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If Hollywood writers go on strike — a possibility as we close in on the May 1 deadline without a new deal between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) — the impact will be felt far beyond New York and Los Angeles. Around the world, producers and distribution companies, not to mention non-WGA affiliated writers, are closely watching the ongoing negotiations, with an expectation that a WGA walkout could mean a boost in demand for new international content.
“As with previous WGA strikes, we’d expect there will be an increased demand for content from outside the U.S., particularly from English-speaking countries like the U.K. and Australia,” say Martin Moszkowicz and Oliver Berben of German mini-major Constantin Film, producers of the English-language Resident Evil horror franchise as well as German films and series including We Children From Bahnhof Zoo, which streams on Amazon, and KaDeWe, carried on the BBC in the U.K. and Stan in Australia. “The full impact will depend on how long the strike lasts. The best outcome is a very short strike, since it will limit the disruption.”
(Constantin has its own history with the WGA. In 2021, the guild briefly ordered union members to stop working with the company following a dispute over residuals and health and pension plan contributions, though the parties eventually settled.)
Louise Pedersen, CEO of All3Media International, which handles global sales on such series as Amazon Prime’s The English starring Emily Blunt and All Creatures Great and Small, which airs on PBS stateside, said the pivot toward international shows was already evident at the London TV Screenings earlier this month, with broadcasters and streamers looking at international shows as a possible contingency plan.
“A lot of American buyers were planning for [the strike] and talking about shows as potential acquisitions,” said Pedersen, speaking on a panel at French television festival SeriesMania on March 21. “I suspect they’re doing research behind the scenes for backup lists [should the strike happen].”
The last WGA strike, a 100-day work stoppage between 2007 and 2008, saw a significant opening in the U.S. market to non-American shows, with Canada the prime beneficiary. Mid-season pickups by U.S. networks of Canadian series like Flashpoint (on CBS) and The Listener (NBC), used to plug the gap in fresh content as U.S. scripted series went off the air, helped usher in a gold rush for Canadian producers looking to get their shows on American primetime. What followed were the likes of Rookie Blue on ABC, CW soap The L.A. Complex, Orphan Black on BBC America, and NBC’s Saving Hope.
Karen Thorne-Stone, president and CEO of Ontario Creates, which markets the province to Hollywood producers, is confident high-end Canadian series can help fill a strike-induced gap in schedules south of the border.
“There’s still room for growth on that side, which will certainly buffer any negative impact from U.S. production,” she says.
Since the 2007-08 strike, the U.S. market has become even more open to non-American series — see the primetime success of Downton Abbey or Sherlock on PBS — and even non-English-language shows. This has been particularly evident on streaming services. Alongside Netflix hits like Narcos, Dark and Squid Game, Hulu has had success with imports like German spy thriller Deutschland 83 and Scandi noir The Bridge, and Sundance Now with Irish procedural The Fall and French drama The Bureau. Sony-owned Crunchyroll has turned its once-niche market for Asian content into a mainstream juggernaut, extending beyond the small screen to box office successes with the likes of Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train and Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero.
With much of the world still in the thralls of a production boom — the pullback by global streamers is only starting to work its way through the international industry — there will be plenty of product available should U.S. demand spike.
“There could be opportunities and an impact,” says Cathy Payne, CEO of Banijay Rights, whose massive slate includes numerous series from the U.K. (Peaky Blinders, Chloe), France (Versailles, Maria Antoinette), Scandinavia (Beck, Black Lake) and Australia (Tin Star, Wolf Creek). “But strikes have gone on in the past and we like to think we can sell our product in any case — and have good market reach.”
For the moment, the bigger U.S. networks are busy shooting originals ahead of the May 1 deadline in an effort to stockpile content before a possible strike.
“The important thing is being able to plan properly,” says Moszkowicz. “For feature films, we’re already seeing that the deadlines for writers are being set so they deliver before the strike, so that productions can go ahead in the summer. But if a strike lasts several months, it could have a real impact.”
For many international companies, however, that impact will not be all positive. The biggest non-U.S. producers and sales companies have tight ties stateside — “we all produce in America so [a strike] could harm us quite a bit on the production side,” noted Fremantle International CEO Jens Richter at SeriesMania — and few relish the prospect of an extended walkout, not least because many U.S. films and shows shoot outside the country. If the WGA lays down tools May 1, production on some of the world’s biggest soundstages could grind to a halt.
North of the border, local studio operators are girding for a possible labor action.
“Here we go again. I’m not surprised,” says Paul Bronfman, chairman and CEO of studio operator Comweb Corp. Bronfman, who is also chairman of Pinewood Toronto Studios, says studios with less overheads and long-term leases from major studios and streamers will find it easier to weather any dispute. “They’re paying the rent. They may come back and renegotiate, but the stages are full.”
“It’s an unfortunate pause and [would mean] sort of a forced vacation for a lot of us,” notes Shawn Williamson, head of Brightlight Pictures in Vancouver, which co-produces U.S. content with American partners and its own originals. “But people will focus on other projects, develop other things while they can, while we wait for any potential and hopefully amicable settlement and the writers are happy and the studios are happy.”
Williamson adds a conclusion of a tough year of negotiations for U.S. producers with the Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA’s TV/Theatrical contracts, in addition to the WGA negotiations, will likely be followed by a quick resumption of Hollywood production on Canadian soundstages.
“There will be a pause, while they sort out the negotiations. And there will be a quick restart of physical production as quickly as everyone can get it going again,” he adds.
Until then, there’s uncertainty in the Canadian industry as American producers either bring fewer projects north or look to conclude production on what’s already before the cameras ahead of possible labor stoppages.
Notes Justin Cutler, Ontario’s Film Commissioner with Ontario Creates: “Things may dip. We’re tracking this very closely, just to see where this will all end.”
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