Business & Economy

5 things to know about a possible Hollywood writers strike

Memories of the 2007 Writers Guild Strike are in the air as negotiations between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers come down to the wire.
Memories of the 2007 Writers Guild Strike are in the air as negotiations between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers come down to the wire.
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Q. It seems like there are more TV shows than ever. Why are writers unhappy?

As the number of shows has grown, writers say their earnings have declined dramatically. The Writers Guild of America estimates writer-producer compensation has fallen 23 percent in the last two years. 

Things are particularly tough for those working on shows produced by basic cable and streaming platforms, said Chris Keyser, who sits on the Guild's negotiating committee.

"The formulas by which we are paid on basic cable or streaming are only a fraction of what they are on broadcast," he said.

Two other big problems for writers: Shows rarely make it to syndication – once a lucrative source of revenue – and seasons keep getting shorter. Writers get paid per episode; while a season used to have more than 20 episodes, today there may be 10 or fewer.

Besides getting paid for fewer episodes, writers complain that they're locked into exclusive contracts during production seasons that last as long as the ones that generated 20 or more episodes.

Q. What are the main things the writers are asking for?

Q. What is the studios' argument?

The studios are not talking, preferring to cede the PR war to the writers.

Q. What are the chances of a strike happening?

No one knows for sure, of course, but both sides seem dug in - and at least one observer says they're far apart on the issues.

Jonathan Handel, an entertainment lawyer who's covering the negotiations for The Hollywood Reporter, calculates that there's a $350 million gap between the Guild and the studios.

"The frustrating thing is what the writers are looking for is about three times what the studios are willing to pay," said Handel. "That’s not how a deal gets done."

Keyser says the Guild feels emboldened because unlike in some previous strikes, the studios are making record profits. The Guild has repeatedly reminded its members that media companies made $51 billion last year, according to the Guild's calculations.

"The companies can afford to make this deal," said Keyser. "There’s really no reason why in this era of big company profits writers should be suffering."

While the studios have the power – and the deep pockets – to withstand a long impasse, things aren't as rosy for them as the writers make them out to be, said Miranda Banks, who authored a history of the Writer’s Guild.

"There’s a real sense of concern about the future of film for the studios," said Banks. "Audiences are shifting and there’s less people in the U.S. watching broadcast television."

The writers are also more cohesive than they have been during previous labor disputes, which would sometimes pit TV and film writers against each other, according to Banks. 

"Nowadays writers – whether you're writing for film or television or streaming media – there's a lot more of a sense that it's all the same the content," said Banks. "Writing is writing and there's a sense of unity within the organization."

Q. Where do the talks stand?

The two sides ended talks Monday and agreed to resume negotiations next Tuesday, April 25, giving them less than a week to reach a deal before the writers' contract ends on May 1. Online voting for a strike authorization starts Wednesday and runs through April 24. It's considered a foregone conclusion that most of the 12,000 or so Guild members will authorize a strike.