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Writers Strike: Variety’s Co-Editor-in-Chief Answers Burning Questions About Why It’s Happening and What’s Next

On May 12, Variety partnered with Reddit’s Television subreddit to host an Ask Me Anything discussion about the ongoing writers strike. Variety co-editor-in-chief Cynthia Littleton — who has covered the television industry for 25 years and wrote the book “TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War Over the Internet” about the 2007 strike — fielded many smart questions from Redditors, touching on topics like AI, who gets paid during the strike, and how long it could last. Below are key selections from the discussion, lightly-edited for clarity.

From user milkyginger: How are smaller writers paying their bills? Have they taken up other jobs or does the guild help them out?

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The guild does have a healthy strike fund and it can and will directly help members who are in dire straits. But long-term, the loss of paychecks will be felt by WGA members who tend to live in expensive-town places like LA and NY. One thing that is clear from picket lines is that guild membership has become much younger and more diverse than it was 15 years ago.

From user sgthombre: On more the one occasion, I’ve seen people on this subreddit comment that the longer the strike goes on, the worse any sort of deal the WGA can get will be. Do you think that’s an accurate framing of how this will develop?

The longer it goes on the more the pain will be felt by WGA members and inevitably some of the resolve will start to weaken. The art of negotiating is knowing when you’ve hit the outside edge of the envelope on the deal terms. And frankly the most successful dealmakers that I’ve known always know that scorched earth isn’t the way. These people all know they’re going to be sitting down again in three years, which goes by in nanosecond these days.

From user Top-Tip8340: How long did the 2007 strike last and what was the biggest/most efficient change it caused? what are your personal predictions for what will happen this time around?

It lasted 100 days exactly — Nov 5 2007 to Feb 12 2008. It was famously described by Patric Verrone, who led the WGA West during the 07-08 strike, as “a 100-day hoe down.” I’m not in the predictions business so much as the reporting business. As a reporter I can tell you this — it will get settled. No matter how high the emotions right now, it will get settled. there will be peace in the (San Fernando) valley one day….

From user Darth_Meowth: How much do the crew get paid while the writers are on strike? Does their unions take care of them or are they essentially unemployed?

For crew members it really varies by employer. Some of the companies have let crews know they will be paid for another week or two but not much more. Jimmy Fallon and other late-night hosts have pledged to cover some of their crew salaries — it’s hard to be the person making eight-figures a year when your colleagues are going without.

From user Kiethblacklion: I was wondering, what sort of rules or policies are in place to stop a studio from contracting their projects out to writers in another country? For example, if Lucasfilm wanted to continue work on a Star Wars project, could they just contract the writing work to writers in the U.K., since there is already an established working relationship over there? Do the WGA agreements with the studios prevent that sort of action from being taken without repercussions?

Good morning! The rules around screenwriting done outside the U.S. are very nebulous. Writers now do work for productions all over the world, and writer unions in other countries have been speaking out in support of the WGA. So while it’s possible, it’s unlikely because writers would be worried about blowback on their careers — news travels super fast in the age of social media. It’s also not as easy as it sounds to bring in new writer(s), especially on an established show.

From user WolfofOldNorth: Hi there! My question is what is type of ratios of independent contractors/script doctors vs full time employees currently work on film and television respectively? Is there a massive differential between the two yet similar industries?

Pretty much everyone in film and TV works on a basically freelance basis. The days of studios have a bungalow full of writers on year-round contract are long gone. The guilds were born bc actors, writers, directors usually work project to project and needed an entity to look out for their needs, to provide health insurance etc. What has alarmed guild members, why they’re talking about becoming part of the “gig economy,” is that there have been efforts to chip away at the benefits and job protections that the guilds fought so hard for starting in the 1930s.

From user kmick0890: Are writers/showrunners going to be able to do press after season finales or is that banned because of the strike? Do you think the strike will last through the summer?

