As the film and television industries await the results of the negotiations between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance Of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP), news is abound regarding what that means for the industry and its consumers.
The WGA is positioning itself on behalf of its members — and quite frankly, future members as well — to pursue better profit shares amidst record earnings by studios and networks. The details are aplenty and also notably involve main topics such as the ever-changing television series modules that now have more shows on multiple platforms with often fewer episodes per season, causing writers to miss out on wages they would otherwise have earned for a show that produces 20-plus episodes per season versus the now trending 7-10 episodes per season (give or take on both ends).
A strike would drastically affect the film and television industry workers as a whole, on all levels, and consumers would be affected because their favorite shows would halt production and many in-development and anticipated feature film projects would be delayed, if not outright cancelled due to the schedules of talent, financing, and other ripple effects in Hollywood that occur after a strike.
But what does all of that really mean? How does a writers guild strike shut down Hollywood in such drastic ways? And if this happens, how does it truly affect writers, producers, production companies, studios, networks, actors, and crew?
Below are the simple breakdowns and explanations of what screenwriters can expect if this possible unfortunate event happens.
Beyond my own experience as a past sufferer of the last Writers Guild strike in 2007/2008, I’ve reached out to a few prominent development executives from major production companies, as well as some Hollywood screenwriters with credited major studio releases in their resume. All have shared their insights into the most recent 2007/2008 strike and its repercussions, as well as their preparations for any impending strike to come.
Major film studios and television networks are represented by the AMPTP. A writers guild strike would simply put a halt to any current development and production that involves the services of a writer.
Movies that are scheduled to be shot could continue with production, but they would do so with no writers involved. That means the often required script changes would not be allowed to be implemented because there would be no writers to hire for such work, due to the strike. Studios and networks are bound by guild signatory agreements, which means that they would not be allowed to hire any non-union writers. While there is some legal gray area present, in the end, any hiring of any “scab” writer would not only have repercussions for that writer for future guild membership, but the studio or network could face later action by the guild as well.
So Hollywood basically shuts down.
In the months before impending strikes, studios and networks prepare by shoring up drafts needed for near production films and television episodes, and they also attempt to find and acquire potential future projects as well.
These days, production companies are the workhorses of Hollywood development. While studios and networks certainly have their development teams, production companies are the entities that truly churn out project after project. Producers and development executives within these companies seek out projects, nurture scripts and concepts, and get them to a point where they can be taken to studios and networks for consideration.
Production companies that work with studios and networks are bound by guild signatory agreements as well, which stipulate that they have to work with union writers and abide by union contracts and member rights. This includes maximum and minimum stipulations and schedules for writer compensation.
When a strike occurs, production company development must come to a halt. They cannot employ writers to continue to work on treatments, drafts, etc. Even if writers are under contract, once the strike begins, everything comes to a crashing halt, including payments scheduled for writers.
Production companies are therefore left with not much to do but wait patiently for the strike to end.
They prepare for strikes much like studios and networks do. They continue development and seek out acquisitions from writers at a much escalated pace as the deadlines come closer and closer for negotiations between the WGA and AMPTP. Once a strike begins, all forward momentum on any project halts until agreements can be made and writers can go back to work.
Union writers are bound by member agreements, which forbid them to work on any projects in any fashion. No development meetings, no treatments, no script notes, and certainly no writing any drafts for any studio, network, or production company.
The struggle that union writers face exceeds the few months of lost income, depending on the length of time for the strike. Many deals that may have been in place or close to contract often disappear. In essence, strikes affect not just the present monetary compensation during the strike, but also the deals that could have been.
Television writers are the ones that suffer the most immediate and drastic blows, as they are employed on a regular basis throughout the year for multiple episodic teleplays, as well as future season development work. This causes many union writers to be forced to take out loans to pay their bills and expenses, as they are paid on a weekly and bi-weekly basis.
Feature film writers often don’t feel the immediate blow, as most features take multiple months and years to go into production. However, any momentum for any prospects that they have yet to be paid for diminishes. It’s often the post-strike ripple effects that hurt feature writers the most as the industry recovers from the loss of revenue and the constant shifts in production schedules. After the last strike, writing assignments and feature development dried up in Hollywood.
For both industry platform writers, even taking a meeting during a strike can be considered a violation of their union member agreements.
Union writers can best prepare for a strike by shifting their focus to spec projects, which are scripts that are written under speculation that they will be sold. Since spec scripts are not under contract, union writers can spend their off time during the strike writing for the future of their career and preparing for the end of the strike to take said projects out.
Any screenwriter that is not a member of the WGA is a non-union screenwriter. They have the freedom to pursue independent acquisitions and assignments with non-guild signatory companies before, during, and after a strike. This is often the case with non-union screenwriters anyway, as they begin their careers in the indie market just to get things made.
However, when it comes to advancing their career into Hollywood, their efforts must come to a halt as no studio, network, producer, or development executive will be actively developing any project during a strike, for the reasons listed above. Again, there is some legal gray area and it would be naive to think that non-union writers are never used as “scab” writers for projects, but most Hollywood signatory entities would avoid any possible future entanglements. Regardless, non-union writers would be better off avoiding taking the risk of being known as a scab writer during a strike, because afterwards that could mean when an opportunity to join the guild is open, that door may be closed in their face if such an action occurred.
Novice screenwriters can usually see a few doors open as studios and production companies often prepare for a strike by reading as many scripts as they can, searching for possible contenders for acquisition. However, once a strike begins, Hollywood resembles a ghost town as development basically stops. Everyone is waiting. While they could surely read the queries and loglines from non-union writers, the reality is that they already have a lot invested in guild writers and their projects and will likely avoid taking anything else into consideration until they know what future lies ahead.
Everyone Else Down the Line
The often unspoken casualties of a strike go beyond the actors and talent that may not be working as a result of an industry shutdown. We have to remember the thousands upon thousands of crew members, caterers, accountants, editors, animators, musicians, drivers, and many, many others that will be left without a job as television series and some feature films are delayed or canceled.
And Then Come the Post-Strike Ripple Effects
Any strike is bad because all parties involved — on both sides — collectively lose millions of dollars in profit and wages. But it’s the ripple effects that are more catastrophic for everyone in Hollywood and beyond.
The last strike changed the industry as a whole. It did have a unique added punch of the economic crisis to go along with it, but regardless, the negative changes are still felt a decade later.
Spec sales are drastically down compared to the 1990s and early 2000s. Studios, networks, and production companies are risk adverse and rely more than ever on existing intellectual property, which hinders the growth rate of incoming novice screenwriters and original screenplays.
What the ripple effects of a new strike could be are unknown, but let’s all hope that the parties involved won’t let us discover what they could be.
Guest blogger Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as two writing assignments with Larry Levinson Productions, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies