Column: We can’t afford another writers’ strike. Not Hollywood, not L.A., not the country
Updated: May 4
BY MARY MCNAMARA, CULTURE COLUMNIST AND CRITIC
APRIL 17, 2023 5 AM PT
I’m going to state the obvious because the obvious clearly needs stating:
We cannot afford a writers’ strike.
The entertainment industry can’t afford it, Los Angeles can’t afford it and neither can the many parts of the country where TV and film production help fuel the local economy.
We are just now emerging from a three-year pandemic that, in addition to its much more terrible consequences, shut down film and television production for the better part of a year and then made it much more costly and complicated.
We are coping with ever-deepening political division, post-pandemic inflation, general job insecurity and, in Los Angeles, a housing crisis that defies economic, never mind common, sense.
On top of all that, the prospect of enduring a strike that will put hundreds of thousands out of work inside and outside the entertainment industry and cost Los Angeles alone billions of dollars is simply horrifying.
Also, I don’t think I can live through another four months of unscripted late-night hosts and their strike beards. Seriously, we cannot go back.
And in case you think this is directed at the Writers Guild of America, which just called for a strike vote after they felt negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers stalled, you are wrong.
A strike is a decision made by two groups, not one.
AMPTP needs to stop screwing around and come to the table with reasonable responses to the WGA’s core demands for its new three-year contract before the old one expires on May 1.
The guild, which recently won its tangle with talent agencies over packaging fees, cannot expect to get everything it wants; its wants are many. But most of them revolve around the undeniable fact that as streaming services, shortened seasons and increased limited series have made television bigger, better and more profitable, far too many writers now struggle to make a living.
Fewer episodes, the loss of residuals and the increased use of “mini rooms” (in which a few writers break stories before the entire staff is hired) has devalued writers’ salaries for all but the tippy-top tier.
If studios and platforms want to be in the original scripted content business, they need to make that business work for the people writing those scripts. It’s that simple.
Thus far, however, the studios are offering only unacceptably modest concessions, while stockpiling scripts and assembling the dreaded mini rooms for months in preparation for a strike. Platforms with executives who pull in multi-million-dollar salaries are pleading poverty. Many streaming services are not profitable, and many media companies seem to have no plan beyond “constricting” — cutting back on projects and laying off staff in order to compensate.
There is no denying that the economics of television at the moment are chaotic at best, and that there will always be a few who, like Littlefinger in “Game of Thrones” , believe that “chaos is a ladder.” (Memo to studios: Somebody wrote that.)
The recent television renaissance, abetted by the rise of streaming services, shook the industry out of its 22-episode, too-many-procedurals rut and brought us all manner of glorious (and not-so-glorious) serial storytelling. Netflix, and platforms hoping to keep up with it, poured jillions of dollars pursuing so much content that viewers were quickly overwhelmed.
So too were the platforms’ own budgets.
Studios face turmoil and strife amid WGA negotiations. Not our problem, writers say
April 10, 2023
As streamers continue to add cheaper tiers that include advertising and experiment with weekly episodic as opposed to full-season drops, it’s hard not to wonder if cutting the cord was such a great idea after all.
At the moment, both sides appear to be taking a “well, that’s your problem” approach. Writers believe that they should not have to pay for studios’ financial missteps — they are still making the product studios sell and resell, often at a handsome profit.
The studios believe … well, I’m not sure what they believe. That the business has changed in ways they cannot control, except they are the ones in control? That writers should be grateful to see their work realized and no one said writing was a full-time job?
That the world already has enough television and we can all get along on streaming libraries and reruns thankyouverymuch?
Honestly, I have no idea. I do think it is interesting that as television writing has opened up a bit to women and people of color, suddenly the pay rate is decreasing. But that’s a topic for another column.
In any case, it is ridiculous for AMPTP to let it get this far. The last strike occurred because the studios claimed, disingenuously , that they couldn’t possibly offer writers a stake in digital rights because how on Earth could they predict what the digital landscape would look like?
Well, now we know. If AMPTP had acted with more foresight last time around, it might not be in this position.
But it’s not too late. All the studios need to do is stop ignoring reality — streaming has created a new model that is far less profitable for writers, and is not sustainable for anyone — and offer real ways to fix it.
According to then-chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., the last strike cost $772 million from lost wages for writers and production workers, $981 million from various businesses that service the industry and $1.3 billion from the ripple effect to all the businesses that would have profited from those lost wages.
That’s almost $4.5 billion in today’s dollars, in Los Angeles alone. Never mind New York and Georgia, or all the other states that have since grown thriving production communities.
That is money no one can afford to lose, especially after three years of a pandemic. Do not let the photos of resolute but smiling picketers or tales of who sent doughnuts fool you — the last strike was not fun. Strikes never are. They are the last line of defense for workers who believe they have no other choice.
It is up to the negotiators to give them another choice.
The studios need to stop preparing for a strike and start trying to prevent one.