And thanks for reading! On the heels of last week’s discussion of SAG-AFTRA, this week let’s talk a bit about the looming threat of a Writer’s Guild (WGA) strike.
Just a reminder here that when I use the term “actor” I mean it to encompass all forms of acting including voice, stage, and screen. Yeah, I know I say this every week, but it falls under the heading of “The things that go without saying are the things that most need to be said”. What follows applies relatively equally to everyone…but it applies most strongly to union members or those seeking to work on union projects to gain eligibility to join.
What? A strike?
If you follow entertainment news, you’ll know that all of the major unions are up for negotiation in 2023. In and of itself, this is not really a big deal because these renegotiations happen routinely every three years. The renegotiation is normal. What is rare is when one or more of the collective bargaining units (Unions) have major issues that look like they are unlikely to be resolved during negotiations. 2023 is one of those years, and the WGA in particular has already approved a strike if no agreement can be reached (96% approval to give context).
Who is negotiating?
In the overall scheme of things, there are four main players in this year’s drama. The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) – the employers, The Writers Guild of America (WGA), Directors Guild of America (DGA, and Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) – the employees. Each of the three employee organizations negotiates independently with the employer organization.
Just to set the stage the WGA contract, or Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) is set to expire on May 1st. The MBA’s for the DGA and SAG-AFTRA are set to expire on June 30th. Not reaching an agreement by the expiration date does not automatically mean a strike – most often the expiring agreement is simply extended to allow for continued negotiations. If, however, the collective bargaining unit feels there is no way to reach an agreement in a reasonable amount of time, then the members may (and this year HAVE) vote to strike.
Generally, whichever one of the unions starts negotiations first sets the tone for the other unions negotiations. In recent years, at least the last three bargaining years, the DGA sat down first, many months before the expiration, to hammer out an agreement. Not so this year. I can’t find anything definitive about who will be the first to negotiate this year, but I will note that the last time the WGA started negotiations (2007) there was a 100-day writer’s strike. It seems the WGA has most of the “demands” this year, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they kick off negotiations.
What are the issues?
Like any contract negotiation there are many complex issues, but the major one this year, and the one that seems to be setting up the WGA to strike, is residuals. In particular, defining how residuals are paid for “new media” or streaming services. Without going into agonizing detail and turning this into a novella, what has happened during and post pandemic is that residuals for writers (and actors, and directors as well) has decreased significantly because residual amounts were mostly negotiated when shows were on networks.
Changing the landscape
A couple things have occurred during and post pandemic that have changed residuals, not ALL related to streaming. This is not an exhaustive list but seem to be the major points. Seasons have gotten shorter (~10 episodes vs 17-20 episodes) and streaming services are dropping entire seasons at one time. Writing staffs have become smaller, show production timelines have become shorter but contracts committing a writer to a show exclusively have not changed. Basically, fewer writers work for shorter periods but are excluded from working on a second show to make up for it.
On top of that, how residuals are paid for streaming services are not well defined…if defined at all. Do you pay residuals when a show is dropped on a streaming service, or when it’s viewed? What percentage for either of those? It’s not in writing, so essentially the writers are not getting paid. Honestly, neither are the directors or actors…which could lead to strikes by those organizations as well – although there is not presently any talk of that. I think they are waiting to see how the WGA fares – hence why the DGA and SAG-AFTRA are not jumping up to start negotiations early this year.
Add to all of this…
During the pandemic, streaming services were screaming hot. It comes as no surprise that while we weren’t allowed to actually go out in public, many people turned to streaming services to pass the time. I know we did. Also, during the pandemic, sales at theaters declined dramatically.
But the world is back!
Now that the world has opened up again, streaming has declined (not surprisingly) and theater ticket sales have increased but not enough to offset the loss in streaming revenue. The net result is reduced revenue overall and share prices for studios declining – all at a time when artists are asking for more residual shares.
To combat reduced revenues
You may have noticed services like Netflix are changing their stance on password sharing and are also reducing the number of titles available on their services. These are cost cutting measures designed to shore up declining revenue. These measures are detrimental to artists since fewer views and fewer available titles means less residual income. It’s like a perfect storm.
All of that to say…
If agreement cannot be reached by midnight May 1st, it is likely the WGA will strike. “So what, I’m an actor!” you say? Not so fast. A writer’s strike will have an effect on every part of the industry. Some parts immediately, and some not…but an effect, nonetheless.
What is the result of a strike?
In short, if the WGA strikes that means that for the pendency of the strike there will be ZERO union writers working. Which means any projects in production are stuck with their scripts and will not be able to adjust for plot holes or changing character arcs. This is most disruptive for TV series that typically have a staff of writers continuously updating or writing episodes. It affects feature films as well for the same reason, just not as dramatically.
And no writers mean…
In the long run, a writer’s strike will stop or slow productions. I think we are already seeing this in some small ways as new productions are delaying start till they find out what the WGA will do. Without writers there are no (or at least fewer) scripts for directors and actors to work on and the ones that are available will not be updated during production. Either projects will not be made, show runners will have to make adjustments without the benefit of professional writers, or the projects that are completed will suffer in quality.
How does this affect me?
And by “me” I mean you. And the answer is: It depends. It depends on a number of factors which we’ll try to explore here, but I caution that each person’s circumstance will be different so take what I say here and apply it to your circumstance.
Non-Union VO artists and actors
Honestly, the idea of a WGA strike affects you the least, unless you are non-union trying to qualify for union membership by working on union jobs. You will still be able to work on non-union independent films during the strike. If you ARE trying to get union work to qualify for membership, expect that to slow to a crawl. It’s going to take a lot longer for a non-union person to book a union gig.
If you are a union VO artist or actor, a slowdown in the number of productions means there are a lot more actors vying for far fewer roles. Even though the AMPTP is feverishly stockpiling scripts, so work doesn’t stop altogether, new-start productions are going to present a higher-than-normal risk and are less likely to be green-lit. And of course Global Rule 1 prevents you from working the available non-union gigs…unless you decide to go FICORE, which is another discussion altogether.
And it could get worse…
If a WGA strike leads to a DGA or SAG-AFTRA strike as well? Well, 2023 will be a very bad year for us. I’m not suggesting that is likely, but since the first to negotiate sets the tone, and if the WGA goes first and can’t come to resolution before June 30th…it’s anybody’s guess what could be the result.
I am not Chicken Little…
I’m not running around shouting “The Sky is Falling!”, just discussing what could happen and the potential impacts. I sincerely hope the WGA and AMPTP can come to an agreement before the deadline and avert a strike, but know how that may impact you if they can’t.
At the end of the day…
Any one of the collective bargaining units deciding to strike will have impacts across the industry and not just for the artists. Consider everyone who works on a production from the artists to the crew (DP, Gaffer etc) as well as catering, craft services, wardrobe, hair & Makeup, and on and on. Not to mention consumers who will have no new material to consume! A strike by any of them will be bad for all of them…and all of us.