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As Hollywood’s writers prepare for a round of union negotiations that is expected to be especially combative and potentially even trigger a strike, some are revisiting the wins and losses of their last work stoppage, in 2007-08.
The 100-day Writers Guild of America strike more than 15 years ago rocked the industry as the union fought in large part for a greater cut of what was then called “new media” — projects distributed or rerun over the internet, on iPods or cellphones. In an action that cost the L.A. economy $2.1 billion, per the Milken Institute, deals were lost, scripted series including 30 Rock, Lost and Pushing Daisies were curtailed or forever altered, late night shows were hobbled and the Golden Globes were reduced to a press conference. Though periodically revisiting 2007-08 is hardly unusual — screenwriter and three-time WGA negotiating committee co-chair Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) says that internal debates erupt every negotiation cycle — the conversation has intensified and spilled out more into the open this year. As speculation over whether the guild may strike again after its contract expires May 1 pervades the industry, in recent months former negotiating committee member Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and current negotiating committee member Adam Conover (The G Word), among others, have weighed in with their takes on what the 2007-08 action did and did not accomplish.
In conversations with The Hollywood Reporter, many writers who picketed during that time and are working in the industry today still feel the strike was warranted, maintaining that it gave the union a crucial foothold in new media, precursors to today’s SVOD giants like Netflix and Disney+. (The Guild states that because “new media” was broadly defined in its 2008 contract, the union later could cover titles created for SVOD platforms.) Establishing guild contract coverage for digital-exclusive titles and improving compensation when projects were reused on new-media platforms like iTunes became key issues during the work stoppage; eventually, the WGA made these gains in its 2008 contract while ceding some ground (proposals to double the DVD residuals formula and establish jurisdiction over reality television, for example, were scrapped).
New media “was such a nascent issue, but ultimately the fact that we got our foot in the door even just a little bit, that was the beginning,” says Marti Noxon (Sharp Objects, UnREAL), who was then the showrunner for Private Practice. She says of the strike, “I will defend it to this day.”
Another lasting positive outcome that emerged from the strike itself, some writers say now, was a sense of collective power and potential. Several believe the guild’s general alignment during the strike improved its unity and leverage in battles that followed, such as during its 2017 negotiations (when more than 96 percent of members voted to authorize a strike; the WGA did not end up calling one) and the guild’s campaign against agency packaging fees (when more than 7,000 of a then-estimated 8,800 members with agents fired them — the Guild now says fewer members at that point had agents). Says a veteran showrunner, “What we gained [from 2007-2008] was an understanding that we weren’t kidding around.”
Michael Winship, the president of the WGA East in 2007-2008, who is back in the post today, recalls that the strike in particular smoothed over lingering tensions between the WGA West and WGA East, which had previously been embroiled in fights over the distribution of membership dues and other issues. “It really cemented the collegiality between the two guilds,” Winship says. “We had a common cause.”
Still, the immense emotional and financial pressures the strike wrought — from the death of reportedly dozens of overall deals to strained intra-industry relationships — are not easily forgotten. Says the veteran showrunner, whose studio deal was canceled by force majeure during the strike, “It was brutal. It took a big emotional toll. It took a financial toll on my family and a lot of families that I knew.” (The showrunner still believes the strike was a “necessary fight.”) Howard Gordon (Accused), at the time the showrunner of 24, recalls crewmembers who were unhappy with the effect the WGA’s action was having on their livelihoods: “Some of those things just didn’t quite heal, some of the feelings of the people who were on the crew who lost their jobs or were under some real duress because of [the strike],” he says.
Complicating its legacy, the strike ended in early 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession. When scribes went back to work, some felt new cost-cutting measures were in place – several believe fewer open writing assignments and multi-step deals were on offer, for instance – and it was unclear whether the strike and/or the difficult economic climate had sparked them. The WGA West detailed in its annual report covering 2007 that writer earnings the previous year had hit an all-time high due to “accelerated work on feature film scripts” in anticipation of labor actions; however, 2008 saw earnings for members drop nearly 18 percent due to the strike and recession.
