Writers Strike: Inside the Room as Talks Collapsed

To a lot of people outside the negotiating room, a strike by Hollywood writers felt inevitable.

But it didn’t feel that way inside the room. Until the last day or two, negotiators for both labor and management believed that the other side would give, and that a deal would be reached at the last moment.

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But picket lines in Los Angeles and New York this week tell a different story. The conflict that led to the breakdown of talks on the night of May 1 began the day before. On April 30, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers delivered a 40-page package of proposals to WGA’s negotiating committee. It did not include key elements that the Writers Guild of America has insisted are essential to sealing a new three-year contract, including a mandatory minimum number of weeks for TV writers and a minimum staff size for writers rooms.

The AMPTP thought the guild might accept that those items — and others that the studios see as non-starters — would have to be dropped. But on May 1, the WGA responded to the AMPTP’s 40 pages with a couple of sentences, withdrawing two minor items.

“At that point it really shifted the perception,” said one studio executive. “It was like, ‘Oh crap, it’s 2007 all over again.'”

From the WGA vantage point, a strike became inevitable when Carol Lombardini, the long-serving president of the AMPTP, informed negotiators that the studios would make no further moves on several of the guild’s “core issues.”

“Once we got into the evening, there was a moment where it became very clear that they had nothing more to give, and were, in fact, asking us to drop most of our key proposals,” said Michele Mulroney, vice president of WGA West.

The AMPTP was willing to sweeten the deal at the margins, but only if the guild withdrew those key proposals, said Chris Keyser, co-chair of the WGA negotiating committee and a former WGA West president. “At that point there was nowhere to go,” Keyser said. “There was no point in continuing.”

Negotiations were expected to last until the previous contract’s formal expiration deadline of midnight PT on May 1. But at 7:54 p.m., the AMPTP issued a statement announcing that talks had broken off. The guild negotiators stayed inside the AMPTP building at the Sherman Oaks Galleria until 8:30 p.m., when they walked out looking somber. They had voted unanimously to recommend a strike, which was officially announced 10 minutes later.

“It was a very big, heavy decision that we had to make,” said Betsy Thomas, secretary-treasurer of WGA West. “I think we really wished we had a path forward.”

For now, the two sides remain miles apart, and there is no clear path to restart negotiations. WGA leaders say the studios refuse to accept that “structural change” is needed to stop the dismantling of weekly employment. Studios counter that the guild can’t roll back the clock to a different era of television.

AMPTP companies say they have already offered historic improvements on the guild contract, including an 11% increase in minimum rates in the first year for writer-producers. That includes a 4% increase on all minimums, plus a 7% increase to create a premium tier for everyone at or above the level of co-producer. The 4% increase was not a final offer, and could have gone higher, they say.

The AMPTP also agreed to tie streaming residuals to the level of foreign subscriber numbers that each streamer counts, though not at the level the WGA proposed. And it would have agreed to create a wage premium for so-called “mini rooms,” though again, not at the level or with the parameters of the WGA’s initial ask.

There were some signs of progress in the final few days of the formal negotiations that began on March 20. That created some optimism on the studio side that a strike could be averted. The WGA wanted to do away with the “span cap” — which limits protections on “overscale” income to those making less than $400,000 a year. But they agreed to keep the cap in place but raise it to $450,000. (For writers covered by the cap, their episodic fee can buy no more than 2.4 weeks of work.) And the studios agreed to pay script fees for entry-level staff writers — a longstanding WGA ask.

But as it got down to the last 48 hours, the studio negotiators complained that the WGA still would not spell out its top priorities. And from the guild point of view, there was frustration that the AMPTP simply refused to talk about what it saw as many of its most important items.

“We were clear with them from Day One that the way they had broken the system required us to talk about multiple things,” Keyser said. “Everyone knows there’s something terribly wrong, and the studios have done it. On so much of what writers need to make this profession viable, they just wouldn’t talk.”

For the studios, the biggest non-starter is a TV staffing minimum. The guild is proposing that “pre-greenlight” rooms employ at least six writers. After a show is ordered to series, they want a minimum of one writer per episode, up to six episodes, and one writer for every two episodes after that, up to 12 writers. To prevent studios from filling all those positions with entry-level writers, they also want a portion of that minimum to be set aside for writer-producers.

The guild also wanted writers to be guaranteed at least three weeks of work per episode.

To the guild, simply raising minimum rates for writers wasn’t enough, given the erosion in the term of employment and the number of writers per show.

