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Saturday, July 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Hollywood writers go on strike

Writers say the rise of streaming services and the decline of 20-episode TV seasons have turned them into gig workers.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Movie and television writers took to the picket lines Tuesday afternoon, marching with signs and chanting outside 10 major studios in Los Angeles including Amazon, Netflix, Disney and Paramount.

"The companies' behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing," the writer's union said in a statement Monday night, after the strike was officially declared.

The Writer's Guild of America West has demanded a staffing minimum for TV shows, from 6 to 12 writers per show depending on the number of episodes. The writers also want minimum terms of employment — at least 10 consecutive weeks of work. The two demands appear to be nonstarters for the studios and are at the heart of the impasse.

The dispute largely reflects the changing nature of television. Shows used to consist of more than 20 episodes per season, which made writing for those shows a full-time job or close to it. But prestige cable dramas like "The Sopranos" and a multitude of streaming services changed that. TV shows now produce 8 to 12 episodes per season, reducing the writers' workload to a freelance job that takes up a fraction of the year.

"People are working for less money and for less time," said Selwyn Hinds, the former editor-in-chief of The Source magazine and now a movie and TV writer, who was picketing outside Netflix's headquarters. "You get a job for six or seven weeks, and then you scramble for the next one, which you might not find for eight months. I know people who have gone a whole year."

Another major grievance is the decline of residual payments — money paid out each time an old TV episode is rerun. Streaming services have blurred the lines between a rerun and a new episode. Whereas network reruns used to send out checks to writers for decades, streamers typically pay out a one-time lump sum to writers for older shows.

"There was once an era where checks would show up for the rest of your life," said a TV writer and show runner, Jeff R., who declined to give his last name. "Unfortunately that’s no long the case."

He added: "It's become harder than ever to retire from this business."

The two sides had been negotiating a new contract since March 20. In a statement, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) said it had "presented a comprehensive package proposal to the guild last night which included generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residuals," and that it is willing to improve its offer.

"The AMPTP member companies remain united in their desire to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial to writers and the health and longevity of the industry, and to avoid hardship to the thousands of employees who depend upon the industry for their livelihoods."

The strike will create massive ripple effects all across the American entertainment industry, heavily affecting the economy in Los Angeles and other cities.

“Los Angeles relies on a strong entertainment industry that is the envy of the world while putting Angelenos to work in good, middle-class jobs," LA Mayor Karen Bass said in a written statement. "I encourage all sides to come together around an agreement that protects our signature industry and the families it supports.”

As for consumers of TV, some of the strike's effects will be felt immediately. Late-night talk shows like "The Tonight Show," "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" will cease producing new episodes right away. Their networks will likely run old episodes.

Shows that are in post-production can be edited and then aired. But some shows that have been written won't be able to go into production. Other shows, like reality TV and news, will be unaffected by the strike, as they are considered "unscripted" and are not subject to the WGA contract.

The last writers strike in 2007 lasted for 100 days. No one knows how long this one will last, but many of the writers on picket lines Tuesday afternoon said they expected this one to last months as the two sides are fairly far apart, particularly on the issues of minimum staffing and minimum length of contracts.

According to a document put out by the WGA, the union's demands would gain writers a total of approximately $429 million per year, while the counteroffer from the AMPTP amounts to around $86 million per year.

The writers also want artificial intelligence banned from writing or rewriting scripts. According to the guild, the producers have done little to counter except to offer "annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology."

The labor dispute comes amid a period of contraction and belt-tightening across much of the entertainment industry, as companies have struggled to turn their streaming services into profitable enterprises. This year, Disney cut 7,000 jobs. Netflix, Warner Bros. Discovery, NBCUniversal, and Paramount have all had layoffs in the last year.

Writers, on the other hand, have felt the squeeze for years — first from the pandemic, and more recently from inflation.

"We didn’t push very hard three years ago because of the pandemic," said Hinds. "We had the expectation that they would meet us at least a quarter of the way."

Follow @hillelaron
Categories / Employment, Entertainment

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