Don’t hold your breath for a lot of showrunner Q&As etc beyond talking about labor issues. It’s been an impressive display of solidarity encouraged by the guild that writers not take part in Emmy-related FYC events or premieres. Many actors are also sitting out events in solidarity. This sounds superficial but you have to feel for the first-time series creator or actor who is getting his/her/their big break in an ensemble cast. Going out and talking about the craft is a big part of the job these days.

From user bdf2018_298: What do you think the final deal looks like? I assume the writers will get the pay bump they want and there may be some changes to mini rooms, but I have doubts the AI piece will be addressed

The WGA has drawn a line in the sand around minimum staffing and minimum weeks. Those issues will have to be addressed but there may be all kinds of creative ways to get there. AI — if I had to guess now, it will be some kind of statement giving WGA the cover it seeks — AI-produced content cannot be considered “literary material,” which is an important designation in the WGA contract.

From user era252: With all of the recent lay-offs and cost cutting, what are your thoughts on Judd Apatow’s comments that this strike is intentional on the part of the studios? The DGA and SAG-AFTRA have contract negotiations coming up as well. What differences are there between what each guild is asking for and each sides negotiating leverage? Do you expect strikes on those as well?

Oh boy those are big Qs and they are smart ones. On Judd, I can understand where he’s coming from but in all reality, no the studios do not want a strike. No one wants a strike it’s a lot of work a lot of cost a lot of massive headache for all involved. It costs quite a bit of money to hastily shut down a production – as everyone just did 3 years ago when COVID hit. But the studios also weren’t willing to give to the degree that the WGA demanded, either.

Regarding DGA and SAG-AFTRA, some issues are the same for the three unions, but this time around they all have very writer- , actor- and director-specific issues to sort out and that also adds to the complexity and the amount of time needed for negotiations.

From user Beneficial_Tomato_21: What happens if a few of the studios agree with all the terms the writers are asking for? Can they make a deal or does it have to be unanimous through all the studios?

Hi — yes it’s possible for one of the companies in the AMPTP to break away and do a separately deal. They sometimes do that on lower-profile contracts like video games and animation. But for the most part, the companies try to maintain their leverage by working in lock step thru the AMPTP system.

From user revalisgalesnowready: How is the strike impacting this years TV show renewals/cancellations?

Just like in the crunch of the COVID crisis, we know that some of the shows being shut down now will not be coming back. Especially new series or fledgling shows that are not doing well. Hollywood is going thru a wave of significant belt tightening and this will be part of the housecleaning.

From user trongzoon: Is the main difference between this strike and the one from 2007 the emergence of A.I. in the writing process?

That is one of the big differences for sure. In 2007, people were still quaintly talking about “new media.” AI might’ve been a bar somewhere on Pico where pickets went after a hard day of walking in circles….

From user tcl4ever: Thank you for taking the time to engage, I have two main questions: Is there any room for compromise, where both sides don’t get what they want, but it works. Assuming AI provisions are not in the Unions favor, does getting the other requirements suffice.

Yes there is room for compromise — both camps say so. Hopefully smart people are thinking of interesting options/routes for getting to what the WGA needs now that its members are incensed. They’re gonna need something on minimum staffing (mini rooms) and minimum weeks of employment. There’s a small army of entertainment lawyers in LA and NY — the best minds should be working on Cuban Missile Crisis like analysis. Let’s put a naval blockade around West L.A.?

From user Sleepy_Azathoth: Do you see something similar happening with the DGA? If they join, things could get way uglier

Well, it did snow in Southern California earlier this year so anything can happen. But I just see no scenario in which the DGA goes on strike — barring something crazy coming from the AMPTP, which will not happen at this point. The DGA is part of the path to compromise with the WGA.

From user Waste_Resolve_3311: How would eliminating mini rooms affect shows like The White Lotus and Euphoria?

