks—those residual checks—have just completely dried up in the streaming era.
If you create something for Max or for Disney+ or for Amazon or any of the other streamers, their goal is to just keep that on that streamer for the rest of its life. How can an artist experience an ongoing financial relationship if the content doesn’t move to other platforms the way it always has? The writers are saying, “Hey: Because these shows aren’t going to move anywhere, let’s create a viewership-based residual.” And the streamers are like, “There’s no fucking way.”
“Those residual checks—have just completely dried up in the streaming era.”
Why are the studios pushing back against developing a residual system?
That would require the streamers to open up their books and share how they measure data. And the streamers do not want to open up their books. They don’t want writers or guilds to be able to stick their noses into their business and say, “Hey, my show just got a billion views. Don’t you think I deserve a raise or a bonus or something?” They don’t want to create that precedent. There are hundreds of shows that are being produced now versus dozens every year. That’s going to require a tremendous amount of accounting and transparency that the streamers just don’t even want to touch. I think there’s a world where they could reward writers by the number of episodes—maybe they get a bonus from that—or the number of years that the show is on the platform. But I don’t think they’re going to want to get into performance.
At the moment, the studios— the AMPTP—they’re refusing to even negotiate on any of those fronts. They’ve got to incentivize the guild in some manner and say, “OK, we know you want these other things. But what if we just focus on what you’re paid per episode? What if we just increased that by 50 percent? Then we don’t have to worry about residuals.” They may use the existing things they’re willing to talk about as bait to eliminate some of the others.
Your average outside observer might say, “Oh, poor writers: you’re not getting magic checks in the mail. But you’re getting paid $250,000 a year just to write a TV show.” I think people may not understand that for writers, years might elapse between one project and the next. Often, you’re living on those magic checks that come from residuals.
It is hard for outsiders to look at the issues involved and say, “Yeah, I see what the writers are talking about. I empathize with them.” Because the world they’re working in seems so glamorous. The work itself doesn’t seem to be heavy lifting. It’s not a typical nine-to-five job. From the outside, much about a writer’s life looks very romantic. But it isn’t. I don’t know any writer right now—and I know some very successful writers—I don’t know any writer right now that’s surviving on their writing career alone. They have real estate. They do AirBnB. Some of them drive for Lyft and Uber. Some teach. Some coach. There are a lot of side hustles.
What are mini-rooms, and why don’t writers like them?
Many of these streamers don’t make pilots. They just go from script to series, in terms of production. So they created a whole different model of how to pay writers who were willing to roll up their sleeves and create a bunch of scripts to prove the concept of the series. They created this intermediate step that had never existed before, where fewer writers were being asked to work harder than normal for shorter periods of time, and then often were being replaced by more premium staff writers once the streamer picked up the series. In other words, the streamer was never under any obligation to keep those mini-room writers working once the series was ordered. Those mini-room writers were just kind of proving out the concept. And basically, the guild just called bullshit on that. They’re trying to get rid of that whole practice.
What are writers’ concerns surrounding the rise of AI, and what protections are they asking for?
Essentially, the writers want to regulate the use of AI, and they want to limit it substantially. They only want it used, if at all, for research purposes. And the studios were like, “Hold on there. This is a new tool. None of us really know what it’s capable of. We’re not going to agree to restrictions on AI.” And the writers, I think, deep down, fear that the studios could punch into their computer: “Give me a comedic road movie between two guys who just escaped from prison, and they want to get to New York by New Year’s Eve.” AI could probably beat out a decent treatment for that, if not a script. That’s what the writers are terrified about. A lot of the middle-of-the-road tentpole movies, the franchise movies, are pretty formulaic. There’s a world where one could compare an AI-generated formula movie with something the studio asked a writer to write, and one might be unable to tell the difference. If the studios start turning to AI to generate scripts, boy, that’s a pretty dark place for the future of writers in this industry.
Why is an 8-episode season—which is typical these days for a show on streaming—worse for writers than the old-school, 20-plus episode season? And is there anything that can be done to address that?
Broadcast networks were usually 22 or more episodes per season. When premium cable came along, it was 13 episodes per season. Then until recently, the shortest season was usually 10 episodes per season. So what the writers are concerned about is if the studios continue down this path of fewer and fewer episodes—because who says that we’re even going to stick with eight episodes—writers are only getting paid for very few episodes per season. And they’re exclusive to that show during that time. It’s one thing to be exclusive to Law and Order for 22 episodes: You’ll make a lot of money as a writer on that. But if you’re exclusive to a show with only eight episodes, and you can’t work anywhere else for the next six months because they may need you on that show, that’s what they’re concerned about.
