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WGA Strike Talk: Insiders Lay Out What’s At Stake

Deadline logo Deadline 3/28/2017 Anonymous
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Editors Note: As Hollywood braces for the possibility of its first work stoppage since the devastating 100-day WGA strike of 2007-2008, Deadline is opening the opportunity for insiders to dissect the thorny issues that created an impasse between the union and the studio reps over a new film/TV contract to replace the one that expires in May. We expect some of the dialogue here to be delivered anonymously at such a delicate time; the hope is to capture the challenges facing both sides as business continues to change on a dime. Kicking it off is “The Delta,” a commentary from a well-known member of the entertainment community who is not part of either side of the labor dispute and wished to remain anonymous.

All good scripts rely on an essential premise on which the narrative and execution of the project are based. In labor negotiations, the parties are best served when each is very clear with themselves and one another about the underlying premises on which each has entered the debate. The premises held by labor versus those of management will, of course, differ wildly from one another, and that’s just fine. The greatest work often comes from sustained creative tension.

For the subclass of negotiations in which an eventual deal is certain (as is the case in any Hollywood labor negotiation), both premises always lead to the same ending: a closed deal. If we sensibly accept that everyone knows that eventually a deal will be made, then the only question is how much writer blood is approved to be spilled by the WGA’s negotiators on the WGA’s own lobby carpet.

The reason it’s only writer blood is simple: Hollywood labor strikes have now been demonstrably proven to be events that serve the studios’ interests, not the writers’. This is because in Hollywood, the house always wins simply because the house always remains the house.

The studios’ houses are large, and they’re well-situated in very good neighborhoods. Strikes are an open invitation for them to engage in spring cleaning. They clear their cupboards of long-term deals with writers who they view as long in the tooth. They clear-cut their fields of more speculative development projects to improve their views. When and if these fields get replanted after a strike eventually ends, they are seeded with lower-paid writers making lower-cost content on shorter-term deals.

The studios turn their focus to unscripted content, and they mine stores of completed scripts from their cavernous wine cellars.

The house remains the house because no labor negotiation is going to result in writers financing and distributing their own content. No labor negotiation is going to result in fewer young people trying to become writers.

The WGA has asked for a strike-authorization vote. This is a serious step that comes with great responsibility. The WGA membership should ask its leadership the same question that any studio executive would ask of any writer: What exactly is the underlying premise on which this strike authorization vote request is based?

Much like film scripts, how a Hollywood labor negotiation is presented to its members should have three simple acts, plus a good ending.

Act I is where the WGA’s membership should require WGA negotiators who are seeking a strike authorization to send the membership an outline laying out exactly what the WGA is asking the studios for in precisely the same terms that the studios were asked.

Act II is where the WGA tells membership exactly what the studio has offered in response to Act I. The WGA’s March 24 strike-authorization email to its membership was high on rhetoric but low on specifics. This is sort of an incendiary combo given the powder-keg into which that email was lobbed and the timing thereof. The WGA referred to some of its requests as “modest gains for screenwriters” or as items it “sought to address.” Tell us more! A WGA member being asked to grant a strike authorization should have a very clear sense of what exactly is being offered to them because that WGA member will be asked to bear the cost of a deal’s rejection during (and long after) a strike.

Act III is perhaps the most important. This is where the WGA leadership should be very clear with its members, on a point-by-point basis, about specifically what kind of deal the WGA would recommend that the members accept without a strike.

One cannot assess whether or not a strike should be authorized without knowing precisely under what conditions a strike can be avoided. What are the “red line” deal points without which a strike is deemed absolutely necessary?

Where we stand today, it does not appear that the vast majority of the WGA’s voting membership has sufficiently detailed situational awareness about much of the above. I am not sure why this is, as the WGA’s leadership is pursuing some very reasonable and appropriate goals. It may be the case that drastic measures like a strike are the only way to achieve them.

One concern that has been repeatedly raised since the 2007 strike is that if you chart out where the WGA’s negotiators had gotten the deal on the evening before the last strike began, and you then compare those data points against the data points of where the deal eventually closed after the strike, the “Delta” – defined as the margin of additional gains achieved directly as a result of the strike – may not have justified the strike when considered against both the immediate and long-term effects on members of that strike itself.

On a dollar-for-dollar basis, if you add up a reasonable estimate of the phantom revenue that would have been generated by the past 10 years of TV and feature overall deals that never came back; from the restructuring of feature writing deals towards the so-called “one-step” deal policies now in place for most feature writers; from shifts towards lower-cost unscripted, talk, or “new media” formats; from the shift toward smaller order sizes in TV; and from the eventual favoring of the new SVOD platforms that don’t generate meaningful residuals or backends for members of any trade union (all of which were effectively triggered by and emerged directly out of the last strike) alone; the Delta just doesn’t add up.

Reasonable people seem reasonably concerned that we may be heading back to that same place now.

To assess a Delta’s value in granting strike authorization, the WGA leadership should be required to send members a reasonable projection of exactly what will happen to them and their deals during a strike. Particular attention should be given to presenting members with historical vignettes from prior strikes to show the voting membership what has historically happened to their brothers and sisters the longer a strike continues, and a sense of the actual dollar value of those effects.

Data, dollar values, employment stats, how many members filed for state unemployment benefits within 12 months of the last strike, how many lost their homes, how many writers quit the business for good because they didn’t have enough credits to maintain WGA health coverage – let’s open all the blinds and have that conversation, too.

It’s also noteworthy that, within the union, some of the loudest voices in favor of strikes tend to be those of more established writers who are both proportionally better-positioned to sustain long periods of unemployment and also most likely to be quickly rehired post-strike.

A strike may indeed be a worthy and appropriate tool here if the value proposition were reasonably demonstrated and no other route were shown to be equally as likely to be productive.

But as with all good film and TV pitches, before its pitch gets purchased, the WGA’s leadership should be required to lay out and to justify, in detail, its underlying premises, the projected Delta and a reasonable description of all the potential costs. The WGA membership – which in this drama for once gets to play the role of “buyer” – should be given all the necessary tools to make an informed decision before granting any greenlight authority.

If the membership is not given all of the above, quickly and clearly, they should demand it en masse by withholding any strike-authorization vote. Unions are accountable only to their membership. The writers will need to fight that fight alone. I wish them Godspeed.

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