WGA Strike: Zack Stentz Talks Those Critical First Days
As the WGA strike continues amid what all parties believe will be a long-haul showdown, “Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous” creator Zack Stentz knows that there’s a big difference between the excitement and can-do spirit on the second day versus the second month.
“At that point, they start wondering if they are going to make the rent or the mortgage payment or if they are younger if they are going to have to move back in with their parents,” noted Stentz.
The screenwriter behind “X-Men: First Class” and “Thor” sat down for a conversation with TheWrap. Among the issues discussed were the initial vibe among strike participants, how one of his early television successes may have been a casualty of the last WGA strike in 2007, and what leverage the streamers and the networks have up their sleeves if they are “smart” enough to use them.
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This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Were you on the line [on Tuesday] at all?
I was not because I was doing interviews all day. I was on this I was on the line [Wednesday morning].
What was the feeling among the participants?
The vibe felt a lot like what it was the first few days of the 2007 strike, which is a big party atmosphere. It has that Comic-Con vibe where you’re finally seeing a colleague who you worked with ages ago or you only knew online, even if you lived just a few miles away.
What happens when the excitement and participatory glow wears off?
That’s when the ground organization matters. If you are a strike Captain, you got to keep the troops fired up. That’s when it becomes important when enthusiasm starts dwindling as people realize that it’s that they’re in it for the long haul. At that point, they start wondering if they are going to make the rent or the mortgage payment or, if they are younger, if they are going to have to move back in with their parents.
Are there stories about how a writer just got their big break only to have that stymied by the strike?
Back in 2007, I was in front of the Warner Brothers lot on the first day of the strike. The person who gave the most memorable speech was an up-and-coming sitcom writer who, after years in the trenches, just got his first show on the air. And he was wondering aloud if it was going to come back after the strike, was this the end of his career? He then admitted that yes, he was afraid of all those things, but he was out there anyway because it was that important. That show was “The Big Bang Theory.”
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The new CBS shows that immediately came back mostly survived. While most of the other new or first-season network shows that waited until the next regular season [like “Life” or “Pushing Daisies”] never got their viewers back and were canceled after a second season.
I was working on Fox’s “The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” When the strike ended in May of 2008, they opted not to stand the staff back up to try and finish out an abbreviated first season in May. That was a huge mistake. We were getting great ratings for that first season from the first run of nine episodes. We premiered our first season from January 2008 until May 2008, ending that abbreviated first season with a cliffhanger.
The show didn’t return until September 2008. We lost like half of our viewers and those viewers never came back. I think the show would have gotten much higher ratings if we had been able to come back with new episodes. That was still when people were still used to 22-episode seasons and audiences wanted their new episodes now. Today, you get 10 episodes and then maybe another 10 episodes in one or two years.
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That’s part of my concern. Because of the new normal, there’s going to be even less incentive to get right back to work.
If the streamers were smart, they would promote the deluge of shows that audiences might have heard of but never got around to watching, like AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire.” NBC did this 30 years ago by promoting reruns of their popular dramas and sitcoms as “new to you.”
Everyone talks about relying on foreign content, and they will to a certain degree. What’s to stop Disney from just airing “The Mandalorian” on ABC? I’m old enough to remember the 1988 strike. They took old episodes of “Mission: Impossible” and reshot them in Australia with Peter Graves and a new cast.
(After this interview was conducted, Paramount announced that the Paramont+ original series “Yellowstone” prequel series “1883” would be airing this summer on the Paramount Network)
I watched those as a young kid and initially had no idea that the show was from the 1960s. Do you feel that the solution to the last WGA strike was generally in your favor?
It was incredibly important to get the camel’s nose in the tent in terms of streaming. We had to at least make sure that we were represented in what was then a twinkle in the eyes of a few companies but is now the single biggest source of employment. If the strike is what got us that then it was worth it.
And now AI is the twinkle in Hollywood’s eye that requires a nose in the tent?
I go back and forth on AI. Is it going to wipe us all out? Or is it just a sophisticated auto-complete? I don’t think you’re ever going to get an AI that can write like Aaron Sorkin, Steve Zaillian or Shonda Rhimes. The danger is that in three to five years you can get an AI that’s good enough to write a crappy first draft that the marquee showrunner goes in and revises to their liking.
Streamers must be noticing that the old favorites that everyone watches — “Criminal Minds,” “The New Girl,” “Friends” or “Grey’s Anatomy” — are the old-school 20-episode network shows. Will there ever be any push to get that back again?
The new “Daredevil” series on Disney+ seems to be a real season of television [with 18 episodes] rather than six to nine episodes. A show like “Poker Face” should not have 10 episodes a season. It is underrated; the amount that people who still want to hang out with characters they like once a week for half the year. Moreover, as we’ve seen with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The X-Files,” there’s nothing wrong with a “monster of the week” episode.
I jokingly wonder if we’re all working too hard with these high-concept premises. In the 1980s, you could have a show that was about a smart detective who lived in an airport hangar with a monkey. My friends have been telling me that, during the strike, I really need to write that “detective with a monkey in an airport hangar” show.
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