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After all the rumors and rampant speculation about the sparks that could fly when the Writers Guild of America and Hollywood’s top studios and streamers negotiate their next contract, the two parties are set to finally meet on Monday. At the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers headquarters in Sherman Oaks, they’ll begin talks that will eventually determine whether the writers will make a deal in 2023 or strike — as so many in the industry have surmised they may do.
Heading up the negotiations on the writers’ end will be WGA assistant executive director Ellen Stutzman, who stepped in as chief negotiator just weeks ago. (The WGA’s executive director and longtime head for contract talks, David Young, went on medical leave Feb. 28.) She will be joined by co-chairs of the WGA’s negotiating committee, showrunner Chris Keyser (Julia) and writer-producer David A. Goodman (The Orville), both former WGA presidents themselves. The main agenda item for the writers this time around? The guild’s “pattern of demands” released earlier this month suggests a broad swath of issues and grievances are on the table, but according to Keyser, one concept ties them all together: “Compensation, compensation, compensation.”
As is typical with unions prior to negotiations, the WGA’s team declined to get into too much detail on the specifics of their demands. However, in an interview on Tuesday, Stutzman, Keyser and Goodman explained why writers feel this is such a pivotal round of talks and also discussed strike rumors, the importance of gaining more transparency into streamers’ data and why “you can’t future-proof everything” in a contract.
I’m going to start with what’s on everyone’s minds right now: What is the likelihood of a writers strike?
David A. Goodman: Wow. You know, we go through this every three years, the guild negotiates every three years. All the talk of strike doesn’t actually come from anybody at the guild. That’s a reflection of the fact that people in this business recognize that the guild will fight if necessary [and] that we have serious things that we want to try to accomplish in this negotiation. But the idea that anybody knows the answer to that question — we won’t know it until we’re in negotiations with the companies and we see how serious they are about trying to improve compensation for writers.
Ellen Stutzman: I’ll just say that, obviously, we’re going go into negotiations with the goal of making a deal, and it’s got to be a deal that addresses writer issues. And as David said, this is a union that’s willing to take action when necessary. And that’s a really important thing because I think the only thing the companies recognize is writer power.
In its pattern of demands, the WGA said it wanted to tackle mini-rooms and raise writers’ compensation. We’ve also reported that some of your top priorities include regulating the size and duration of writers rooms. In your own words, what are the three most important issues on your list when talks begin on March 20?
Chris Keyser: I don’t think we think about it in terms of numbers. I think you mentioned what our priority is: It’s compensation, compensation, compensation. [It’s] more money in writers’ pockets in episodic television and comedy-variety and features. And everything that we’re proposing, taken altogether, is about that money in writers’ pockets. That’s the priority.
Goodman: And all of our proposals are connected to that. It’s not that we could say, “This one is more important than this one,” because they’re all connected. They’re all about improving writer compensation. Every writer who is a member of this union is facing this.
Can you be any more specific about that — for instance, how much you want to raise minimums, like a certain percentage range?
Stutzman: I think we’re not going to get into specifics, but recognizing that writers have been underpaid, that the companies are pushing more and more writers, including very experienced writers, down to minimums, coupled with inflation, the increases can’t be your normal 3 percent. They’ve got to be something that really rights the balance [on] what the companies have done over a period of time.
What is your plan to “address the abuses of mini-rooms,” as the Guild put it in its pattern of demands?
Keyser: I don’t mean to reduce this to something simple, but our belief is a writers room is a writers room. And for us, the question is, are the writers being paid what they’re worth every week and for enough weeks to compensate them for the value that they create? Whether it’s in a pre-greenlight room or a post-greenlight room, that’s the simple truth of it. They may require their own specifics in the long run, but we actually tend to see them as of a piece and not separate. And writers do, too, by the way. Our work is our work, whether we’re creating the first week of a new show, or a new season, or the 15th episode. What we do has enormous value, and it’s seriously under-compensated for a number of reasons that we talked about — duration of employment and weekly fees — and that’s got to be dealt with.
