The 2023 Writers Strike

Here in Australia you could very much be excused if you didn’t realise there was a writers strike happening in America right now. Negotiations between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance for Motion Picture and Television Producers failed and as of May 1st writers are striking around the country.

There had been rumblings for the last six months it was coming, though few believed it would get to this point. Which brings us to the current state of affairs begging more questions than answers. The biggest question of which I’m here to help answer is why is there a strike at all and what is hoped to come of it? The second question, what does this mean for your favourite shows and movies?

Thankfully some of the big blockbusters filming right now, Dune Part 2 for example, have long had the scripts in the bag. So that’s going to be safe. But if you’re a fan of Saturday Night Live or some of the late night talk shows, they’ve stopped. That’s the immediate action. The outcomes from this stop work might not be seen for months, possibly up to a year. Streaming services like Netflix have a wealth – we’re talking years – worth of shows they can spit out. And that’s before they get to the point of streaming foreign language shows to English-speaking countries, ie. Australia.

While we may not really feel it here in Australia at all, maybe a little more Australian content in the future if the strike goes on, we will see a change in hit shows out of the US in the future. And if a season is halfway through or on a break, even between seasons, The Last of Us for example, you might notice a difference.

One TV show from memory during the 07/08 strike where a noticeable difference happened was Scrubs starring Zack Braff. You could tell there was a change in the energy and style of the show for the second half of the season. And if you try to think of a movie that suffered, The Quantum of Solace. This was a case of a rushed script to beat the shutdown. When compared to Daniel Craig’s other films as 007, it is clear something wasn’t quite right.

Now for those that aren’t as clued into how a writer fits into a show other than writing it. The writers will not only come up with the story and produce a script. They will also attend filming as things can change as the story evolves. Perhaps one idea doesn’t quite execute for the screen and they will re-write or tweak it on the spot. Their role also continues long after filming has ended as they’re included in the editing to ensure the story maintains its flow, character arcs are in line and stories don’t get jumbled.

This pivotal role has changed a lot since the last strike back in 2007. The wide use of the internet was ultimately still in its infancy. Streaming was only just happening with the likes of the pioneering postal DVD come streaming service, Netflix. The future of television and film could not be predicted and negotiations could only cover what they anticipated would happen.

But when you think about how a writer was compensated for their work for anything prior to that ’07 strike compared to now, it’s a vast difference. Back then a writer on a hit tv show, Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld for example, to this day still sees those writers receive handsome cheques. They are replayed year after year. Screened from country to country in English and dubbed to local languages. Broadcast networks will pay a handsome fee to have it fill time slots worthy of advertising.

Now, a streaming service can have a show or a movie that has no advertising, and can be watched at any time, any day, in full or in part, now or in the future. They don’t, nor do they legally have to, share the show’s statistics. So a writer is brought in at the start, does their job and moves on. Fingers crossed the show is a hit and they can come back for another season.

The other side of this is where a writer of a hit show, for example, Wednesday on Netflix, will receive the same amount of money for a show that maybe only did one season a handful of people watched and no one talks about. And there certainly weren’t any viral dances thanks to Lady Gaga. The writers are compensated for hit shows based on subscribers to that streaming service and that’s only in the US.

So you can see things have changed a lot with the introduction of streaming services. And if you look at the last 5 years alone it has exploded with streaming options: Paramount, Disney and Apple to name a few. And if Covid hadn’t happened the writer would have already negotiated to catch up with this. You can only speculate at this point about what this round of negotiations would have involved.

So herein lies the problem. The fundamentals of how studios and broadcast networks commission and pay for television shows and movies have changed. But it’s changed so fast that there isn’t a clear guideline or rules on how to manage it. Not just for writers but for actors and directors as well. They don’t start negotiations with studios until June. So as the best efforts will be to compensate writers for their work in the very near future, the industry can change drastically over the next three years to their next negotiations.

That’s before you even consider the fact there is a global financial crisis. And the cost of living has skyrocketed to numbers not seen before. A rise in pay should be the easy part of negotiations.

So what do the writers want? There are 21 WGA proposals. It’s estimated the demands are around the sum of $429 million USD annually. Without going into detail of all of them, here are some of the major ones. Firstly, residuals, how they are paid for hit shows and their longevity. Similar to how a writer still receives a handsome cheque for writing on Seinfeld.

With all the cost-cutting there’s also less chance for growth and opportunity as a writer. If you’ve ever seen a behind the scenes of a tv show or movie you’ll know there is a group of writers. Now a lot of studios will use what is commonly called a “mini-room”. Here writers are called in to write the show and then hand off the scripts to the more experienced showrunners to finish off the job. This limits any chance for a writer to move up the ranks and become a showrunner.

There is also the challenge around exclusivity. After a pilot or script has been greenlit a writer may be required to literally sit around for months while everything is finalised. This means they can’t work on other projects sometimes meaning they have little to no income. Keep in mind hit tv shows before streaming would be anywhere from 22 to 25 episodes long. Now hit shows are between 8 to 10. Meaning the writers aren’t writing for as long as they used to. So the writers want to be able to have shorter exclusivity deals so they can ultimately work on multiple jobs or at least go back to back.

The other topic up for negotiation is the use of AI. A new technology where for example ChatGPT can churn out a script with the simplest of ideas. Not everyone can truly grasp its potential. At a basic level, writers want to be assured the technology won’t be used as a replacement.

Some of these demands may not seem like a lot and possibly easy and quick fixes. And maybe if Covid didn’t challenge the last negotiations there wouldn’t be so much to work through this time. But financially the world is now in a different place. Studios are cutting back so on the other side of this strike means studios can do a little tidying up of their books. And a few months of not paying writers might put some sparkle back in their books.

Ultimately writers don’t have the same power they did back in ’07. Studios are cutting costs. And with such a new world in TV and film consumption, it’s not going to be an easy task for both sides to meet in the middle.

While it’s anticipated this strike could last all of American summer, one idea is that the Alliance for Motion Picture and Television Producers will offer some money to keep the writers quiet until the business model in this new world of TV and film consumption can be agreed upon.

We have the last strike to thank for the domination of reality tv across our screens. But when that is already a saturated product what could come out of this strike? While I have nothing to back it up I say there will be an increase in social media content. Webisodes, mini tiktok shows and a flooding of vodcasts. But while I can only speculate, only time will tell based on the strike’s results.

Here in Australia, it’s business as usual. However, the Australian Writers Guild has issued a statement offering their support for the WGA. And while they have urged Australian writers not to complicate matters there is a growing concern writers in Australia, Canada and the UK may be called upon to fill the vacancy in the US.

While it’s too early to call, one thing is for certain. They are nowhere near a solution.

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