Thread Writers' Strike

With Hollywood fears of a strike, writers gather to weigh issues. What are they after?

Brown building with glass front, with sign Writers Guild of America
Building at 7000 West 3rd Street in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles where the Writers Guild of America West is located on March 28, 2019.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Today, members of the Writers Guild of America, West will convene at the Hollywood Palladium, the latest in series of meetings to discuss the key issues they will confront in upcoming contract talks with the major studios.

The union’s leadership is hosting the discussions over the next month to solicit feedback from members on their top priorities to present to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents such studios as Walt Disney Co. and Apple, in bargaining.

The WGA’s current three-year contract expires May 1. Many expect that negotiations will be tough and that a strike could be on the horizon because of a widening gap between what the union’s roughly 10,000 members want and what studios may be prepared to deliver amid a period of cost-cutting and layoffs.


Ultimately, guild leaders say they are looking to make it easier for middle-class writers to earn a living.

“It’s really a whole new business model,” WGA West President Meredith Stiehm told The Times previously. “It has changed our job so much and squeezed our income so much. It’s a pretty serious problem we have to solve.”

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Here’s what you need to know about the biggest issues that will likely dominate upcoming negotiations.

Why are writers so focused on streaming residuals?

In 1953, the WGA agreed a deal with studios for the re-airing of TV shows, based on the idea that if a program were being rerun, there was less demand to employ TV writers for new content.

Every time a show was rerun, the writers would receive a fee, commonly known today as a residual. These fees became vital to writers to help them make ends meet during leaner years as their work was sold overseas or was rerun on TV for years.


But the streaming revolution has upended the old system of compensation. The syndication market for TV shows has all but disappeared, and residuals from movies have also waned as theatrical attendance has sharply declined, eroding the residual income for writers.

Didn’t writers get a big win on streaming from the last strike?

Yes. After a 100-day strike in 2007-08, the WGA secured jurisdiction over the Internet and established formulas for how writers would be paid when their work migrated online.

But writers say residuals from streaming still lag what they would earn had their shows aired on a network first.

TV or movies on a network might get re-aired through syndication to other networks, onto cable TV, home video or foreign markets. The residuals would be based on those receipts, and writers have the benefit of public viewing data.

When a TV or film project is sold to a streaming company, however, it will likely remain on that service, so there is one fixed fee from which residuals are calculated.

And many writers believe the streaming residual payments are too low.
What’s more, they said, the lack of viewership data means they don’t have insight into how many people have viewed their show or film and whether their residual payment is accurately reflecting its success.


What’s all this talk about span protection?

One of the big challenges facing writers is how streaming has shortened TV seasons.

Before the age of streaming, a network show might have 22 to 24 episodes written over a span of 10 months.

Today, series are much shorter, often spanning eight to 10 episodes, but writers can spend extended amounts of time working on that show, effectively reducing their pay per episode.

Since 2017, the union has been able to introduce limits to how long writers can work on an episode, and the studio pays more if they work beyond that. Currently, the episodic fee is limited to 2.4 weeks of work.

But not all work is covered by this protection, and it also has an earnings cap.
Writers are looking to extend those protections and have them apply to more members.

WGA members strongly endorsed a three-year contract that increases residual payments for high-budget shows on streaming services, among other gains.

July 29, 2020

Writers also have talked a lot about the rise of mini-rooms. Why are those a problem?

Until the rise of streaming, television producers typically would order a show by first commissioning a pilot episode. And if it were successful, producers would then assemble a writers room to write 22 to 24 episodes over about 10 months. Writers would get at least a minimum weekly fee, plus a compensation for writing an episode of the series. All that would go toward qualifying for their health and pension plans.


Today, streaming companies have tended to order a show without the filming of a pilot episode. They typically convene a small group of writers to thrash out a season of the show before any production starts. This has led to circumstances where writers feel they are underpaid as they are tasked with creating an entire season of television over a short period of time.

An additional concern is that staff writers working in mini-rooms may not get the experience of producing a show, which can help them rise up the different writer ranks and increase their pay.

Among the options being considered: increasing minimum payments for these rooms and having a minimum staff size related to the number of episodes ordered, writers said.

Boosting minimum pay

With rising inflation and shifts in how writers are compensated, writers are also pushing for higher minimum pay rates across a range of services.

Writers have argued that fewer of them are working and those that are are making less money.


The union has previously said more writers than ever are working at or near minimum rates and that those rates haven’t kept pace with rising costs. Inflation recently hit a peak of 9.1%.

Typically, every cycle, the WGA bargains for a 3% increase in these so-called minimums.

But some board members have been calling for a doubling of minimums across the board, which could be a nonstarter for the studios.