They’re trying to find ways to get paid outside of just writing your script. They want to find ways for you to continue to get paid while the show’s in production and while the show’s in post-production. Because writers are often called on during production to fix the script, and they’re often called on in post-production to fix the final product.
And they’re not getting paid for that.
No, they don’t get paid for that. They’re just getting fees per episode. If you’re a staff writer, you’re just paid to write your script.
The 2007-2008 writers’ strike lasted for 100 days. The longest strike, in 1988, lasted for 153 days. How long do you think this one could drag on for?
Candidly, I was very startled by the degree to which the two sides are apart. In the past, they’ve been public about where the negotiations were going. This time it was completely closed off, and none of us had any idea about how it was going. It was really shocking to see how far apart they were, and how many issues the studios refused to even engage on. So in my view, this is going to be a long strike. There are very few pressures on the streamers to resolve this anytime soon. There’s such a gigantic universe of choices right now on streaming that it’s conceivable that consumers could go a year or more without noticing major change. They have so many choices among these streaming platforms to try out shows that they’ve been putting off for weeks or months or maybe even years. Now they’re going to have the chance to watch those. There’s a massive amount of library content, and that’s what further gives the studios and streamers confidence.
All of the pressures are going to be on the writers. They just went through a pandemic. They already have lost a lot of money. So I think the writers’ resolve is going to be tested much, much, much more than the studios.
“Candidly, I was very startled by the degree to which the two sides are apart.”
How is this going to affect your average, everyday film and TV viewer? What goes away immediately? What follows? And what probably will not be affected by this strike?
The movies that are going to come out in 2023 are already made or in post-production, so the moviegoing audience won’t be affected. The TV-viewing audience will immediately see that their favorite late-night shows are no longer being produced. Saturday Night Live will go down. And then ultimately daytime shows, soap operas, will go down. And then as the strike goes on, people who still watch broadcast television, in the fall, won’t see the same number of shows coming back onto the schedule with as many episodes.
How regularly are negotiations happening between the WGA and the AMPTP during the strike? Are they meeting every day? Every week?
It can typically go more than two weeks in between talks, or more. The studios have said, “Hey, we’re here. We’d love to talk to you. We want to break this logjam.” And the writers are saying, “Well, that’s pretty insincere, because you’re not even allowing us to address many of our core issues. You haven’t even responded to many of them. So there’s no point in us sitting down together if you don’t realize that these are important.” Over the coming days and weeks, you’re going to hear when they agree to get together, and it’s because one side has something to discuss. They’re not just going to sit in a room and stare at each other. And that’s what it had gotten to: Neither side was moving anymore.
When do we reach the point—for the studios, and for the writers—when there begins to be enormous pressure to just reach a deal? When do things become untenable, for either side?
The LA Times says the 1988 strike cost the community, the Southland, about $500 million. In today’s numbers, that would be well over a billion dollars in terms of economic loss. They say the 2007-2008 strike cost LA $2.5 billion dollars, and there’s an argument over whether that number’s too low or possibly too high.
I frankly think that if the strike goes on for more than six months, the city of Los Angeles and possibly the state of California will get involved. They’ll say, “You are cratering LA’s economy. You’re starting to affect home prices. You’re affecting whole industries, like restaurants and dry cleaners and the infrastructure of the Southland.” I believe that if they dig in that much against each other, outside forces will start to come in and apply pressure.
From what you’ve said, it sounds like the studios have the upper hand here.
In previous strikes, frankly, I don’t think the studios or networks suffered. If anything, they probably benefited because of the work stoppage. They were allowed to stop paying a lot of executives, stop paying writers, stop paying production companies and crews. This often can help studios and streamers clean house or get rid of deals that they feel are overpriced or underdelivering. It’s the writers that are having to suffer the most. Many of them will lose their homes. Many of them won’t be able to send their kids to college.
The streaming services have got this massive amount of content that’s been unseen by a lot of their subscribers. They’re sitting pretty right now. Add on top of that the fact that we’re coming out of a pandemic and maybe moving into a recession—that makes the writers much more vulnerable.