- By Regan Morris
- BBC, Los Angeles
If Hollywood writers go on strike next week, some of your favorite shows may not continue.
With the May 1 deadline approaching for a deal with the union, a strike could happen as early as next week, with writers and their supporters picketing outside the studio gates.
The biggest problem, says the Writers Guild of America, the union that represents TV and film writers, is how to pay writers in the new broadcast economy, with many citing lower wages as digital platforms have upended traditional TV and film production.
“These are storytellers who entertain the world at large,” Charles Slocum, assistant executive director at the Writers Guild, told the BBC. “They need the stability of compensation that we seek to sustain a career.”
If a strike occurs, late night television in the United States will be the first visible sign. Without comedians poking fun at the news of the day—shows like Saturday Night Live and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver would take off.
Some movies and TV shows can continue shooting if scripts are already written, but some will be closed because some actors, directors, and filming staff refuse to cross picket lines.
“This is a common fight and the Teamsters are not crossing strike lines,” the Teamsters union, which represents workers who provide transportation on film and television sets, said in a statement.
“These multibillion-dollar companies—including Amazon, Netflix, Disney, and Apple—invest in highly paid executives and lavish productions. They can afford to share the wealth with the writers who create the content we all watch.”
The final writers’ strike in 2007–2008 lasted 100 days and cost the California economy $2 billion (£1.6 billion), resulting in many shows being canceled or delayed. Some have also credited her with boosting the popularity of reality television.
At that time, several daytime series remained on the air with non-union scab writers. This time, the Writers’ Guild warned writers that they would be banned from membership in the future if they broke the strike.
But this time negotiations were not smooth, and earlier this month 11,500 members of the Writers’ Union voted overwhelmingly to allow a strike if a contract could not be agreed.
AMPTP would not agree to an interview, but in a statement they urged “reasonable compromises” without specifying any particular sticking points.
The crux of the issue is how writers are paid in the age of live streaming.
In the good old days of broadcasting, writers would be hired for a 22-episode season of television and paid—often handsomely—up front, and then also get leftovers when shows rerun.
But Hollywood’s business model has been completely crippled by broadcasting, and writers are now complaining that they are being asked to offer weeks or months of free script rewrites. They also complain that streamers have reduced the number of episodes required each season — sometimes to just six to eight. They say this makes it difficult to find sustainable work all year round.
“I just wrote into a program and I can’t eat,” said writer Brandon Hines. “I depend on government assistance.”
At 37, Haynes packs up his New York apartment and moves back in with his family in Atlanta because, he says, he can’t bear living as a writer in New York any longer.
Another issue in contract negotiations is the role of AI in scriptwriting. Writers want assurances that humans will still get the writing and writing work done as artificial intelligence emerges at a rapid pace.
“A chatbot can’t run a show,” said writer Nesol Levy.
While the rise of chatbots has garnered a lot of media attention, Hollywood writers say the biggest problem is finding a way for writers to make a sustainable living.
Levi, who has been in the industry for a decade, is worried about writers emerging in the industry.
“I don’t worry about myself—it’s been 10 years—but I’m in. They’re going to have to drag me screaming and screaming if they want to get rid of me.”
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