Writers Strike Preparations Begin: How a Work Stoppage Would Impact Hollywood

Illustration by Gary Taxali

The reality of a strike grows more real as agents report that they haven't seen any extensive contingency planning on the studios' part: "They haven't prepared like they did last time."

Pain. Anxiety. Fear. Those emotions are rippling through members of the Writers Guild of America and their adversaries in the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers as they make a last-ditch attempt to salvage a deal in the wake of the guild’s overwhelming authorization to strike when the current contract ends May 1. As talks drag on, both sides are preparing for the worst. Even as AMPTP president Carol Lombardini and WGA chief Howard Rodman trade proposals, each of the major networks has held contingency meetings on what to air absent any fresh scripted content. At least two broadcast networks are prepared to order additional unscripted programming; some have toyed with purchasing more feature films, replaying the most recent seasons of hits or even reviving vintage fare as well as providing beefed-up sports and news programming.

Meanwhile, despite the increasing chance of a stoppage, the networks expect to move forward with their upfront presentations (when they present new product to ad buyers), scheduled for the week of May 15 in New York, if only because venues already have been paid for. If there’s a strike, the messaging will be altered and the anticipated slate of parties will vanish, say insiders.

“Assuming there’s a strike, the networks will probably talk to one another, compare notes and come up with a plan,” says one network chief, who adds this has not yet happened — perhaps because execs are exhibiting an unwarranted dose of optimism.

As for new scripted content, there has been less rushing to finish material pre-deadline because TV writers often are on-set and engaged in the production process. While there are exceptions — particularly among cable series, where much of the season is written in advance — the majority of writers have little interest in getting ahead on episodes they won’t be able to see through production, or even dialogue recording in post. “We are trying to finish our ADR stuff before [May 1] because you can’t write new lines for ADR, and we do quite a bit of that,” says Mike Judge of HBO’s Silicon Valley.

Given the timing, the current crop of network pilots won’t be affected. By May 2 — when the guild’s 13,000 members conceivably could stop work — some 70-plus pilots will be completed, and network screenings (when execs assess pilots in contention) will be underway. Then there would be a halt to the usual next steps, including staffing shows and writing subsequent episodes.

As for film, some screenwriters have been rushing to complete already commissioned scripts, but agents say they haven’t seen any extensive contingency planning on the studios’ part. “They haven’t prepared like they did last time,” says one dealmaker. A studio exec concurs: “I haven’t heard a lot of chatter about script stockpiling.”

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige says deadlines were moved up for several scripts some time ago so that they could be delivered ahead of a walkout. The company is filming Avengers: Infinity War and will soon enter production on Ant-Man and the Wasp, though neither of those is likely to be affected — unless they need a rewrite during production. That’s more of a possibility than many realize: A similar situation caused a headache for the James Bond film Quantum of Solace during the previous strike, which went from Nov. 5, 2007, to Feb. 12, 2008, with star Daniel Craig noting afterward: “We were f—ed. There was me trying to rewrite scenes — and a writer I’m not.”

Some studios, such as Warner Bros., recently have begun a number of productions (including Rampage and Crazy Rich Asians), which will bolster their 2018 release schedule. Others, however, have been nearly paralyzed by recent executive changes at the top — particularly Paramount, where incoming CEO Jim Gianopulos has yet to greenlight a picture. He could be hobbled in his effort to get scripts into shooting shape.

On the indie side, there’s uncertainty and stubbornness. In advance of the April 24 strike authorization vote, one producer was overheard calling friends for finished scripts or those written by non-guild members. “I’ve got six movies to deliver,” he told a colleague, referring to ultra-low-budget projects. “Without them, I don’t get paid.”

Millennium Films chair Avi Lerner (The Expendables) insists, “We’ll find people to write a script under the table.” He expresses confidence that any prolonged strike will eventually lead writers to come back, caps in hand. “We know how to reach those people. Only the studios won’t be able to get movies [written]. Let them strike for the next 25 years.”

The longest writers strike ever lasted 155 days in 1988, but even a much shorter work stoppage could create problems for movies that have just begun filming (Warners’ A Star Is Born and Paramount’s Mission: Impossible 6) or those that are about to start (Steven Spielberg’s Pentagon Papers movie with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks). No WGA member would be allowed to revise even a line on those scripts.

Insiders set the odds of a strike at 50-50. Before a round of negotiations was suspended April 17, the parties were miles apart, with writers seeking a deal that amounts to about $535 million in increases, while the studios were offering the equivalent of $180 million.

In the face of the writers’ resolve — 96.3 percent voted for the strike authorization, with two-thirds of eligible members voting, a much higher number than before the previous strike — AMPTP was quick to point out how much the scribes would forfeit. In the 2007-08 shutdown, AMPTP argued, “Writers lost more than $287 million in compensation” — though that’s a fraction of the amount the networks and studios likely would lose if the industry shuts down.

Others also will be impacted — including a host of workers in ancillary industries, from craft services staff to gaffers to nannies to Uber drivers. The Milken Institute estimated the 2007 strike cost the California economy $2.1 billion.

Will it actually happen? “The companies are committed to reaching a deal at the bargaining table that keeps the industry working,” AMPTP said. Rodman has urged guild members to remain firm so that the negotiating team can “get writers what they need and deserve.”

Stephen Galloway and Lacey Rose contributed to this report.

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THE STICKING POINTS

Basic wage increase: WGA wants 3%; producers have countered with 2%.

Health plan: For a $45 million contribution, producers asked for $10 million in cost reductions. The WGA countered with $5 million, and producers came back with $8 million.

Fees for shorter series: Given seasons now can consist of 12 episodes or fewer, writers want changes in the complicated formulas governing per-episode fees and exclusivity.

SVOD rates: WGA wants increases in the minimums for streaming-on-demand and cable shows.

This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

 

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