Come May 1, film and TV scribes could put their pens down indefinitely.
That’s the day the Writer’s Guild of America’s (WGA) three-year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers—the trade association that represents Hollywood studios, including Disney and Netflix—is set to expire.
Negotiations between all parties have been ongoing since late March, but if new terms aren’t worked out in the next two weeks, writers could go on strike. On Tuesday (Apr. 11), the WGA called upon its members for a strike authorization vote. The voting period ended on Apr. 17. Results show that 98% of the 9,218 ballots cast supported strike action.
“Over the past decade, the companies embraced business practices that slashed our compensation and undermined our working conditions,” Los Angeles-based WGA-West said in a Feb. 4 tweet. “We are asking to restore writer pay & conditions to reflect our value to this industry. The survival of our profession is at stake.”
The writers’ vote to strike could help them drive a harder bargain.
The bulk of their issues deal with a big beast they’ve been trying to tame for a decade: streaming. “The companies have leveraged the streaming transition to underpay writers, creating more precarious, lower-paid models for writers’ work,” a March report by WGA states.
Which shows would be most affected by a writers strike?
Studios have been rushing to stockpile scripts in case things go awry. Movies with completed screenplays and TV shows with written scripts can continue to be made even if writers stop writing—at least for some time.
Late night talk shows, however, will grind to a halt almost immediately, as writers are expected to provide fresh and timely takes.
How streaming services shortchanging writers, according the writers’ union
✍🏻 Writers come on board for shorter durations—6-8 episodes versus 20-24 of TV’s glory days. More writers are working at minimum, regardless of experience, or working in exploitative mini-rooms, which give an unwarranted gig economy-twist to the profession.
🎬 The separation of writing and production can create gaps in employment for writers. The WGA has been campaigning to “ensure appropriate television series writing compensation throughout the entire process of pre-production, production and post-production.”
📺 The lack of a season calendar depresses wages.
🥲 Comedy-variety writers working on streaming series lack basic protections from a minimum basic agreement, even though episodic writers working for the same companies have those minimum standards.
💿 Streamers’ varied release strategies regarding feature-length films have “created uncertainty about the contract terms applicable to writers on these projects.” Streaming writers often end up with lower pay, which is stretched out over many months or held hostage by producers’ demands for free work. WGA is seeking standardization of pay for a screenwriter regardless of whether a film is released theatrically or on a streaming service.
Charted: Writers are working for less money…
…and being made to work fewer hours
WGA’s protests, by the digits
11,000: Unionized writers in Hollywood
100 days: How long the last Writers Guild of America strike lasted for, between Nov. 5, 2007 and Feb. 12, 2008. There were several casualties including but not limited to Saturday Night Live going off-air; late night hosts like Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and David Letterman paying their non-striking staff out of their own pockets; and shows like Gossip Girl, Heroes, Breaking Bad, and 30 Rock, all had to broadcast truncated seasons
96%: How many members voted “Yes” in 2017’s strike authorization vote. A simple majority is enough to announce a strike, but an overwhelming one sends out a strong message. That year, Hollywood narrowly averted a WGA strike by working out a last-minute deal which served two big union asks—increasing the health plan and improving pay for writers working on short-order TV series
153 days: How long the longest WGA strike on record lasted. It took place in 1988
4%: How much median weekly writer-producer pay has declined over the last decade. Adjusting for inflation, the decline is 23%
$60,932: Current minimum for a first draft non-original screenplay, which is only 1.2% of the minimum budget threshold of $5 million—or 0.3% of a still-modest $20 million budget
Half: Share of series writers that work in streaming now
People of interest: David Young and Ellen Stutzman
👨🏻 David Young, executive director for WGA West during the 2007 strike, has led negotiations for the union for over a decade now and has become well known for his cutthroat style. At the end of February, he announced that he was taking a medical leave.
👩🏻 Ellen Stutzman, the assistant executive director of the guild, stepped in as the new chief negotiator just a month ago. Although a new face in the limelight, Stutzman is a seasoned member having been with the guild for 17 years, and served as assistant executive director since 2018.
Throwback: The last war that WGA won
In 2019, the WGA took on Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies WME, CAA, and UTA, accusing them of breach of fiduciary duty and price-fixing in an antitrust lawsuit.
The union argued that “packaging fees”—talent agencies would charge about 3% of a project’s license fee upfront—encouraged agents to prioritize deals that increase revenue for the agency rather than keep their interests aligned with the writers they represent. WGA won the war to scrap these fees in future projects.
One more thing: Even writing for a hit show doesn’t help writers
Ashley Nicole Black, a writer on Apple TV series Ted Lasso, HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, and TBS late night talk show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, explained how these days “writing on hits doesn’t make you any more money!” than writing a so-called flop in an April 12 Twitter thread:
“So back in the day when something like Friends was a hit they sold it to other networks to re-air. So when you see Friends on Nick at Nite (yeah y’all, we old), those writers are still getting a check. As they should because we are still enjoying their work. But now if you write on a hit for a network they don’t sell it to another network, they sell it to their own streamer. Or if you wrote it for a streamer they sell it nowhere. So even if it’s a huge hit, they get to determine the value and then they send you a check for $1.25. So residuals kind of don’t exist anymore. When you add that to wages going down at all levels, smaller writers rooms, and shorter working periods, writers are being squeezed in all directions and folks don’t have enough savings to live between seasons of (even hit) shows.”
Replying to Black’s thread, Mike Royce, the creator of Netflix series One Day at a Time—which Netflix canceled and Pop TV revived—chimed in to say that the definition of a “hit” is also becoming increasingly ambiguous due to streaming platforms’ reticence in sharing data about their shows’ success.
🤖 The Writers Guild is open to AI screenwriters—with a caveat
🇺🇸 The looming Hollywood writers’ strike could leave America without political comedy in the age of Trump
✍🏻 The last Hollywood writers’ strike showed creatives will always find outlets for their creativity
Disclosure: Quartz’s US-based reporters are represented by the Writers Guild of America East, which is affiliated with WGAW.
This story was updated with results of the vote.