Monday night, amidst all the Met Gala madness on the East Coast, the West Coast was the site of the final hours of negotiation before the strike deadline between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), aka the studios that produce movies and TV shows.
No deal was reached, a writers’ strike is on, and picketing began on Tuesday afternoon. AMPTP was the first to get out their statement:
“Negotiations between the AMPTP and the WGA concluded without an agreement today. The AMPTP presented a comprehensive package proposal to the Guild last night which included generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals. The AMPTP also indicated to the WGA that it is prepared to improve that offer but was unwilling to do so because of the magnitude of other proposals still on the table that the Guild continues to insist upon. The primary sticking points are ‘mandatory staffing’ and ‘duration of employment’ — Guild proposals that would require a company to staff a show with a certain number of writers for a specified period of time, whether needed or not.”
Okay, so the sticking point is so-called “mini rooms”. As I mentioned before, there is a lot on the table with this round of contract negotiations, from restoring at least some of the residual payments streaming distribution has destroyed, to dealing with the encroachment of AI into the creative process, to beefing up the guild pension and health care plans (also gutted by the lack of streaming residuals). But mini rooms are a big deal, because they’re essentially another way of cutting payments to writers. Lacking residuals was already doing immense damage to people’s livelihoods when mini rooms became a thing, and writers saw their compensation and job opportunities dwindle even further.
Here’s how a mini room works. Let’s say I pitch a show to a network, they like it, but they’re not 100% sold. Instead of giving me the green light, I get a few months to bang out a few more scripts, rather than paying to film a full-blown pilot, using a “mini room”, essentially a truncated writers room. Instead of a dozen or more writers, there are only a few, maybe six, and it probably all happens over Zoom to save the network renting office space.
Once the additional scripts are turned in, that’s it. It’s job over for everyone except the potential showrunner. If the network decides they like the show after all, it’s greenlit, but the writers don’t come back. The showrunner is essentially on their own, maybe they can beg enough extra budget dollars to get a couple writers to help during production, or maybe not! It’s PRECARIOUS. As for the other writers, they’re back scrambling for their next gig. Where once writing for a TV show could be a steady, years-long job, it has mostly devolved into writers trying to secure multiple mini room gigs per year.
Oh, and if the network passes on the show? Those scripts you wrote don’t count toward your credits, which can affect your eligibility for things like healthcare and guild membership, never mind months of work down the drain. You can see why writers hate it.
The WGA is right to hold out to end, or at least lessen, the devastation of mini rooms. They’re entirely detrimental, not just to the economics of the industry or the mental health of the writers (this article at The New Yorker details the despair plaguing the industry), they also limit opportunities for new writers to gain experience at all levels of production. Staff writers are no longer sent to set to deal with rewrites, thus learning how the show is actually made, preparing them for the day they might become showrunners themselves. There aren’t staff writers, there’s just a harried, overworked showrunner doing five times the work for half the money.
And writers aren’t asking to get rich. Word is, the compensation package the WGA is asking for runs about $600 million for the whole guild. Sounds like a lot, but that’s two seasons of Citadel on Amazon Prime, or two seasons of Stranger Things, or 60% of The Rings of Power. Studios are spending BILLIONS on producing shows, but they’re balking at all of them combining to throw a comparatively paltry $600 million at the writers?
Yeah, strike. Hit them where it hurts, because nothing gets made without writers, no matter how much executives like to think otherwise. And speaking of executives, while they’re nickel and diming writers, they’re getting raises and raking it in.
Again, writers aren’t asking to get rich. Writing for film and/or TV has typically been seen as a middle-class job. Sure, some writers got rich off hit shows, it can happen. But generally, writers in Hollywood are not living in the biggest houses or driving the fanciest cars. But it was a reliable, quality job, a career people could build over decades, an industry with opportunities for new people to come in, gain experience, and roll their own dice for a hit show. Now? LOL good luck.
I stand in solidarity with the writers. And come June 7, when the Screen Actors Guild sits down to begin negotiations with AMPTP, I’ll stand with them, too. In the question of labor versus management, bust out the Woody Guthrie and always, always side with labor.