The WGA is gearing up for upcoming contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, arguably its most important in over a decade.
This has prompted a group of top writers to look back at the lessons learned from the 2007-08 writers’ strike to see what can be applied to this year’s talks.
Angela Workman, writer of The Zookeeper’s Wife, Chap Taylor, consulting producer on The Blacklist, Holly Sorensen, creator of the Step Up TV series, Flint Wainess, consulting producer of The CW’s In The Dark, Mixed Signals writer Eric Tipton and Marc Guggenheim, co-creator and exec producer of Arrow and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow – all veterans of the 07-08 picket line – weighed into the issue ahead of the negotiations.
“There’s a lot of confusion about what the 2007-08 strike did and did not accomplish, and a lot of discussion about what we might achieve in our upcoming negotiation,” writes Workman on the From The Trenches: Working Writers in Conversation Substack. “We thought it might be useful to review our experiences.”
There are a number of issues on the table this time including the topic of dwindling residuals in the streaming era, the increase in mini rooms and shorter episode orders as well as questions about feature screenplays and the topic of free work.
“We have to start this discussion by underlining that our industry business model is broken. The handful of multinational corporations who control entertainment pay their CEO’s tens of millions of dollars while pleading poverty to the creatives who actually make their product,” writes Taylor.
But he also adds that “justifiable anger is not a negotiating strategy” and that many of the “worst trends in the entertainment business” can’t be addressed by the upcoming MBA.
“There is a real danger… that our membership builds up pressure in a social media echo chamber and loses sight of what we can actually achieve in negotiations.”
In November, the WGA set its negotiating committee ahead of the expiry of its contract at the start of May. This group includes WGA West Executive Director David Young as chief negotiator, former WGA West presidents David A. Goodman and Chris Keyser as co-chairs and Patric M. Verrone, who was president of the WGA West during the 100-day writers’ strike of 2007-08, as one of the 24 members of the negotiating committee.
“The Negotiating Committee already has an impossible task in front of them. The issues are so complex, and the industry is in such a strange place. Our anger over all of the issues is justified, but we all need to stay reality based as much as possible. If fog is not our friend, reality is,” said Sorensen.
Eric Tipton added that it’s important not to fall for “a sanitized mythology” of the last strike.
“I’m also more than a little concerned about the attitude – and it was prevalent back then as well – hell, I think I even bought into it at the time – that the very act of a strike is a victory in itself. That it’s a chance to get a new T-shirt and put in your steps while maybe chatting your way to your next job. In reality, a strike is a failure. It represents hardship and the loss of income for working writers that will never be replaced and thousands of other people who are not writers or executives but who rely on what we do for their livelihoods. The threat of a strike should always be a last resort,” he said.
The 2007-08 strike was largely predicated on DVD residuals and reuse of material online, and while some gains were made, Tipton points out that much was also lost, including the cancellation of numerous overall deals and the death of recognized quotes led to the studios reducing development budgets and eliminated the system of recognizing previous pay rates for feature jobs. “Whatever gains we made during that strike, they have never equaled the millions of dollars in potential earnings that were vaporized,” he said.
Guggenheim said that the outcome of the strike as regards to streaming is “really murky at best” – Hulu wasn’t launched, for instance, until a month after the strike ended, and it was years before these types of services would move into original programming.
“Did we have to strike in ‘07 just so we could fail to meaningfully negotiate residuals until now? I honestly don’t care. Now we’re here, we have to do it, and hopefully don’t need a strike to do so. But we are going to have to use everything we’ve got in our arsenal to avoid it; we have to think outside the box, and not revert to all the old mythology and tropes to do so,” he added.
There’s been talk that the WGA could join forces with the directors’ guild (DGA) and SAG-AFTRA to help strike a deal. “It seems nuts not to be coordinating with other guilds for maximum impact, and for all I know, we already are. I hope so. But to keep repeating ‘we can never work with the DGA’ in a year when we need a coordinated attack isn’t helpful,” Guggenheim added.
As Taylor and Sorensen highlight, it was the DGA that first won jurisdiction over new media in a deal announced in January 2008, around a month before the writers’ strike was over.
“Those are the facts. The rest is fog,” said Sorensen.
“Whatever we gained in that strike has to be weighed next to what we lost, and we lost A LOT. Writers lost jobs, and deals, and opportunities, and time, and of course it was also the strike that super-charged reality TV, just like a strike now would super-charge foreign and other types of ‘content’,” noted Wainess. “Hopefully there won’t be a strike this time, but if there is absolutely no other way to improve our residual formula I would support it. One thing I know a strike won’t accomplish, though, is ‘the ability of writers and creators to make content without the companies’.”
Workman, who is also behind features such as Lange for David Fincher and Hello, Nancy for Stephen Colbert, highlighted it wasn’t just writers that lost out but that crew members were affected as were restaurant workers.
“It seems like no one wants to think about the broader consequences when they’re bruising for a strike. This time, we’ve just come out of a pandemic lockdown, on top of an ATA action in which many writers lost agents, jobs, and health care. Inflation is out of control. The price of groceries is insane. A lot of people are struggling, and I’m not just talking about writers,” she noted.
“It’s absolutely clear that tech-led streamers do not give a rat’s ass about our MBA. We’re losing profits and residuals. But do we have a strategy for recovering those losses or replacing them with new revenue streams? Will the economic suffering inflicted by a strike – on *everybody* – be worth it? When do we hit the wall this time, and how will the most vulnerable among us survive after everything we’ve been through?,” she added.
Workman suggests a “public, honest and open discussion” devoid of personal attacks.
One of the key issues this time around is who exactly will lead the negotiations; the likes of recently returned Disney boss Bob Iger and Peter Chernin, then running News Corp, were instrumental as well as a phalanx of senior agents and lawyers.
“This time, because of the ATA action, the agents may be working against us to replace us with foreign-based clients. If ‘07-’08 was ultimately settled with the help of back-channeling allies, who are our allies today? The economics of the business have changed dramatically for everyone. Agents have their own problems, and with international content becoming what it has over the last few years, I don’t see that there is much incentive for those folks to help us this time,” said Eric Tipton.
Next up, however, is the crafting of a Pattern of Demands, which are the guild’s general objectives for negotiations. That must then be approved by the WGA West’s Board and the WGA East’s Council, before being sent to membership for a vote.
“I think everyone should always hope for the best and prepare for the worst in all things so we need to have our eyes open,” added Tipton.