Nick Bakay has had a 30-year career in TV and film, including writing on traditional network sitcoms like “Young Sheldon” and “The King of Queens.”
But the industry has shifted in recent years. Now he’s working on “How to Be a Bookie,” an eight-episode series for Max.
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The show is scheduled to wrap production on April 28, getting in just under the wire before a possible strike by the Writers Guild of America.
“The game has suddenly changed so drastically,” Bakay says. “If you’re going to go from 22 episodes and residuals to eight episodes and no residuals, that’s a body blow.”
Whether you’re a CEO or a set painter, you have a big stake in the outcome of the WGA negotiations taking place at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. The WGA has said it is seeking to address an existential crisis for writers, brought on by shorter episode orders and the transition to streaming.
It remains possible that a deal could be reached as the contract expires on May 1. But even if only to maintain credibility at the table, both sides must be ready for a strike.
The WGA is expected to have an event this week for writers to make picket signs — part of the usual buildup to a strike deadline. (Update: The WGA in fact did hold a sign-making event on Wednesday.) Writers are also scrambling to get scripts completed.
“We are making sure we get as many scripts in as we can,” says the president of one production company.
The person says they are also commencing as many writers’ rooms as possible. Writers are breaking scripts and executives are hurrying to give notes, knowing that nobody will be able to do any writing work once a strike begins. They also know they will have to make up for lost time when the strike is over, so the more they do now, the better.
It has, however, been difficult to hire writers or sell projects for the past several weeks, as schedules are so uncertain. The executive says they have drawn up a strike plan, which includes packaging movies with scripts that are already completed, and shifting to animation, where the WGA generally does not have jurisdiction.
According to FilmLA, production in Los Angeles has slowed sharply over the past three months, dropping 24% compared with the first quarter of last year. Though it is difficult to disentangle the effects of broader corporate reorganizations and the cost-cutting that has accompanied these moves, FilmLA president Paul Audley says the labor situation “seems to have delayed the start of some programming.”
That’s the opposite of what happened just ahead of the 2007 writers strike, when studios accelerated production in the months before the deadline.
“Production has slowed down tremendously,” says Dejon Ellis, business manager of IATSE Local 80, which represents grips, set medics and craft service workers. “Our members are hurting.”
Ellis says, however, that may be related to studios struggling to find a profitable streaming model, rather than anything to do with the WGA.
“It’s low-hanging fruit to blame the writers and their negotiations,” he says.
The Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA are set to begin their contract negotiations over the next couple of months. Those talks are also expected to be difficult.
This round of bargaining comes at the end of a decadelong ramp-up in TV production. From 2009 to 2019, the number of working TV writers increased by 70%, according to guild data, bringing a flood of fresh talent into the business. Newer writers typically make minimum salaries — $4,546 per week for a staff writer or $7,412 for anyone above entry level. That’s good money for as long as it lasts. But for a lot of writers, it doesn’t.
The pandemic hit in 2020, and then investors started souring on the economics of Netflix and other streaming services two years later, leaving many of those new writers without a clear path forward in their careers.
“A lot of production companies and streamers were doing lots of overproduction of shows,” says David Goodman, co-chair of the WGA negotiating committee. “We had this peak number of shows that were being made, but that’s now starting to shrink.”
At the same time, the shows that are getting produced have fewer episodes, leaving many writers looking for other jobs or unemployed for most of the year. The guild is seeking to push back with a proposal to set minimum staffing levels for TV. Writers also want a more robust streaming residual, to tide them over in periods of unemployment.
But the companies — faced with a streaming business model that doesn’t generate much profit — seem in no mood to accede to those demands. That has the two sides on a collision course, and it’s not clear that either will blink before May 2.
“Everybody wants to work,” Bakay says. “I always think about the entire crew and their family. I hate the idea of anybody else being put out by our issues.”
But, he adds, “we’re at a beachhead moment where new media is running away with this.”
The WGA wants to mandate a minimum number of writers per TV show. Studios are increasingly using “mini rooms” — where just a handful of writers break a whole season in a matter of weeks. The guild worries that if left unchecked, studios could do away with the traditional writers’ room model, replacing it with a cheaper way of making scripted TV.
The current WGA streaming residual is a fixed amount, regardless of whether a show is watched by 10 million people or 10. The WGA wants to add a “success factor,” where shows that generate more views receive a higher residual. But that would require opening up viewership data, which the streamers are unwilling to do.
Writers are typically paid by the episode. In the streaming era, TV seasons have fewer episodes but often take just as long to produce, so writers make less per week. The WGA previously worked out a deal where the episode rate buys no more than 2.4 weeks of work. That deal doesn’t apply to writers who make $400,000 or more. The WGA wants to remove the $400,000 cap, so writers above that level can make more.
Jennifer Maas contributed to this story.
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