Writers Guild, Studios Begin Talks Amid Pandemic — Without a Strike Threat

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An empty TCL Chinese Theatre as it celebrates its 93rd birthday on May 18, 2020, in Hollywood

It’s negotiation in the new normal.

The Writers Guild of America and the major studios began talks Monday on a three-year renewal of the union’s master TV/theatrical agreement under conditions completely opposite from what was anticipated just a few months ago.

Instead of a possible strike, negotiators are contending with an actual pandemic. Instead of Peak TV and a production bubble, they must now grapple with an industry shutdown and an uncertain production reboot. Rather than bargaining down to the wire, they’re beginning talks six weeks ahead of a June 30 expiration. Instead of length in-person negotiations with upwards of 100 executives and staff crammed in a room, it’s a smaller number crammed in a Zoom.

And, The Hollywood Reporter has been told by one source, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers will interleave its WGA negotiations with its continuing talks with SAG-AFTRA, which began April 27.

“The AMPTP's goal is to reach a fair and reasonable agreement with writers that will provide much-needed stability as the industry recovers from the devastating impact of COVID-19,” the studio alliance said in a statement. “More importantly, we want to enable those who have suffered the most from the effects of the virus to return to work without the threat of further interruption to their livelihoods.”

The WGA sent an email to members on Monday announcing the start of negotiations.

“We’ll be sending a series of emails over the next two weeks with an overview of the issues we will be addressing on your behalf with the AMPTP during May and June,” said the email, which was accompanied by a video. “The topics will include: streaming compensation and residuals, benefit contributions, inclusion and equity, workplace protections including against sexual harassment, and specific screenwriter, comedy-variety and TV writer issues.”

Certain aspects of the already-completed Directors Guild of America deal — the residuals provisions and probably the basic wage increases — are expected to serve as a pattern for the corresponding aspects of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA deals, but both of those unions have non-pattern issues, as well.

For TV writers, those issues are expected to include holds and exclusivity — as well as span, a measure how long a writer can be required to work on a single script before additional compensation is due. The short seasons typical of streaming series have brought those issues to the fore in the last two rounds of triennial negotiations, and this round is expected to be no different.

And despite some nasty remarks directed at the AMPTP and its president, the anger seems to have drained out of the WGA’s stance under the onslaught of the pandemic, shutdown and recession — and a bruising courtroom loss to major talent agencies in the guild’s battle against packaging fees (which the guild labeled a win). For now, at least, a socially distanced picket line seems unlikely.