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In the wake of the March 24 collapse of negotiations between the studios and the Writers Guild, union members are gearing up to vote on whether to authorize the first major labor strike in Hollywood since the damaging WGA work stoppage of 2007-08. And THR interviews with writers indicate that, if the strike-authorization ballot goes ahead, a majority will support it.
“I will vote [yes], of course, because if we don’t, we’ll be telling our negotiators that we’re not actually behind them,” says Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha), who adds that a no vote would mean “we don’t care how lousy the deal is, we’ll take it.” Adds Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan, “I don’t want a strike, no one wants a strike. … A vote is a part of showing the willingness of the membership to do what it takes.”
Among the guild’s goals: reversing sharp income declines for writers due to shorter TV seasons and “hold” requirements that prevent writers from seeking additional work despite those short seasons.
“We’re still paid per episode, and now it’s 10 episodes with exclusivity,” adds Nolan. “That means even if the show only takes a few months [to do], you’re still held to the show. That’s a 60 percent reduction in income.” The recent reduction in studio movies also is a WGA concern, as is shoring up the benefit plans and getting the same wage and residuals increases that the Directors Guild obtained in a January deal. While insiders believe the DGA model is within reach, the WGA’s wish list would cost the studios more than they currently are willing to pay.
Balloting on the strike authorization could take several weeks, stalling negotiations until just before the current WGA contract expires May 1. If another week or two of talks don’t then produce a deal, there’s a further complication, given that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers needs to get negotiations underway with SAG-AFTRA, whose contracts expire June 30. That’ll tie up the AMPTP negotiators, leaving the WGA situation in limbo.
Insiders expect the SAG-AFTRA talks to go more smoothly than those with the WGA, potentially pressuring the writers to back down. Before that happens, sources say, the studios could play hardball and lay down an offer with an expiration date on one of its key aspects: making wage increases retroactive. Ratify the deal promptly, the guild may be told, and the pay increases will be backdated to May 1; don’t ratify it, and retroactivity goes out the window.
All this could presage a strike because the two sides are far apart. After the 2007-08 strike, the Milken Institute projected the stoppage cost $2.3 billion in lost wages and salaries and $3.1 billion in lost personal income. With 2016 boasting 455 scripted original TV series, the impact on Hollywood’s economy could be far bigger.
“We’re at a sea change moment,” says Nolan. “And as with the last negotiation, which resulted in a strike — about anticipating the internet and Netflix and everything else — it’s important all parties come to the table and find a solution that works for everyone.”
Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.
This story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.