On May 1, the current contract between the Writers Guild of America and the Motion Picture Association expires, which means that, about a week after, people will start yelling at one another.
The existing deal between the writers—the group of people in Hollywood tasked with creating, developing, pitching, writing, and producing content for the big and little screens—and the producers—the group of people in Hollywood who pay the people in the other group—is three years old, which makes it an artifact from an ancient golden age.
Since that deal was struck, writers have become convinced—not without justification—that current business practices are pricing them out of the industry. In some ways, this is a great time to be a Hollywood writer: more buyers in the marketplace, more scripted entertainment, more work for more writers. But now writers are being asked to sign longer-term contracts for less money. They—we—are feeling financially stretched and abused by a system that keeps them locked into exclusive contracts without compensation.
The producers are in the midst of their own financial crisis. Since the last deal, the once high-flying Netflix has suffered contractions in its subscriber base, Paramount and Warner Bros. Discovery have shuttered departments and consolidated operations, Disney has fired and replaced its top leadership, and every executive in town keeps nervously checking email for an official-looking message from Human Resources that begins, “As you know, the entertainment business is in the midst of fundamental change, and unfortunately that change means that we must eliminate the position you currently occupy…”
Show business is in the middle of a systems-wide panic attack. Executives are beleaguered and terrified. Shareholders are starting to ask nettlesome questions about profits (such as When will they start coming?) and losses (such as When are they going to end?).
Even the great and powerful Amazon was forced to reveal that Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power—a series it spent nearly $1 billion to produce and market—has mustered only a 37 percent completion rate among its audience. In other words, about two-thirds of the people who started watching the most expensive filmed entertainment product in history got bored and went on to something else.
Clearly, something isn’t working in show business. And now the writers show up and start complaining? Of course we are. It works like this: A bunch of deer is a herd of deer. A bunch of lions is a pride of lions. A bunch of crows is a murder of crows. And a bunch of writers is a Complaint of Writers.
That’s what we do when we get together. We complain. And when that group breaks up and we’re in another group, we complain about the first group. When actors get together, they go to the gym—a group of actors is called an Equinox of actors—but when the Writers Guild gets together, be prepared for some serious kvetching.
Some of it, of course, is timeless—raging against agents, managers, executive notes, residual payments, that sort of thing. But a lot of it is new.
A friend of mine texted me recently with the news that he’s on the writing staff of a new show. I texted my congratulations back and asked him what the show was. He told me, and of course I had never heard of it because right now there are—and this isn’t a scientific count, but I’m pretty sure it’s close—around 17 million scripted television series currently in production. But I told him it was great and he’s got a hit on his hands and asked him who else was on staff, because I know a lot of people and maybe I could give him a little backstory on this writer or that, along the lines of, That guy is going to talk all day and pitch nothing usable, or she’s a thread-puller, or maybe even something nice and complimentary. But as I mentioned, they don’t call a group of writers a Support of Writers or a Positivity of Writers.
The answer to the question Who else is in the writers’ room? was three names. That’s it, he said. It’s what’s known these days as a “mini room.”
Not “mini” as in more flexible or more convenient. Mini as in, the studio and the network want a mini room for mini money. Writers in mini rooms get paid by the week, which is a clever way to get out of paying a writer his established per-episode fee. Studios will green-light the assembly of a mini room before the project has been given a production order, which means writers are paid a small weekly fee for the duration of the mini room—and then held in suspension, under contract, until the studio decides whether or not to move forward with the project. Most writers I know don’t have an established weekly rate. I haven’t been paid by the week since January 1990. So this new order has provided studios a terrific opportunity to slash the cost of writing and creating new material, by creating a brand-new, much smaller, salary scale for screenwriters.
I know, I know. Boo hoo, right? Buncha Hollywood crybabies. Except every good show I’ve ever seen up close had a full staff, an honest-to-goodness Complaint of Writers there to break stories and think up fresh stuff and fix what wasn’t working. It’s tempting to see it all as an extravagance, but as any successful businessman or economist will tell you, when you’re looking at budget line items to cut, cut everything that isn’t connected to a tangible work product. And there are more executives associated with my friend’s new show than there are writers on the staff, so there are more people supervising fewer people. Doesn’t seem like a good business model. Maybe instead of mini rooms with fewer writers, the studios should be sending out more emails from HR to more executives.
This is all making me a Bolshevik.
I have always had an uneasy relationship with my union, the Writers Guild of America. I’ve been a member for 33 years, nearly twice as long as the average member, but I’ve never really been all that enthusiastic about it. The one-size-fits-all basic agreement the Guild hammers out every few years often seems to me to represent a view of the business as it used to be, or as we wish it would be, rather than how it really is. And there’s also this: I’m a basically conservative Episcopalian, descended from a long line of union-busting industrialists. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of marching around and chanting. I don’t like the way every email from the Guild signs off: “In Solidarity…”
Solidarity is something my people have spent a lot of money in country-club dues to avoid being in, with anyone. But that tradition may end with me, because a strike is coming. It may take a month of shouting and “take it or leave it” ultimatums before it’s officially called, but it’s hard to see another outcome.
Right now, it’s a game of chicken between the side that thinks the business will collapse if it doesn’t get fresh scripted content for its customers, and the side that thinks it might be worth it to find out if that will happen. Neither side really wants to run the experiment—Hollywood hates the unknown, the experimental, which is why we’re still watching Spider-Man movies and sitcom reboots—but it’s probably malpractice for the studios not to be a little bit curious. In the past three years, they’ve learned that Americans will happily watch content from other countries—and in the case of Squid Game, in other languages. And during the last strike, television networks learned that American audiences do, in fact, have an almost limitless appetite for unscripted reality television.
Almost, anyway. I can’t imagine that anyone wants to discover what the actual limit is, for reality television or Korean science fiction.
Despite my misgivings about nearly every single labor action the Writers Guild has undertaken during my three decades of membership—the strike of 2007, the action against the talent agents in 2020—as I tick through the issues of today, in 2023, I can’t help but, God help me, support the union. In the battle of the WGA vs. Media Fat Cats, I’m with the Wobblies. It’s hard to imagine, but in a few months you’ll likely see me marching awkwardly and painfully around the gates of a studio or network, chanting some idiotic rhyme and holding a picket sign, as my ancestors spin with curses in their graves.
Photo: Amber Baldet
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