That’s the $64K question. We have not heard much publicly from the prominent writers like Mike White, David E. Kelley, Sam Levinson et al who traditionally write all of their own scripts. There are all kinds of scenarios being speculated by writers and talent agents and lawyers etc who are deep in this business. There’s little doubt that the sides will have to come to some compromise — somewhere between the WGA’s math equation of having a minimum of six scribes and the studios’ response of “hell no.” Therein lies the fight…

From user WittyPerception3683: How long till it’s over? Jk. I know you have no idea

Thank you — William Goldman’s doctrine is absolutely true here. Nobody knows anything …. until we do. There are two other unions that are also negotiating contentious new deals in the next few weeks. The result of the studios’ talks with the DGA — which began on Wednesday — will surely influence the trajectory of WGA negotiations and consequently the strike.

From user Brainiac7777777: How does streaming prevent residuals? And what are better ways to increase revenue on residuals without DVD sales.

I’d need a daylong seminar to explain the history of and formulation of residuals but suffice it to say — writers who used to get checks in the mail of $10K-$20K or more for one summertime rerun of an episode they wrote now they’re more likely to see something like $600 for many hundreds of views of that episode on a streamer. But it’s too easy to say it’s all “corporate greed.” Sure, studios are gonna look for cost savings wherever they can squeeze them. But in fact the economics of streaming are horrible, absolutely horrible. So the studios are in the financial squeeze of — the linear business (old-fashioned cable TV and ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, et al) is shrinking but still provides more profit than streamers, which are like petulant children — always hungry, high-maintenance and always in search of the shiny new toy.

From user PablosCocaineHippo: What do you think streaming will look like in 10-15 years from now?

Good question! At the end of the 2007-08 strike, remember, the best residual deal that the writers secured was for “download to own” titles — aka remember when we downloaded episodes for $1.99 on our iPods and it felt like nothing could be more futuristic? Well, streaming started to really take off within months of the strike settlement thanks to of course YouTube and then Hulu. I am really curious if the big brands of today – from the upstarts like Netflix to the Hollywood O.G.’s like Paramount and Warner Bros. — will still be prominent in another 10 years.

From user Saar13: Hello. I’m curious if there are differences between what each company (WBD, Paramount, Disney, Netflix, Amazon and Apple) is willing to give up. It’s a collective agreement, but I imagine there must be differences between AMPTP members. Which are more friendly and which are less friendly to WGA requests? Direct agreements (WGA-company) are not allowed at all?

In every big union negotiation, reporters look for the divisions among the companies. Of course they are there — and in the modern era, you have very different companies under the roof of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — which is the umbrella labor contract negotiating arm for the major studios, Netflix, Amazon, Apple et al. I’m a little surprised that the tech giants are still in the AMPTP system. But here ‘s the thing — labor in Hollywood is scary to many people especially senior executives. It’s complicated, confusing, and if a CEO says the wrong thing about unions et al, there can be hell to pay. So the tech giants that are still new to the business of making movies and TV shows have stuck with the bargaining process that has been in place in one form or another in Hollywood since about the late 1960s.

And despite all kinds of speculation to the contrary, I’m convinced that the companies in the AMPTP, despite their broad operational differences, are not too divided. They all said a collective “hell no” to the WGA’s bold proposals. Now, everybody’s gotta take some deep breaths and find the path to compromise.

From user cabose7: Have the studios actually started preparing to use AI tools prior to the strike or are they bluffing on their preparedness as a negotiation tactic?

AI scares everyone because its such a minefield for businesses that hinge on copyright protection. I truly believe the studios want to use AI for things that don’t need so much of a screenwriters touch — promotional materials, marketing and advertising copy. I don’t think anyone seriously thinks the next hit comedy or drama is going to come from a bot. But as always, these contracts are about trying to predict the near future, and right now AI is like the stealthy villain who emerges in Act 2….

From user yokayla: What can the lay public do to support? I am on your side but it doesn’t seem enough.

To be clear as journalists Variety reporters don’t have a side per se. But passing on as information — if you’re in LA or NY there are numerous picket sites. The WGA’s organization has been impressive, a sign of the dedication of strike captains, many of whom are showrunners. There are also many fundraising efforts online. I suggest start at WGA.org and go from there. There’s also the Writers Guild Foundation that does good work.

VIP+ Replay: Can Studios Counter Lack of Content in a Strike?

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