Stutzman: And by the way, I’m not a writer, I represent writers. [But] to me, it’s offensive to call it a “mini-room” as if we can just say, “This is your work, but now it’s smaller.” And really all it is, is saying, “I want you to do all this valuable work, just crammed into the smallest amount of weeks that I can get it out of you and pay you the lowest amount contemplated.” And so it’s just our job as the guild to put in protections that say, “No, you don’t get to just minimize writers’ contributions. You have to pay them appropriately.”
How important is the streamers sharing viewership numbers with the Guild — in other words, more data transparency — in this round of talks?
Stutzman: It’s definitely something that is included and contemplated in this round of negotiations. It’s something that, actually, the guild has had the ability to do for a lot of programming since the 2007 strike, to go in and look at all the new media deals and data. And we’ve done that on a consistent basis. It’s a great myth that the companies have put out that no one can ever see what viewership is occurring. That’s not the case. And I would expect, obviously, as they’ve all added advertising tiers, that that information has to open up.
One divisive issue among writers this round of negotiations is the focus on the size of television writing staffs. Showrunner Robert King tweeted in February, “What the hell is Chris Keyser doing going on about TV staff size?” and aired concerns about management giving only so much money for many writers if the guild were to regulate writing staff sizes. King added, “It’s demagoguery. It’s pretending to be making moves for the most vulnerable new members of the guild but cutting off any chance for their advancement. Writers can’t advance to higher economic levels if the staff money will always be MBA earmarked.” Do you have a response to these concerns?
Keyser: Well, I talked to Robert about it and explained it to him. He tweeted that before he heard what the proposal was. And we’ve been explaining it to writers all across the board. I’ll say [at] the guild, we pride ourselves on transparency and open conversation. But writers [are] behind this proposal. It’s necessary as a part of the total package, as David Goodman described it, to ensure compensation. And I have no doubt about that. So we’ve had lots of good conversations. We’ve met with thousands and thousands of writers, David and Ellen and I, and members of the [negotiating committee] have been talking to individual members who have questions. Because it’s all complicated, right? It’s all these new rules that we need to implement because the norms that used to govern the way the studios treated us are no longer in place. They don’t behave in the ways they used to. And so we’re going to put rules in place, and it’s going to take a little time for people to understand them. That’s what’s going on. That’s what happened with Robert. It’s happening with other writers. But no one should doubt in the long run the unanimity of the Writers Guild in support of this agenda.
Stutzman: And I would just add, our vote on the pattern of demands, writers have told us pretty well that they back this agenda, and they had the opportunity to hear a lot of it in detail at our member meetings. So I would take that as a pretty good sign of the support.
Keyser: And Robert’s a great guild member.
Goodman: He is. And that’s the other thing, too, that’s always really important to understand about this union is that it’s a democratic union. Everybody gets a voice. We listen to everybody. Majority rules, but we want it to be a healthy majority. We want writers to feel like they have a stake in what we’re fighting for. And in this negotiation, more than any other that I’ve been involved in, I think writers understand the importance of the things we’re talking about.
Keyser: I think people sometimes confuse our open and vigorous conversation with our solidarity. But they only have to look at 2007 or 2017 or the agency campaign to understand that when push comes to shove, we stand together.
You got the opening proposals from the AMPTP yesterday. What is your reaction to them so far?
Stutzman: I wouldn’t characterize a reaction right now. I think we’re reviewing them, and we’ll deal with the companies next week.
As much as the Writers Guild has argued that entertainment companies remain highly profitable, studios, streamers and producers do have legitimate business concerns at this juncture, as most streaming isn’t profitable yet and the theatrical market has yet to rebound to pre-COVID levels. How do you plan on balancing getting the most for your members while also keeping in mind the realities of the business that employs them?