“In order for writers to be adequately paid, we also needed to be guaranteed that writers are hired and are hired for a certain number of weeks,” Keyser said. “A writer who isn’t hired gets no minimums.”

But the studios say they made clear at the outset that a staffing minimum would not be part of the deal. They argue it is not creatively necessary and that it robs showrunners — who are WGA members — of the discretion to hire as many, or as few, writers as they want.

The concept strikes many as a throwback to an earlier era of unionism, when unions bargained for guaranteed jobs for their members, regardless of whether there was work for them or not.

“It sounds like featherbedding,” said John McLean, a former longtime CBS labor relations executive who became executive director of the WGA in 1998 and was fired in 2005. “When I was at the WGA, I stayed away from things like featherbedding. In the short run it sounds great, but in the long run it’s a bad model,” he said. “One of the things the Writers Guild can always say is, ‘We’re a meritocracy.'”

Keyser responded that it’s not featherbedding, because those writers would actually have work to do.

“What John McLean should know is that it’s standard in labor contracts to demand a certain amount of employees, employed for a certain amount of time, who are necessary to do the job,” Keyser said.

“Featherbedding” is unlawful if it means requiring the hiring of workers who do not do any work. But many unions do have staffing minimums, including firefighters and nurses. Employee workload is also a “mandatory” subject of bargaining under the law, so employers do have to negotiate about it in good faith, even if they ultimately do not accept the union’s proposal.

The studios say they did explain their reasons for rejecting the idea. They have pointed to auteurs who write entire shows by themselves, such as “The White Lotus” creator Mike White. They argue that such writers should not be forced to hire a staff to do little or nothing. But the guild counters that almost all shows do have writing staffs — even many that appear to come from just one person — and that writers who aren’t credited can nevertheless be helpful in contributing to the process.

The WGA is also quick to say that is not their only issue, and that there are also key deal-breakers for feature writers and comedy-variety writers as well.

“It was a deal-breaker about an entire agenda,” said David Goodman, the other co-chair of the WGA negotiating committee and a past WGA West president. “They literally flatly rejected any discussion about those issues — on feature writers, on the comedy-variety issues. And on all of our main television issues, they said, ‘We will not talk about this,’ which means they weren’t even willing to get into discussion about our opening offer. They wouldn’t even deem to get into a negotiation to see if there was a compromise.”

The studios also rejected the idea of paying a higher streaming residual for hit shows, as they refuse to share their viewership data that would be required to calculate a so-called performance-based residual. That issue appears to have receded, however, as the focus turns to finding a way to account for streamers’ international subscribers in the residual formula.

Among the thorniest issues is artificial intelligence. The WGA came in with a proposal to prevent AI from being considered as “literary material” or “source material” under the contract. That would mean that even if AI material were used in the screenwriting process, it would not affect writers’ compensation or credits. That would rob the studios of any economic incentive to use AI, at least for guild-covered projects. But as written, the proposal would also allow writers who want to use AI to do so — and could even give them an economic incentive to do so.

The WGA has said that its goal is in fact to prevent the “use” of AI, and has argued that AI material cannot be copyrighted anyway.

The subject has been the source of deep mutual suspicion, and there was little, if any, constructive engagement about it in the room. The AMPTP did offer a “side letter” that would have underscored language, which is already in the contract, that specifies that a writer “shall not be deemed to include any corporate or impersonal purveyor of literary material.”

The studios also offered to meet annually to discuss the subject. That was not enough to allay the guild’s concerns.

Though AI may seem like a minor issue now, guild leaders say they fear what could happen down the road. The AMPTP refused to rule out using it at some point in the future, as technology advances, according to guild leaders.

“We fear the possibility of AI, which could mean that hundreds and hundreds of shows could work with one writer and a machine,” Keyser said.

For now, there are no plans to return to the table any time soon. Keyser and Goodman both refused to talk about their “bottom line,” but Keyser did say that any eventual agreement must address structural issues, such as the term of employment, and “return to writers the money that was taken from them in the past 10 years.”

The AMPTP is turning its focus to the Directors Guild of America, which has its own set of issues to discuss when bargaining begins a week from today. One studio source said that if talks are to restart, the WGA will have to make the first call.

The guild is focused instead on exacting an economic price for the studios’ intransigence. It’s anybody’s guess how long the strike will last.

“As the strike progresses, of course, there’s pressure on our members,” Mulroney said. “But at the same time, we know there is pain and pressure on the companies we’re striking. So change is never free… We have about as strong a backbone as you can get. We’re united, and we’re very clear about what we’re here to do.”

Cynthia Littleton and Adam B. Vary contributed to this story.

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