Here’s What It Took for Hollywood Writers Not to Strike

Writers, audiences, Cookie Monster and Spongebob Squarepants can rest easy

The midnight deadline had passed, but the negotiators pressed on. Heavy hitters like “The Leftovers” mastermind Damon Lindelof and “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon sat in Aeron chairs in an freeway-side office within the Sherman Oaks Galleria, facing down the producers who pay them. Hours of talks had come down to two issues: health care and new media.

On Twitter, strike-watchers tried to guess what was going on inside the offices of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers as its representatives faced off with those of the Writers Guild of America. They vented their nervousness with animated GIFs of fictional characters like Cookie Monster and Spongebob Squarepants, anxiously waiting.

The kids’ creations couldn’t match the adults’ worries. The entire entertainment industry had been holding its breath for days, waiting for a signal of whether work would grind to a halt in writing rooms across Hollywood, or whether sanity would prevail — with a deal.

But it was clear, in the end, that no one had the stomach for a strike. Ultimately producers agreed to pay more than they had planned, to avoid a repeat of the 2007-2008 strike that gut-kicked a state economy already reeling from a housing bubble implosion. (The producers and writers declined to comment for this story.)

Even as they publicly stood firm, both sides had spent the previous days privately inching their way toward a deal. Both sides agreed early Tuesday morning that employers would contribute more to the guild’s ailing health plan. The other terms included increasing minimums across the board, and that writers would work 2.4 weeks for each episodic fee.

Writers in the union would also receive job protection for parental leave for the first time. (This does not mean, however, that TV writers will get paid time off while caring for their families, and for them to receive the newly sanctioned job protection, their shows must remain in production.)

In the months leading up to the final negotiations, the main point of contention cited by the guild’s leadership was that “the average pay for writer-producers working in television declined 23 percent over the last two years alone,” although they still did the same amount of work as before. The guild said the increasingly cable and digital-driven era of television — in which shows often run for 10 or 13 episodes a season instead of the traditional 22 to 24 — wasn’t working out so well for writers.

The letter WGA leaders sent to writers in February said that the decline in pay was “driven by the growth of short-order series with 13 or fewer episodes…” and that writers “often work just as many weeks on a short-order series as they did on a traditional 22-episode series, but are paid fewer episodes.”

WGA and AMPTP began negotiating a new contract in early March, but those talks were discontinued March 24 when no agreement could be reached. The WGA’s negotiating committee called for a strike authorization vote. On April 25, members overwhelmingly voted in favor of striking if an agreement could not be reached, and the WGA returned to the negotiating table the same day.

There had been talk of an extension of the current contract, which is not uncommon in the industry. In 2014, for instance, SAG-AFTRA and Hollywood producers agreed to a 24-hour extension less than an hour before the existing pact ran out.

Although the WGA sent out a letter early Tuesday stating that the WGA certainly did not get everything the writers wanted or deserved, the work was done. Lindelof and Willimon, along with fellow WGA negotiation committee members, were all smiles in a photo taken at 12:51 a.m., and posted an hour later on Twitter.

Cookie Monster and Spongebob could finally get some sleep. So could everyone else.