Goodman: The reality of the business is they [will spend] $19 billion making programming [this] year [according to the guild’s own “State of the Industry” bulletin]. This idea that these companies are actually in trouble is ludicrous. They are spending plenty of money. All we’re saying in all of our proposals is: Compensate us fairly. It’s easy to confuse a company looking to increase its profit growth by making cuts in staff with an actual contraction of the business. The business is not contracting. There’s consolidation going on, and that’s affecting these companies and the people that work there. But CEO pay is just fine, and these companies are doing quite well. So the idea that the companies are in trouble and the streaming businesses is in trouble, it’s just not true. They’re looking to please Wall Street: It’s not just about profit, it’s about profit growth. And that means sometimes they’re going to make these cuts. But their stocks are doing quite well, and these companies are doing quite well. And all we’re saying is, “You want to make this stuff, pay us for our work.”
Keyser: From 2017, [in] the last five years, they’ve made about $30 billion a year on average in their core business [according to the guild’s “State of the Industry” report], in which they employ us. During which time, our compensation went down by 24 percent. You can’t really make an argument that “This year’s not quite as good as that, we might only make $28 billion this year, and so we’re not going to make you whole.” They just can’t do that. They’re competing as titans to control the streaming empire and a lot of them are going to succeed at the highest level, and some of them will fail. That’s OK. Every time they make a show and they spend tens of millions of dollars on it, they can find it in that budget to pay us for the value we create. That doesn’t put the pressure on them in their enormous bottom lines.
How can the WGA “future-proof” a deal so that they get a piece of whatever the business model ends up being, given the uncertainty today?
Goodman: That’s one of the reasons we negotiate every three years, because you can’t future-proof everything. You have to be able to respond. I think the companies would give us a much better deal if we gave them a 10-year deal. We’re not going to do that, because you don’t know how the business is going to change, and you don’t know how you’re going to have to use your leverage to improve your deal. You can make some assumptions, and we are, and that has a lot to do with our proposals, looking where the business has come and where we think it’s going, but you can’t fully see the future.
Stutzman: I agree with that. I also think we have looked at how the business has changed and we can play that out. And so what we intend to do in this negotiation is to say, “This is how writers have worked for a long time, and it’s a compact that worked with the industry, and it’s shared in the success, and it made for a viable, sustainable career, and the companies are doing everything they can to change that.” And so the MBA has to change to say, “Well, we’re going to protect this as a viable career.” So I think we’ve looked at the ways they’re squeezing writers out of the process in terms of lower pay and shorter amount of time to get the work done or fewer people around to do the work and say, “OK, well the MBA has to address those things.”
There’s a narrative pervading the industry that the studios want a strike to clear the books of overall deals and to cut costs. Do you think there’s any truth to that, and if so, how does that change their negotiating strategy?
Keyser: They say that every single time — every time — to scare people. They say, “Please strike so we can stop producing things.” As if they couldn’t do that already, as if they didn’t need to spend $19 billion a year, this year alone. If they didn’t see the value in it, they could stop it. And I think the idea that they’re looking to upend the industry to get rid of a few deals that they don’t think are producing at top value, we think that that’s absurd. These are the same companies that are putting pressure on writers to try to stockpile scripts. They know the value of all of this. We don’t take that particularly seriously.
Who is “they”? Is “they” the companies?
Goodman: We’re not sure exactly where the source is, but this rumor comes out. I got a text from somebody who was close to an exec saying they want a strike — I got that six months ago. I don’t think that’s real, I think that’s putting out a story so that writers think they don’t have any power. That’s what that rumor’s about. It’s a way to get to people’s insecurity that, “Well, we don’t have any power, so there’s no use in standing up and fighting.” We prove time and again that our strength does matter and does get us, maybe not everything we want, but usually what we need.
Ellen, you ended up in the chief negotiator role just weeks before negotiations are set to begin. How would you compare and contrast your approach to David Young’s?
Stutzman: David hired me, and I’ve worked for him for 17 years, and we’re part of a team that, along with our member leaders, has an approach to negotiations that is about writer power and negotiating with that in mind. So I don’t think it’s a real change. I think we’ll go into negotiations the way we had planned to before David had to take a medical leave.
The WGA’s last major negotiations occurred at the onset of the pandemic, when the future of the industry was still very much in the air, and there’s a sense among writers that those industry conditions reduced writers’ leverage. What were some of the agenda items that got away in that negotiation?
