Are writers getting left behind by the streaming revolution? This new union president thinks so
The streaming wars have created an arms race for the hottest shows and movies, but the writers behind them are getting a raw deal.
That’s the perspective of Meredith Stiehm as she prepares to take on her presidency of the Writers Guild of America, West, which has about 10,000 members.
“Creatively, it’s sort of like the Wild West — you can do anything you want and find a home for it, but financially it’s like an emergency what’s going on,” Stiehm said in a video interview from her Santa Monica home.
The 53-year-old creator of the procedural “Cold Case” for CBS and longtime writer and executive producer on Showtime’s “Homeland” is running unopposed for the role and is expected to succeed two-term President David Goodman on Sept. 21.
Stiehm is a longtime WGA member, having first joined in 1994, and has spent six years on the union’s West Coast board, participating in the last round of negotiations with producers on a contract that expires in 2023.
The next round of talks, expected to begin in 18 months, could prove even more contentious, as the WGA will face a changing lineup of Hollywood studios that will for the first time include Netflix.
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic averted a potential writers strike over streaming pay. While writers were one of the few groups that could continue to work, there was no production to stop, limiting the union’s leverage.
“I’m actually surprised how well we did,” Stiehm said.
Stiehm was born in Madison, Wis., the daughter of a feminist political science professor mother and academic pediatrician father who worked at UCLA. She grew up in the Los Angeles area before going on to the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied playwriting and joined the varsity tennis team.
While Goodman ran last time in a contested election, Stiehm says she is running unopposed at a time of relative calm with the union on a high from its win against the major Hollywood agencies in a dispute over conflicts of interest.
“We’re sharing information and contracts and we’re working in a new relationship with them,” Stiehm said. “You can see when money is owed and when the guild can step in and help. But it’s also really important for the [collective bargaining] negotiation that’s coming up.”
The current three-year contract approved last year contained various improvements, including paid parental leave and higher residuals for shows distributed on streaming platforms.
But it will take more than an increase in residuals to reach an agreement next time, Stiehm said.
“It’s really a whole new business model,” Stiehm said. “It’s the short seasons and vertically integrated streaming. It has changed our job so much and squeezed our income so much. It’s a pretty serious problem we have to solve. We have to figure out ... how do writers get paid properly?”
To be sure, before the pandemic television employment reached its highest level in history: There were more than 4,500 members working in TV from 2014 to 2019, with more than 350 scripted series in production from 2016-2019. Global subscription streaming revenue had ballooned to $37 billion in 2019 and had been projected to reach $62 billion in 2023, according to the WGA.
Yet the proliferation of streaming services has not translated to a bigger payday for writers, the union says.
Independent film producers are still hampered by the effects of the pandemic.
Stiehm, who walked the WGA picket line during the 2007-2008 writers strike with a baby in tow, said writers are still getting paid less for writing scripts for Netflix than for broadcasters like CBS, a discount that was allowed when streaming was in its infancy.
The next contract renegotiation is pivotal, she believes.
“It’s going to take a fight,” Stiehm said. “I don’t think members are going to need to be convinced that their incomes are being squeezed. We all feel it. It is going to take both sides solving a very complicated problem and the writers having to decide how much they want to fight for it. It’s sort of like a turning point the way it was in 2007 with the internet. We have to fix this now or let that ship sail.”
The 2007 strike lasted 100 days and cost the state an estimated 37,700 jobs and $2.1 billion in lost output from late 2007 through the end of 2008, according to a 2008 Milken Institute report.
Despite the hardships, the walkout was widely supported by WGA members for establishing a template for compensating writers in the streaming era.
Part of the problem is the short nature of the series that streaming companies like Netflix have established. Instead of signing up to create 22 episodes in what had been the typical format for a broadcast series, writers are finding themselves caught up in so-called mini rooms, where they might be committed for a year but paid for as little as six episodes.
Stiehm was on the union’s negotiating committee in 2017, when a strike was averted at the 11th hour.
“A lot of the next year and a half is to strategize and figure that out and hear what the priorities are,” she said.
The union leader was impressed by Scarlett Johansson’s recent lawsuit against Walt Disney for allegedly breaching its contract over its decision to stream her movie “Black Widow.” Disney said the suit had no merit.
“That makes a big statement,” Stiehm said. “Writers, we don’t have big stars as much. We have the 10,000 members who, if unified, can move the needle. So it’s a little different. I’m certainly impressed with people who sort of call out the powers that be and say ‘that’s not fair.’”
Stiehm also has called for diversifying writers’ rooms. She is part of a WGA initiative helping to educate showrunners on diverse hiring, but also believes studios have a key role in picking top diverse writer-producers.
“I’ve been a showrunner three times and I always have gender equity on my staff. I always hire people of color, and nobody stops me from doing that at the studios, but nobody makes me do it either,” Stiehm said, noting the lack of racial and gender diversity and representation of writers with disabilities. “My first job was like that. ‘NYPD Blue’ was all white men and me, and all the way through ‘Homeland,’ all white men and me. No one says ‘that’s a problem’ and that’s what the studio can do.”
Since her first L.A. job as a production assistant on “Batman Returns,” Stiehm has had a stellar career but has seen writers get the short end of deals. When she created “Cold Case” at 32, she didn’t know what packaging meant. It was only after the show had been running seven years and a slice of the profits started flowing to the creators that she realized for every dollar she was earning, CAA, which had packaged the show, was earning over 90 cents, she said.
“I didn’t even know until eight years later that CAA had made a deal for themselves,” she said. “It was incredible and awful.”
Stiehm had been told by her agent about the packaging process and fees, CAA said in a statement. “Focusing on the future, we look forward to working with the WGA on the actual issues challenging all artists,” the agency added.
She became a co-chair of the the guild’s agency campaign committee and was a plaintiff in the lawsuit that the WGA brought against the four big Hollywood agencies including CAA for packaging shows without their knowledge or consent.
CAA said in a court filing that Stiehm’s claims against the agency were “preposterous” and denied the allegations.
The agencies sued the WGA but the suits were withdrawn when agencies agreed to divest most of their investments in affiliated production companies and phase out packaging.
“We have a lot of momentum now and perceived strength,” Stiehm said. “I’ve just seen in the last three years of this campaign how effective we can be. So I’m grateful and activated.”
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