Monday, March 27, 2017

What you should know about a potential WGA strike

Cutting through all the rhetoric and bullshit, here are some facts you should know about the possible WGA strike. And this is from a longstanding WGA member who has been through four strikes and several near-misses.

No one in the WGA wants to go on strike. We only strike because it’s our absolute last resort.

The AMPTP (producers) completely control the situation. If they feel it’s inconvenient or too costly for a strike they negotiate a fair contract and move on. If they feel there’s something they don’t wish to give up or they want to be punitive and it’s worth the disruption they’ll push us to a strike. So don’t kid yourself --

THEY orchestrate the strike not the WGA.

Likewise, during a strike, when they feel it’s gone on long enough they settle and everybody goes back to work. Usually, it’s not a table of twenty negotiators that hammer things out; it’s a back room with four people. For years, Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal was that guy.

Remember that all press releases are posturing.  You'll read and hear angry statements accusing the other side of hateful practices, and yet when it’s settled everybody will hug and it’s a lovefest.

The AMPTP will always try to sell to the public that the WGA is the bad guy. Greedy writers are preventing you from seeing new episodes of your favorite shows.  Don't you believe it.

Writers have less leverage than other guilds. That's a fact.  When actors or directors go on strike the industry immediately stops dead. When writers go on strike stockpiled scripts can still be shot.

Since we don’t have as much leverage we generally do get screwed more often. That too is just a fact.

People say why don’t writers just accept the deal the DGA took? Because a lot of our issues are different.

Our issues are also more complicated internally. Feature writers have different concerns than TV writers. So again, that tells you if we go out on strike there’s a solidarity to where we’re willing to fight for each other’s causes.

It’s still early.

Major agencies don't want a strike either.  

The AMPTP could just be testing the waters to see whether the WGA membership is willing to undertake the hardships of a work stoppage. Once they know we are all in they might be more willing to negotiate in better faith and get a deal done.

And there’s been a precedent. The WGA has gone out on strike before. And stayed out for months. A strike authorization is not an idle threat.

A “yes” vote for strike authorization does not mean the WGA is necessarily going out on strike. It just gives the negotiating committee ammunition that we’re willing to put down our pens (although no one writes with a pen anymore). Should negotiations completely break down the board could then trigger the strike.  

The AMPTP has a lot to lose with a strike. They’re making $51 billion in profits these days. Way up from past years. That’s a pretty nice incentive to keep things going as is.

We’ve gone up to the very brink before and sometimes the deal is settled at the eleventh hour.

A strike is the only way writers will ever get in their 10,000 steps.  

Now for some specifics:

There are some years when writers are trying to set a precedent and get in on a new revenue stream – like VHS and DVD sales when those were big and now streaming formulas. Those negotiations are wildly complicated because no one really knows what the future will bring. Like I said, DVD sales were once huge and worth a long stoppage to get a piece of that pie. Now DVD sales are relatively insignificant compared to streaming options. But this year the WGA is really looking to just increase minimums, correct some injustices, and build up its health plan.

As mentioned, $51 billion in profit and yet writer budgets on TV series have not gone up. Plus, networks are buying fewer episodes. So you could be on staff of a show, making decent money per episode, but they’re only making eight episodes.   In the past they might have made 13 or even 22.

Since writing partners split a salary, producers are now taking two lower level writers and forcing them to be partners, thus forcing them to surrender half their entry-level salaries. That way the producer gets two writers for the price of one and lower level writers have no choice but to take it if they want a job. How unfair is that? It is possible for a lower level writer to work full-time on a series (50+ hours a week) and still not qualify for health insurance because they haven’t earned enough.

The bottom line is that after two weeks of “negotiating” the AMPTP has given in on nothing, thus setting the stage for a confrontation.

And at the end of the day, there will be increases, there will be some relief for the pension and health plan, and other sticking points will meet in the middle. It’s just that this deal could come a week from now or in six months after a bitter strike (that also causes suffering to many other industry workers who have no dogs in this race).

In the last strike in 2007 I tried to keep you all abreast of what was going on. Lots of you don’t live in LA and don’t bother reading the industry trades (even though you're missing BEAUTY AND THE BEAST'S daily overseas boxoffice total). As before, I will try to be as honest and factual in covering this potential strike. The next few weeks (or months) could be a rollercoaster. The current contract is up May 1st. But the one takeaway I want you to have from this post is that writers do not want to go on strike. And it can be avoided. It’s just not up to us.


