After the dark days of 2007, a new clash has ignited between producers and screenwriters who say despite TVs golden age, theyre still being shortchanged
Writers have been trying and and failing to win respect in Hollywood for as long as actors have had lines to speak. They struggled for close to a decade to form a union the studios would recognize after the silent era first gave way to talkies. They endured blacklisting during the McCarthy era, were shortchanged when television arrived, and have struggled to get what they consider a fair cut from home video and DVD releases.
Its still the same story in 2017 even though demand for scripted comedies and dramas is higher than ever thanks to streaming, binge-watching, and multiple big new players, including Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, that are challenging the hegemony of the old studio system. This should be a golden age for writers as peak TV has made television a genuine competitor with film in terms of prestige. But with new contract negotiations in the offing, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the production bosses have spent much of the past month acting like Truman and Stalin at the outset of the cold war.
The writers say they are losing revenue every year 23% in the last two years alone and are tethered to deals that undermine job security and constrain their ability to earn a living. Seasons of scripted television are getting shorter but the length of the writers contracts is not, so writers can easily find themselves bound to an employer who is no longer paying them for months on end. Worst of all, they earn only a fraction of what they used to in residuals, the royalties paid for reruns and syndication, which makes it harder to make ends meet during fallow times.
Really, its the oldest problem in the world, the feeling that people are not getting their fair share, said Graham Yost, one of the most respected showrunners in Hollywood, whose credits include Justified, The Americans and the recent Amazon hit Sneaky Pete.
In the past, writers have made a deal with the money people and said: Well give you a bit of a break while this new thing is starting up whether thats cable or DVD or online streaming. But when these things get going in earnest, we never catch up.
Theres a lot of talk of fragmentation in the industry, and the uncertainty of finding new revenue streams for online platforms now that the old model of cable subscriptions and network television advertising is changing or going away. So far, the producers guild, formally known as the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, has turned down almost every request to improve the deals writers receive on contracts and royalties. Not only have they not agreed to bolster health and pension benefits, they are arguing that those benefits need to be rolled back.
A showdown looms. The WGA is planning to poll its members mid-month on authorization for a strike, while at the same time saying it is willing to keep negotiating. Formal negotiations came grinding to a halt toward the end of March, with each side blaming the other for the impasse, but are now set to resume just ahead of the strike poll, on 10 April.
Hollywood has seen this movie before. In the winter of 2007, the writers went on strike for 100 days because they had been cut out almost entirely from what was then still a booming DVD market. They were also worried about the encroachment of reality television on the space previously occupied by scripted shows, and felt that if they did not take a strong stand, they would be cut out of the digital media future too.
Opinions vary on whether that effort was worth it. The writers did win some concessions on digital media concessions that the WGA now considers inadequate while the studios took the opportunity to cancel millions of dollars worth of deals with individual writers. The economy of the Los Angeles region, meanwhile, took a hit of anywhere between $380m and $2.5bn, depending on which expert you ask.
Public opinion, meanwhile, was largely unmoved not least because the narrative of well-paid film and television writers complaining about a raw deal does not cut much ice in the depressed coalmining towns of West Virginia. Late-night chatshows went into reruns, and some second and third-tier shows got canceled.
According to Rob Long, a veteran comedy writer running the Kevin James Show, part of the problem is that the writers are always fighting the last war. The 2007 clash was motivated in part by the resentment many writers felt at being cheated out of their share of the video market back in the 1980s, and the current standoff is motivated, in part, by what was not achieved in 2007-08.
You have this explosion of streaming video and all these new buyers, but you dont have a corresponding revolution in the way writers think about the future, he said. People want to go on strike to repeal the future, which you cant do. No one really wants to say the truth, which is that residuals, payments for viewings of your written work, is an outdated, outmoded and completely irrelevant metric for how people are going to get paid in Hollywood from now on.
Not everyone agrees that the WGA is doomed, once again, to inevitable failure. But the guild does have some structural disadvantages. While the producers are united, they get to negotiate with the Hollywood guilds one by one and, often, play them against each other. One reason they only started talking to the WGA last month was because they chose to cut a deal with the directors guild first.
There is also a problem of supply and demand. Yes, many more shows are being commissioned and made now, but there are also many more writers competing for seats in writers rooms. The AMPTP appears to be taking the view that this makes the WGAs position weaker now than it was 10 years ago, while the WGA seems determined to prove it has real teeth.
For rank-and-file television writers, life has certainly become more insecure. Michael Jones-Morales, whose shows have aired on network, cable and, soon, on Netflix, says he has worked on six shows in six years a degree of turnaround that would once have marked a Hollywood writer as an unreliable quantity but has now become standard.
With each show hes faced the dilemma of waiting to see without getting paid, after his writing work is done if a second season is in the offing, or if he should find a way out of his contract to look for other work. In theory, a writer can be hired in second position an arrangement that gives his or her original employer the right to pull the writer back at any time but in practice, very few shows ever hire second position writers because they want to maintain control.
The current WGA contract, meanwhile, does not allow writers to shop their own material until they are in the second season of a show, and second seasons are becoming less frequent because of the sheer volume of content.
You finish a job and you get paid for 10 or 12 or 13 episodes, said Jones-Morales. But then you are not only unemployed or rather, employed but not getting paid but youre not able to go out and look for work. Thats really tough.
The WGA has a high-powered negotiating team and ideas are not lacking on how to restructure the industry. If residuals no longer make sense, some other form of profit-sharing or bonus for hit or prestige shows might conceivably take their place.
That depends, however, on the willingness of the producers to acknowledge that entertainment, even in a fragmented environment, remains a profitable business. They say theyre not sure if theres going to be enough money to support all these shows on all these different outlets, Yost, the showrunner, said, but of course its working, because they continue to do it.
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