Days before contract talks, WGA leaders describe ‘existential’ threat to Hollywood writers
Less than a week before negotiations with the major studios, leaders of the Writers of Guild America are already pressing their case over why writers deserve better pay.
In an interview with The Times, the guild’s top negotiators argue that many WGA members are struggling with a steady erosion of income even as content has surged in the streaming era. Despite uncertainties they are facing, studios can afford to pay writers more as new distribution models emerge, they say.
To bolster their claims, the guild on Tuesday released a report showing that median pay for writers has fallen in the last decade, a sign of how each side is staking out its positions in advance of what are expected to be contentious negotiations to replace a three-year contract that expires May 1.
“The economic challenges facing writers are deepening and becoming existential,’’ said Chris Keyser, who is co-chair of the negotiating committee, in a wide ranging interview with The Times.
The “Party of Five” and “Julia” writer was joined by negotiating co-chair David Goodman, a former guild president and “Family Guy” writer; and the union’s chief negotiator, Ellen Stutzman, who stepped in to replace veteran leader David Young, who recently stepped down to take a medical leave of absence.
A spokesperson for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers declined to comment.
The interview has been condensed for clarity.
How are you feeling about the upcoming negotiations?
Goodman: The support from the membership is very strong, because we’re attempting to address issues that are affecting our members. From the company side, we can’t really predict what what they’re going to do.
Although stunned by the medical leave of the union’s chief negotiator, many guild members have voiced confidence in his replacement, Ellen Stutzman.
What is it about this cycle that has so many people fearing a strike is coming?
Keyser: The move to the streaming model has devalued writers’ work in a way we have not seen before and leaves us with an agenda that is central to the economic survival of writers. So we know what is going on here matters deeply. How other people respond to it is other people’s issues; we’ll know in a week.
We live in a world where 50% of writers work at MBA minimum [the minimum level of pay set in the contract between writers and studios] Twenty four percent of showrunners work at minimum. They work at the lowest level comprehended by the contract, they work either too few weeks with an unreasonable pressure on them to produce, or too many weeks without their salaries going up.
There is no ladder of success in the business, there is no brass ring at the end. While the companies are making billions of dollars, spending more and more on streaming, writers are making less and less. That’s untenable. It’s unsustainable.
What are your top priorities going into negotiations?
Goodman: Compensation is down across the board in every sector of our membership — feature writers, comedy/variety writers, episodic television writers, top to bottom. So our priority is to address compensation for all these people in this new model that the companies have decided is the model they’re going to pursue. It’s not one or two issues. It’s how writers earn a living in every sector of the business.
Studios are laying off workers and cutting back on spending. Does that make it tougher for you to achieve your goals of increasing pay?
Keyser: There’s no question that they’re searching for a better bottom line. They are searching for profits wherever they can find it. They’d like to find those profits by reducing the amount of money they pay to writers, but at some point, that’s not OK. There’s never a good time, right? Studios never say, “Oh, thank God, you came in this year, because this year we can afford it.” That never happens.
They continue to spend enormous amounts of money on the stuff we write first and then they make: $19 billion they’re planning to spend on streaming this year. So they’re spending plenty of money. They’re spending it because they know there are going to be a bunch of winners in the global streaming business that are going to make companies fabulously rich.
There’s a disconnect there, and we need to end that disconnect. Writers are just as valuable as they ever were before the streaming model, and they need to be paid that way.
Stutzman: We look at the industry over a very long period and see just how prosperous and profitable it’s been. The content that writers and others in this town create has tremendous value. The companies have monetized it to great success globally and will continue to do so. It’s not for writers to pay for the poor decision-making of companies who decide to pursue expensive mergers or take on large amounts of debt. Those are short-term things that will change, and we have to negotiate a contract that will live on for decades.
If you increase pay, could it mean less work for writers?
Stutzman: What we want to get out of this negotiation is to ensure that there is a future and a career for writers and that there are a sufficient number of jobs for the amount of work. That writers are kept around and employed a sufficient amount of time to get the job done instead of crammed into as few weeks as possible, and that they’re paid appropriately. We’re about protecting this career and the ability of writers to work.
Goodman: I don’t think we could honestly predict how the companies will react, but we can certainly put guardrails in place so that the number of jobs does not shrink and that those jobs are well paid.
Keyser: I’ve been in the business for over 30 years. I have made shows decades ago where the company spent a lot less, where a studio needed 100 episodes in order to guarantee it made any money back, where all of us were paid adequately and much smaller budgets. Now, the budgets are much higher, they’re spending a lot more money, the risks are much lower. We ask for more money. Is it possible that they respond to us and say, “Fine, we’re not going to hire you?” I guess they could; it would be an irrational business decision. But they can do that now. No one tells them how many writers to hire, we can’t.
Can a deal be achieved without a walkout?
Goodman: That’s really up to the companies to decide. We present our agenda, we present what we need and we present the strength of our union, which I don’t think has ever been stronger. I’ve been in the guild since 1988, and I don’t think there’s been a period where the membership felt as strong as it does and the companies understand that. The companies are going to try to get the cheapest deal possible. They’re going to try to pay us as little as they can. And the question is, how much leverage do we have as our union to get them not to do that, to pay us our living wage? It comes out in the negotiation. And again, I’ve been in five of these. And every time it’s a surprise where we end up.
What efforts are you making to align with the other unions that are negotiating contracts this year?
Goodman: We’ve had conversations with the (Directors Guild of America) and (SAG-AFTRA.) Their membership too are facing difficulties of compensation. Whether we actually negotiate together is another thing, and we haven’t been set up for that. But it does seem that for the first time in a while, at least there’s open communication and some aligned interests. However, the issues that we’re [the WGA] talking about, are pretty writer-centric. We always hope that in the future these three unions could align and work together at this. And certainly, I feel support from them that we haven’t had before.
The Writers Guild of America has asked its members to vote on a list of key proposals that will guide negotiations with the major studios in the spring.
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