Daniel said...

In a future post can you comment on what happens when someone is both a writer AND a producer? It would seem like there is the potential for conflicts of interest.

Bill Avena said...

Since I'm a viewer with a TV, not an industry insider, I only see results based on what All-New! stuff is there. The increasingly sparse series episodes make them all seem like Tom Jones specials. That networks eagerly preempt new fall shows for sportsball for ad revenue is a shot across the bow.

fletch said...

I am also wondering about the writer/producer thing....some clarity would be appreciated, thanks

Anonymous said...

The AMPTP has nothing to do with paper teams. Young writers are usually paired not by the studio, but by an EP on the show where they work as assistants. And for those young writers, that paper team is a much easier way to break in than waiting for their own individual breaks. By striking over that issue, we're basically asking the AMPTP to do a better job of policing our own bad behavior. Similarly, more shows do short orders because it increases their chances of existing. Legion wouldn't work for 22 episodes. Game of Thrones would be prohibitively expensive if they did that many per season. If they had to do 22, they would never have been greenlit. We (EPs making shows) agree to short orders because it increases the chances that a studio will say yes to our new show. So again, who are we trying to manage with this strike? The pension and healthcare issues are legit. The rest are problematic at best, flawed logic at worst.

Roger Owen Green said...

Danny DeVito was on CBS Sunday Morning yesterday. He and Rhea are not together but the=y're not getting divorced either.

Matthew said...

It's so stupid that a health plan has to be part of an employment agreement. It should be something provided by the state - and in this case, I mean the State of California. Can anyone explain to this ignorant foreigner why the blue states don't just go ahead and make their own single-payer healthcare systems? That's how it works in places like Denmark, Sweden, Finland etc.

Bill Jones said...

I am not in the industry and, full disclosure, am not generally sympathetic to unions (although I completely understand their purpose; I tend to think that a few unions--particularly public-sector unions--have given the rest of them a bad name). Nevertheless, I am very interested to read more about this as it unfolds, as I have always been interested in the business side of the industry. Although I recognize that you are obviously very pro-WGA (as well you should be), I hope you can provide objective descriptions of the circumstances to your loyal readers, and then provide your take on it--thus allowing us to understand the issues more fully and, hey, maybe be convinced that this particular union is right :)

Wally said...

@fletch and @daniel
Writers are producers for every TV show
Some writers are producers on films
The AMPTP ( is typically a 'studio' like WB, Sony, etc. You're right, the nomenclature is confusing. But when Ken mentions the 'entities making $51 bil in profits' those are the producers/studios whom writers are against & not themselves. I think the AMPTP name goes further back to before writers were also called and acted as producers, but I'm not really sure. and, yes, writers have their own production companies (or 'shingles' as some call it) but that only makes the explanation murkier. Writers vs Studios are the parties here for the most part (at least to make it easier to understand).

That's the quick and dirty answer that's probably worth an entry itself by a more expert Ken.

VP81955 said...

Best wishes to my fellow writers, though I sense this is far more related to television (broadcast, cable, video, etc.) than to my preferred domain of feature films. With luck, this will be settled before anyone has to walk out and jeopardize delaying the shows people love to watch. (Then again, as a "Mom" fan, I'm used to waiting long periods to see my favorite series, thanks to CBS NFL prime-time coverage.)

Anonymous said...

Where's John McLean when you need him. Actually he's living in Saticoy.

Barry Traylor said...

Being a union man myself (just a different one than the WGA) I know just what you mean. Anti-union people I have known think unions go out at the drop of a hat, but the company I worked for always played hard ball with us.

Bill Jones said...

"Can anyone explain to this ignorant foreigner why the blue states don't just go ahead and make their own single-payer healthcare systems?"

One of our bluest states, Vermont--home of Bernie Sanders--tried. It was a dismal failure, falling victim to pretty much everything that its opponents predicted would happen. See (or Google it). And that's one of our tiniest, most homogenous (economically, demographically, and politically) states, where it would likely have the best shot of succeeding.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

If it happens, then it happens. As a writer, I'm willing to have new episodes and films delayed so hardworking people can achieve better working conditions. And as a viewer, I'm not going to be the selfish consumer who blames striking writers for his/her own woes when we stop getting new content. Hoping for the best possible outcome for all writers out there.

