Hollywood writers down pens and strike over 'gig economy'

Writers in Hollywood are putting down their pens and going on strike for the first time in more than 15 years

Hollywood screenwriters are downing their pens for the first time in more than 15 years after negotiations over pay and streaming services broke down.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) announced that 11,500 of its members will stop working on Tuesday afternoon. All script writing is to cease immediately, the guild said.

It comes after talks between the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers hit a wall.

The board of directors for the WGA voted unanimously to call for a strike, effective at the stroke of midnight. Writers, they said, are facing an “existential crisis.”

When writers went on strike back in 2007, it was estimated by economists to have cost the industry around $2.1 billion. Scripted Hollywood shows had to be shut down and executives commissioned more and more reality shows due to them being unscripted.

Why are writers striking?

Residual payments for writers are earnt from regular broadcasts and streaming, however, they are usually smaller for the latter. And, with streaming becoming more and more popular, it has caused a lot of unease within the industry.

Showrunners, who have overall creative and managerial authority on television productions, receive just 46% of the pay on streaming series compared to showrunners on broadcast series, the WGA claims.

“The companies’ behaviour 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 WGA said in a statement.

“From their refusal to guarantee any level of weekly employment in episodic television, to the creation of a ‘day rate’ in comedy variety, to their stonewalling on free work for screenwriters and on AI for all writers, they have closed the door on their labour force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession. No such deal could ever be contemplated by this membership.”

The labour dispute could have a cascading effect on TV and film productions depending on how long the strike persists.

WGA writers striking back in 2007. Credit: AP

But a shutdown has been widely forecast for months due to the scope of the discord. The writers last month voted overwhelmingly to authorise a strike, with 98% of the membership in support.Scripted series and films will take longer to be affected. But if a strike persisted through the summer, fall schedules could be upended.

And in the meantime, not having writers available for rewrites can have a dramatic effect on quality. The James Bond film “Quantum of Solace” was one of many films rushed into production during the 2007-2008 strike with what Daniel Craig called “the bare bones of a script.”

“Then there was a writers’ strike and there was nothing we could do,” Craig later recounted. “We couldn’t employ a writer to finish it. I say to myself, ‘Never again’, but who knows? There was me trying to rewrite scenes — and a writer I am not.”

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The guild is seeking more compensation on the front end of deals.

Many of the back-end payments writers have historically profited by – like syndication and international licensing - have been largely phased out by the onset of streaming.

More writers - roughly half - are being paid minimum rates, an increase of 16% over the last decade. The use of so-called mini-writers rooms has soared.

The AMPTP said the primary sticking points to a deal revolved around those mini-rooms - the guild is seeking a minimum number of scribes per writer room - and duration of employment restrictions. The guild has said more flexibility for writers is needed when they’re contracted for series that have tended to be more limited and short-lived than the once-standard 20-plus episode broadcast season.

At the same time, studios are under increased pressure from Wall Street to turn a profit with their streaming services. Many studios and production companies are slashing spending. The Walt Disney Co. is eliminating 7,000 jobs.

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