U.K. Writers Demand Clarity From Unions About Working for Netflix and Disney During Strike (EXCLUSIVE)
U.K. writers haven’t kept quiet in their support of the Writers Guild of America strike, with many making enthusiastic shows of solidarity on social media. But behind the scenes, several writers have told Variety under the condition of anonymity that they’re frustrated about a gray area in strike rules that have left them in limbo.
These projects tend to be set up with the U.K. branches of “struck” companies like Disney or Netflix, but aren’t covered by WGA terms. As these multi-national businesses have grown their local productions in recent years, many British writers who are also WGA members fall into this camp, and are being pressured to walk away.
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“International members haven’t had any say in the WGA strike and we’re not allowed to strike because our union hasn’t voted to strike,” says one up-and-coming writer. “But if we have a contract and [a ‘struck’ company is involved], but it’s based in the U.K., am I breaching my contract if I act in solidarity? We’ve been made to feel like scabs.”
Another well-established writer agrees that pens-down campaigns on social media out of America have many British scribes feeling guilty for continuing to work during the strike: “That’s the atmosphere that seems to be in place,” they tell Variety. “Yet if we put our pens down and we strike for four weeks or four months, at the end of that, what do we get for projects that aren’t covered by the WGA?”
Sources indicate that conversations are currently ongoing between the WGA and the WGGB, with the latter trade union pushing back on hardline expectations by the former in regards to strike action by international members. Variety has contacted both the WGA and the WGGB about the talks, but did not hear back by press time.
The WGGB came out in full support of its American sister union on Tuesday, with chair Lisa Holdsworth, a working screenwriter herself, acknowledging that “strike action is a last resort and one that requires individual sacrifice.” The guild — which does not require U.K. writers to join in order to work locally — officially instructed its members to stop working on projects within the WGA’s jurisdiction. But as of Wednesday evening local time, the guild’s official guidance still noted that it “awaits further clarification on how U.K. subsidiaries of U.S. streamers will be viewed by the WGA in terms of ‘struck’ work.”
Some WGGB and WGA members who remain in the dark about the status of crucial, potentially career-defining projects say the lack of clear, definitive information is “insane.”
“It’s been a fuck-up, to be honest,” adds the source, who says such preparations should have been made weeks ago given the chance of a strike was relatively high. “People doing non-WGA work for streamers? That’s a significant amount of people who are in that position. It’s an oversight not to be providing clarity.
“I’m pro-union and have no intention to work on a WGA project, but I would feel fucked off if I put my livelihood at risk for projects that aren’t going to feel the same benefit. It just doesn’t make sense,” they note.
The WGA strike has so far drawn sharp discrepancies between the landscape for writers in the U.S. and U.K. For starters, many observe that it’s difficult to see unified industrial action for British writers because they’re not obligated to join the WGGB in order to work. “If you had an obligatory-membership writers’ body, no doubt we’d have greater success,” scoffs one prominent TV writer.
Some of the key differences boil down to the still-evolving writers’ room model in the U.K. (with which most writers seem to have a love-hate relationship), shorter episode orders, and an authorial approach to writing that makes the one-man-band style of U.S. “White Lotus” showrunner Mike White very much the norm in Britain rather than the exception. The U.K. system is also far less lucrative for writers, with an hour of terrestrial television roughly paying a minimum of £12,000 ($15,000) for an hour-long episode.
There is, however, increasingly common ground in the streaming age, and it’s precisely this that’s drawn considerable empathy from Brits in regard to the WGA’s fight with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. American SVODs like Netflix have been growing their footprint in the U.K. for the better part of a decade, but many local commissioning teams are still struggling to launch that hit, household-name original that serves the British market but also reaches a global audience. As the platforms have faced greater accountability around profits in the last year, they’ve become more laser-focused in their commissioning strategies, which has been bad news for the writers on some canned developments.
“The streamers came here offering big pots of gold, but now they’re tightening their belts,” says the aforementioned TV writer. “Also, TV shows don’t get repeated anymore in the traditional sense. It used to be that if a show did well, the BBC would repeat it a year later. That doesn’t happen anymore. Instead, streamers now stick the show on their platform, and while the deal terms have been renegotiated, they won’t ever compete with the traditional repeat fee [for linear broadcasts].”
Screenwriter Sophie Petzal broke out with Channel 5 drama “Blood” and also wrote on early seasons of Netflix’s “The Last Kingdom.”
“People are stunned when I talk to them about what I was paid on the Netflix show I worked on for two years before I left,” wrote Petzal on Twitter. “I’d make more doing a [six-parter] for ITV. The worst part in the U.K. is our rates are so much smaller, and this is supposed to also cover ‘development’ — which in the U.K. today can mean six to eight weeks of endless, endless rooms. At one point, I had to go pens down just to get paid for something like nine weeks of unpaid development. And residuals? Lol.”
Petzal declared that the most she’s made in royalties was for a single episode of Sky original series “Riviera” that required a two-week rewrite. “That show was successful and sold internationally, and I benefitted from the sale of my work, as did every writer. That’s how that works,” she continued.
“But on the streamers, you’re basically supposed to wipe your mouth, say thank you, and walk away. Writers [and production companies] were paying to be on platforms for premium status, but now you’re paying essentially to drown in a mass of content and get canned after one season.”
Ultimately, most writers underline that the WGA has their support — they just don’t know when they’re expected to see the benefits of potential gains from the strike.
“What they do eventually moves us closer in line with WGGB gains, but it’s not one for one,” says one writer. “In that sense, it’s not our fight, and we’re not getting anything for it. Because at the end of this, what is the WGA going to do for us? Nothing really.”
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