Arts & Entertainment

​Hollywood writers, producers reach deal; strike averted

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 09: FIle photo: Screen Actors Guild (SAG) members and supporters hold a solidarity rally regarding contract negotiations outside the Screen Actors Guild National Headquarters on June 9, 2008 in Los Angeles, California.
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 09: FIle photo: Screen Actors Guild (SAG) members and supporters hold a solidarity rally regarding contract negotiations outside the Screen Actors Guild National Headquarters on June 9, 2008 in Los Angeles, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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Hollywood writers and producers reached a tentative deal early Tuesday, averting a strike that could have crippled TV and film production and inflicted harm on the wider California economy.

The three-year agreement, which requires ratification by members of the Writers Guild of America, was confirmed by the union and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers spokesman Jarryd Gonzales shortly after the current contract expired early Tuesday. The deal followed a flurry of last-minute bargaining, conducted during a media blackout that offered no tangible details about whether picket lines would go up Tuesday morning.

"There was a collective applause when it happened," said screenwriter Bert V. Royal. "I think we’re all relieved and excited to get back to the work at hand."

In a memo to its members, the Guild said gains were made across the board, including contributions to the union's health plan that should "ensure its solvency for years to come" — an issue that writers considered key.

The Guild said it also made strides in pay for series with fewer episodes per season, and in residuals. Members overall will net $130 million more over the contract's life than they were expected to accept, according to the memo. 

It is hard to know how what the figure means; The Guild said on Friday it was seeking $156 million annually in enhancements from the studios. 

"There's a lot of messaging here," said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment lawyer and editor at The Hollywood Reporter.

Handel said the deal includes important gains for Guild members, most notably increased contributions for health insurance and raises for TV writers. However, he said the deal does not appear to be as favorable for screenwriters, noting that the Guild had removed a contract bulletin from its website that talked about declining income for screenwriters.

"That page is gone," said Handel. "The other bulletins are still up there"”

The producers did not release any details regarding the agreement.

The agreement spares the late-night shows that would immediately have gone dark without writers, and allows the networks to pursue their schedules for the upcoming TV season without interruption. Movie production would have felt a strike's sting more gradually.

Guild members voted overwhelmingly last month to authorize a strike, and the WGA could have called for an immediate walkout Tuesday absent a deal. The previous writers' strike extracted an estimated $2 billion toll on the state. The producers group said the 2007-08 strike cost writers $287 million in lost compensation.

Russ DeVol, the chief research officer at the Milken Institute, estimated a strike of similar duration would have cost California $2.5 billion today.

After the 2007-08 strike, the two sides reached agreements in 2010 and 2013, but TV writers in particular have seen their earnings slide since then and wanted to claw back some of those losses.

Driving the dispute were changes in how television is distributed, with streaming platforms including Netflix and Amazon joining broadcast and cable TV and rising in importance.

More outlets have led to more shows, but the TV season model is greatly changed. Despite the fact that there are more series than ever - 455 this season, more than double the number six years ago - shows run for fewer episodes than the traditional 22-24 episode broadcast series.

Short seasons of eight, 10 or 12 episodes means less pay for writers whose payment is structured on a per-episode basis.

To address that, the guild said it won additional compensation for writers who spend more than 2.4 weeks working on a script.

The guild also touted first-time job protection for writers on parental leave.

"That shows that there is a cultural shift that’s happening in the industry in terms of who writers are – there are women working in the industry," said Miranda Banks, author of "The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild."

The agreement avoided a repeat of the 2007-08 strike, which played out in true Hollywood style. Writers took to social media to make their case, entertainingly. Stars including Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tina Fey joined picket lines, and then-"Tonight Show" host Jay Leno brought doughnuts for strikers.

Before Tuesday's deal was announced, writer-actress Lena Dunham said she would back a strike this time.

"I would never have had the health coverage I had without the union, and that's one of the main points in this," Dunham said at the Met Gala on Monday night.

Actress Debra Winger said she would support any reasonable job action by the writers, but was mindful of the damage it would cause.

"I'm thinking of all the businesses that I work with at Warner Bros. for several months out of the year and (the) restaurants, shoe repair, dry cleaners," Winger said during an interview promoting her new film, "The Lovers." ''The last writers' strike affected the city of Los Angeles in a devastating way."

At the Met Gala, CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves said he was guardedly optimistic that a deal would be reached without a strike.