Hollywood Fears Writers Strike Is Brewing as Contract Talks Go Down to Wire

Dave McNary
Variety
June 26, 2020

Some things never change.
Amid Hollywood’s drastically altered landscape, one of the few constants has turned out to
be this: the Writers Guild of America is likely going down to the wire at the negotiating
table over a new contract.

Talks between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television
Producers launched six weeks ago on a remote basis due to the COVID-19 pandemic after
two start dates were vacated. Representatives are facing a June 30 expiration of the current
film and TV contract — and the lack of a deal has prompted worries among studios that a
strike could be in the works if no agreement is reached.

Still, there’s been no public comment by the WGA during the past three weeks, notable
because the guild was verbose about the negotiations up until then. As usual, the AMPTP
has not commented. A source close to the WGA said the guild is expected to field a
significant proposal over the weekend.

The conventional wisdom within Hollywood has been that that the optics of going on strike
at a time of historically high unemployment would not play well. But the WGA has a history
of negotiating up until the last minute, as it did three years ago when talks were concluded
less than an hour before the contract expired.

“I don’t think the WGA would strike but I would not be surprised if the two sides decide to
extend the deal again,” one source said.

The WGA is required by its constitution to conduct a strike authorization vote among
members in order to go on strike. in 2017, more than 96% of the 6,310 writers casting
ballots voted in favor of giving leaders the authority to call a strike.

The WGA negotiations were originally scheduled to commence on March 23 but were
pushed back to May 11 and then May 18 as the coronavirus upended business as usual and
brought production to a virtual standstill. And before talks started, the expiration of its
current three-year deal was extended for two months to June 30.

There was a major bump along the way when WGA West executive director David
Young raised the issue of easing eligibility for health insurance for members who would
lose their coverage later this year. In April, Young called the AMPTP “despicable” after its
president, Carol Lombardini, said she would need to consult with the studios. That led to
speculation that the dispute could derail the start of talks, but the WGA notified its
members on April 30 that negotiations would proceed as planned.

After negotiations started, the WGA negotiating committee sent out eight messages to
members between May 20 and May 4 detailing a wide array of demands including higher
script fees, parental leave, the first-ever foreign box office residuals, higher streaming
residuals, improved pension and health contributions and eliminating free rewrites. In
effect, the messages replaced the guild leadership’s usual technique of disclosing the details
of its demands at a series of membership meetings — which could no longer be held.

The first three weeks of the WGA talks also took place concurrently with SAG-AFTRA
holding remote negotiations with the AMPTP on a successor deal. The performers union
launched its contract talks on April 27 and reached a three-year deal on June 11, three
weeks prior to its expiration, announcing it had achieved $318 million in gains for its
160,000 members.

As for the Directors Guild of America, its negotiators reached a three-year deal with the
AMPTP on March 5, nearly three months before its contract expiration. That deal included
major gains in residuals for high-budget streaming content.

Fears of a WGA breakdown are based on it being the last Hollywood union to strike. In
November 2007, the WGA walked out in a bitter dispute that was mostly over new media
compensation and stayed out for 100 days before a deal was reached. By the time that
happened the shutdown was estimated to have cost the L.A. economy more than $3 billion.

That’s a sequel few in Hollywood are eager to see.

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