Today, the majority of the WGA West’s approximately 13,000 members have never lived through a guild-organized work stoppage: The western branch of the guild reports that only about one-third of its current members joined before the 2007-08 strike. And the industry landscape has transformed since the 100-day action, presenting writers with distinct issues to tackle in their upcoming negotiations, many of which relate to how the subscription-based streaming model has changed the writing profession, from “mini rooms” to short TV seasons.
Notes one seasoned writer, who asked to remain anonymous, of the difference between 2007 and 2023, “We were expanding in ’07. We hadn’t hit the recession yet. We hadn’t gone through COVID. We were not in a recovery mode.” No Good Nick showrunner David H. Steinberg recalls that in 2007, many writers were desperately trying to book a job to bolster against the coming dry spell. In his view, the dynamic has changed today; as strike conjecture proliferates, “writers are not focused on trying to get a job before the strike; they’re just focused on trying to get a job.”
Some of the players remain the same, however. Carol Lombardini, who in 2007-08 was the No. 2 for the studios’ then-chief negotiator, now leads talks for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), advocating for the studios and streamers, while David Young remains the chief negotiator and executive director of the WGA West. Patric Verrone, the hard-charging WGA West president who became one of the faces of the strike in ’07-08, is a member of the 2023 negotiating committee, and then-WGA East president Winship is back in that post.
On a more emotional level, “anger” is a shared theme connecting 2007 and 2023, says Marc Guggenheim, a Carnival Row executive producer and contributor to the “From the Trenches” Substack, which recently revisited the 2007-2008 strike. He explains, “It is becoming increasingly impossible to make a living in television as a journeyman writer. It is extremely difficult to make a living as a feature writer because fewer features are getting made. You’ve got content being burned left and right.”
In 2008, one of several breakthroughs that helped end the WGA strike was the work of a different union: The Directors Guild of America. The DGA negotiated its own agreement months early, during the strike, and made several gains in areas where the WGA had demanded change, which gave the writers a template to work from. Though in 2023 the WGA’s contract is set to expire less than two months before SAG-AFTRA’s and the DGA’s (both end June 30), it’s unclear at this point what role, if any, other unions’ negotiations could play in the writers’ talks. In a break from recent tradition, the DGA communicated to its members in early February that it will not be negotiating far ahead of its contract expiration date, leading some observers to conjecture the union might wait for the WGA to enter talks first and that this might boost the odds of a strike. The WGA, meanwhile, is set to begin negotiations March 20. The DGA declined comment.
Either way, one important takeaway from the end of the 2007-2008 strike, one prominent writer notes, is “we need allies.” The writer adds, “We’ll need [allies] this time and to the degree that we’ve gotten rid of them, we need to try and cultivate them. That means the DGA, that means agencies, that means lawyers. We cannot go it alone; we learned that last time.”
In the meantime, preparations for this year’s negotiations are barreling ahead. On Feb. 11 and Feb. 15, the Writers Guild held meetings (with two more set for Feb. 23) in which leaders presented their initial bargaining agenda to members for feedback: Insiders said items in discussion included setting minimum TV writing staff sizes, improving residuals for film and TV writers and establishing a minimum number of weeks for employment on a TV series. Contract captains, WGA members who volunteer to assist with internal communications during negotiations, have already reached out to some writers. And on the management side, major companies have accelerated the timelines of writers rooms in case of a strike, insiders say.
One top entertainment attorney adds that some companies are stockpiling scripts and scrutinizing shooting schedules, because with SAG-AFTRA and DGA talks imminent, “it’s not just the writers who could be going on strike.”
Still, the WGA’s ultimate proposals for the AMPTP — and what the studios’ and streamers’ bargaining strategy will be this time around — have yet to be revealed. In this environment of uncertainty, Ray offers this thought exercise: “If you want to guess whether or not the writers are going to strike over a given contract, you have to ask yourselves, how broadly do the issues in that negotiation impact the membership of the guild? If it’s wide, they’re absolutely willing to walk.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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