P.S. - I still write with a blue pen. Mainly notes, not actual scripts.

MikeKPa. said...

First a strike story, and then a question.

One of my first jobs out of college was working on the sports staff of a major daily. If and when our guild called a strike in the fall, our esteemed baseball beat writer would get a doctor's note indicating he couldn't two two-hour strike shifts each week because he had flat feet. This was the same guy who during spring training played doubles tennis every day!

Now, the question. Which side of the (picket?) fence do writer/producers like Judd Apatow, Chuck Lorre, Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy stand - the writers or producers? Or do they split the baby in half?

Anonymous said...

I agree with all of this EXCEPT once we give the strike authorization, there's no second vote. The decision then becomes the board's.

Tom Galloway said...

Matthew, in addition to the tax issues mentioned in the Politico article, let's say California does single payer with a set of what's covered equal to a very good employer plan. It then gets flooded by out-of-state people needing non-emergency expensive care establishing residency in and then going to LA/SF/SD for care. It's fairly easy to establish residency in a new state, so unless they can manage to include an amount of time after establishing residency for voting, taxes, etc. before the health care kicks in, the state'd go broke or have to raise taxes to ridiculous levels.

Note that I'm not sure if you can establish such a time period. A lot of states have such for getting in-state tuition at state universities, but I'm not clear on how that's leagally different from rights to vote, get driver's licenses, pay taxes, etc. that kick in immediately on establishing residency (usually by doing things like registering to vote, getting a driver's license, etc.)

MikeN said...

There's not much leverage, since the writers can't hold out without pay for very long, and without the writers, the networks can still get by with lots of reruns and reality shows(though most of those are 'reality' shows with writers), and there's a surplus of people who are willing to do the job. The only leverage the writers have is the networks lose the top writers, and thus the top shows. However, even this might not be much since the networks might be able to produce a split between top writers, some of whom have special deals already, and the union.
The NFL had lots of profits, and they had no problem ending a deal because they wanted to squeeze the players even more.

Todd said...

Hi Ken. Long time reader here, but I don't comment much. I have a Friday question for you.

I was watching this amazingly well done mashup of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song and Last Train to Clarksville ( and noticed something I haven't ever before because it's been probably two decades since I last watch a TFPoBA episode. Specifically at the 2:20 mark of the video, it shows a credit that reads "Based on a format by Benny Medina & Jeff Pollack".

My question for you is, what does "based on a format" mean?

I heard a nasty rumor a number of years ago that a lot of the plots of Fresh Prince episodes were based on those of a classic sitcom (I honestly cannot remember which one but it was from either the 50's or 60's and it's definitely one your readership would have heard of), so while I was dismissive of that claim back then, it was the first thing that came to mind. I looked up both those gentlemen up on iMDB and neither are old enough to have credits going back that far.

So the question remains, what does that credit mean? And I guess if I could sneak in a second question, have you ever heard about this Fresh Prince plot stealing rumor?

Anonymous said...

Not true regarding paper teams. Studios ABSOLUTELY pressure showrunners into teaming newbie writers as they try to shave budgets. Showrunners should push back, but they're often not as powerful as you'd think. Violations often happen in the Disney Channel / Nickelodeon realm. Better for the WGA to enforce and legislate these awful MBA violations. As to short orders, they are a result of the explosion of distribution channels and being easier to package overseas. Pretty sure most showrunners would gladly produce as many episodes as a network will have!

Brian said...

I support the writers and think they deserve good compensation. Thanks for the updates on past and possibly future strikes. But Ken, what about when you have produced shows? Aren't you on the other side of the coin when you have had to hire writers?

Anonymous said...

Can you negotiate for some freedom from management that will help make the shows better? That would be good for the entire industry and, selfishly, for my own viewing pleasure.


Anonymous said...

Generally speaking, you can make limited changes to scripts for production purposes only. This policy, in recent years, has not, shall we say been fully honored.

Anonymous said...

As far as I know, we couldn't take the DGA contract bc the AMPTP didn't even offer us close to what they offered the DGA so far.