Keyser: I think that there’s not much question that history works that way, that pandemics change your leverage. It’s harder to exercise writer power at a time when we couldn’t come together, when writers were feeling uncertain, [when] the streaming business began to develop and mature. All of the proposals that we have that are about the way the streaming businesses affected television and features and comedy-variety are the things that we are still focused on.
Goodman: I also will point out that despite the difficulties of the pandemic negotiation in 2020, we got as part of that negotiation paid family leave. That is reflective that, even in a period of difficulty, even in a period where we couldn’t show our strength in the usual way because of the uncertainty and the difficulties caused by the pandemic, the companies still recognize this is a union whose strength we have to respect.
Keyser: Yeah. I think that’s going to be beneficial to us. I think writer solidarity through that, through the agency campaign, through all of those difficult years, moving toward 2023, is going to make us even stronger. And as David said, I don’t think any of us have seen this level of insistent point of view and solidarity as we have this year. It’s not all good. It’s because things are bad, straight across the board for writers. But we understand what needs to be done.
The Writers Guild has a broad membership that includes both highly paid showrunners and name-brand writers and workaday, more middle-class writers. Is there a constituency that you are particularly looking to serve in this round of talks?
Goodman: That’s the amazing thing about the difficulties that we’re facing, is that they affect everybody for the first time. Really, those showrunners you’re talking about, a lot of them are making minimum — a lot of them [according to a recent Writers Guild bulletin, 24 percent of showrunners in the 2021-22 season made minimum]. And so from top to bottom across the board, feature writers, comedy-variety writers, television staff writers, top to bottom, everybody is hurting in this new model, not making what they should be making, what they used to make in the same job 12 years ago. The idea that a writer on a television show is making less than that same job paid 10 or 12 years ago is insane and has to be addressed. So the constituency is the membership and, for the first time, there is a united feeling that no one is being properly compensated for the work that they’re doing.
What are some issues that writers face right now that the guild simply cannot fix in a traditional negotiations context? What is beyond the purview of these talks?
Goodman: It’s a wide swath of things. I mean, I think that’s not our approach. Our approach is what are the problems we can try to fix within the context of the MBA.
Keyser: Well, for one thing, we don’t deal with the above-scale income. We need agents to do that. It’s why the agency campaign happened and why we’re partners with agencies now in taking care of both sides of the Writers Guild compensation coin. So we need to do what we do on minimums, and the agents are going to have to do what they do on above-scale.
We’re hearing that as companies prepare for a potential strike, broadcast shows are getting renewed early this season and in some cases writers/showrunners are skipping hiatus this season to work straight through on the new season and get scripts in early. This would allow production to continue if there is a strike. Does the guild take issue with this practice? Have you tried to discourage writers from engaging in this behavior?
Goodman: The guild’s main goal is to make sure the writers are paid properly. So if the showrunner determines that that’s something they want to do, as long as everybody’s getting paid, the guild doesn’t have an issue with it. I think that what it does speak to, however, and it speaks to something that whenever the companies have tried to do this, it doesn’t actually help because you still need the writers who wrote that actual material to be there to make those shows. But again, as long as writers are getting paid during that period, that isn’t something that we would take issue with.
You’re saying they need to be there as well during the production?
Goodman: Writing takes place all the way through. Writing isn’t just writing the script. Writing is so many different aspects of the television process. Editing is writing. There’s all sorts of things that happen that are a version of writing. And so if you don’t have your writers there, your show’s not going to be as good.
Keyser: And by the way, you have to pay attention [to what] the companies are doing [and] what they’re saying. So these companies that we say are saying to everyone, “Oh, please strike, we just need a reason to stop production,” are now saying to everybody, “Just give us as many scripts as you can so we can keep producing things.” I mean, it’s …
Keyser: (Laughs.) It’s not a clear point of view. I think you have [to] take it all, everything you hear from them about why they’re eager for us to [strike] with a grain of salt. They prove every single day they desperately need the work that writers provide. They’re not going to get enough of it in stockpiling scripts to avoid the pain if we end up having to strike. But at least it reveals the truth of our value.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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