Hollywood’s writers strike that triggered nationwide protests and halted productions this week could be the beginning of a months-long standoff.
The Writers Guild of America and the media companies abandoned their talks several hours before a Monday night deadline to reach a new contract, stunning industry observers who had expected a suspenseful night.
But negotiations had collapsed earlier in the day when it became clear the two camps were far apart on key issues — and that neither side was willing to bend to close the gap, according to interviews and WGA documents.
There were no plans late Wednesday for talks to resume. Instead, positions seemed to be hardening as company executives began working on contingency plans and writers marched in picket lines around Los Angeles and in New York.
“We will not accept a deal that does not address … the changes in the business that have made it impossible for writers to earn a living,” Chris Keyser, co-chair of the WGA negotiating committee, said Tuesday from a picket line outside Fox Studios in West Los Angeles. “We will not make a deal with them until we have protections.”
The WGA late Monday posted a detailed report summarizing union proposals and the counteroffers from the film and TV studios. It documented a litany of disagreements over financial terms and job security protections that led to the collapse of the talks.
Underscoring the divide, the WGA said it sought improvements valued at $429 million annually, while the studios offered increases valued at about $86 million.
Of the 21 WGA proposals, the Alliance for Motion Picture and Television Producers — which represents the big media and streaming companies — had agreed to only six.
“Wow, we are crazy far apart,” Marc Guggenheim, “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” showrunner, said on reading the document. “That is the one thing that jumps out.”
The AMPTP declined to comment on the document.
The WGA was determined to boost writers’ compensation and try to turn back the clock to restore some elements of the older business model, before Netflix and other streaming companies rewrote industry economics. The streaming revolution has fundamentally changed the way writers are hired and the nature of their work, Keyser said, standing next to a crowd of about 300 sign-toting writers.
For example, he said, writers sought assurances they would be paid the same rate for a movie developed for a streaming service as one headed for the big screen. But the companies countered with a lesser offer.
“We had a sense as we got to the last couple of days that [a deal] was becoming less and less likely,” Keyser said. “The companies were more … intransigent about dealing with us on some of the central issues.
“They want to turn us into a freelance business. They may want to make it impossible for us to earn a living year after year.”
Writers will strike “as long as it takes to make a fair deal,” WGA chief negotiator Ellen Stutzman said Tuesday near a picket line outside Netflix’s Hollywood headquarters. “Writers want to be out here until the companies want to help them save their profession.”
The length of the strike is being closely watched by Wall Street, politicians as well as other workers in the entertainment industry, who fear that they could be collateral damage in a lengthy work stoppage. The last strike in 2007 and 2008 lasted 100 days.
Days before the May 1 contract deadline, it seemed the two sides were making progress, then negotiations stalled.
“Around about last Thursday, they stopped making meaningful offers,” said WGA negotiating committee member Adam Conover on the sidelines of the picket at Netfli. “They made it an easy choice for us.”
Network late-night shows, including ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” went dark Tuesday — replaced by repeats.
Network executives and analysts said a strike that spans at least two months would substantially delay the start of the fall season, which typically kicks off in late September. Writers have been ordered not to work on any projects, including edits to their previous work.
Despite the disruption, it’s unclear how willing studios may be to resume bargaining soon as they face their own pressures from investors to improve profits in a slowing economy.
What’s more, most studios and streamers prepared for months for a strike and have completed shows ready to roll.
The AMPTP said it had proposed a package of “generous increases” in compensation for writers, but the gap was too big in other areas to continue negotiations. It cited differences over “mandatory staffing” and “duration of employment.”
WGA officials disputed the statement.
“It’s really disingenuous to say that that was a big part of this negotiation, because frankly, they did not even discuss our proposals on episodic television,” WGA West President Meredith Stiehm said in an interview Monday night.
Here is a look at six sticking points:
The WGA wanted to preserve a system that existed before streaming companies rewrote the script.
A decade ago, a writer would pitch a project and a network would order a pilot. If TV executives ordered the project to series, a “writers room” — groups of writers who work together to develop storylines and write TV episodes — would be opened.
Traditionally, about a dozen writers would gather for up to 10 months to write about 22 episodes for a series, such as CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” or NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.”
But, in recent years, so-called “mini-rooms” have sprung up, popularized by streaming companies that need fewer writers because they have shorter seasons, eight to 10 episodes.
This means fewer writers are hired, and they work for shorter periods of time, the guild says. They also are excused earlier in the process, so they no longer help to produce the show — losing invaluable experience that would allow them to move up the ranks.
To address this problem, the WGA had demanded writers rooms have six to 12 writers, depending on a series’ length, and that writers be engaged for at least 10 consecutive weeks. And, for shows that made it to series, at least one writer must be employed through postproduction.
The studios balked.
“At some point, you have to let managers manage their productions,” said one high-level network executive who was not authorized to comment.
After writers complained about fewer opportunities for entry-level writers to gain experience, the producers suggested something similar to an on-set training program that already exists with the Directors Guild of America and the writer would have received a stipend, a person with knowledge of the talks said.
The idea was a non-starter for the WGA, which took it as a suggestion of an unpaid internship for a professional writer.
The WGA was looking for 6%, 5%, and 5% increases to minimums and residual bases during successive years of the proposed three-year contract.
Instead, the AMPTP offered 4%, 3% and 2%, according to the WGA. The alliance proposed one-time increases to most residual bases — on which royalties from show reruns are calculated — from 2% or 2.5%, the WGA said.
Minimum pay is a big issue for writers. Half of all TV series writers were being paid at the basic minimum rate under the union’s current contract, up from 33% in 2013-14, according to a recent WGA report. Staff writers, the lowest rank of writers, earn $4,154 per week if they are guaranteed for 40-plus weeks.
Writers argue that the residuals from streaming projects are far below royalties they would get from reruns of their shows on broadcast networks.
Another issue is that streaming companies have shielded viewership data, leaving producers and writers largely unsure of their success.
The WGA proposed an introduction of residuals based on viewership, in addition to the residuals that are based on a fixed license fee. That would ensure that writers on popular streaming shows get greater compensation.
The AMPTP rejected the proposal.
Writers are concerned that artificial intelligence will be used to replace them. The WGA sought curbs on the use of artificial intelligence on film and television projects so that AI can’t be used to write scripts or source material. And writing that is created by WGA writers can’t be used to develop AI programs either.
The studios instead offered an “annual meeting to discuss advances in technology,” the WGA said.
“Which is not a proposal, it’s an insult, it’s less than nothing,” Conover said.
Writing for the movies might seem glamorous, but it’s not in the age of streaming, the union contends.
Screenwriters are typically paid in stages, with some writers arguing that streaming companies no longer pay for two guaranteed steps of work that writers traditionally received when they signed a deal.
Studios offered to increase some of the compensation for film writers, but rejected proposals by the WGA to guarantee two-step deals or introduce weekly pay.
The sides also clashed over a WGA proposal that writers who work on streaming features (with a budget of $12 million or more) would receive the same compensation as those who write for movies released in theaters.
Comedy variety performers who create TV shows for streaming, such as Amber Ruffin’s show on NBCUniversal’s Peacock, do not get the same minimum pay rates and work guarantees as they do for network broadcast shows such as NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”
The WGA wanted to establish minimums for writers on these kinds of streaming shows. Instead, the studios proposed a day rate pay, which the union balked at.
“They’re moving increasingly towards treating us like a freelance workforce, and there was no way we could do that,” Keyser said.