Hollywood at Its Stupidest: Inside the Latest Showdown Between Studio CEOs and the Writers Guild

The studios are leading with ego instead of deal-making savvy

Studios vs WGA strike
From left, Disney CEO Bob Iger, Universal CCO Donna Langley and Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos have been going head to head with WGA's Meredith Stiehm, David Goodman and Chris Keyser. (Getty Images, Christopher Smith/TheWrap)

Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman On the Business of Entertainment

The founder and editor of TheWrap’s take on life on the left coast, high culture, low culture and the business of entertainment and media. Waxman writes frequently on the inside doings of Hollywood, and is is also the author of two books, Rebels on the Back Lot and Loot

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We all thought things were finally moving in the right direction. We thought there might be a break coming. For a week and a couple of days, there has been silence as the Writers Guild negotiators met daily with the Hollywood studios’ negotiators, to — we presumed — talk, compromise and get closer to a deal. 

Turns out — no, they weren’t. 

Instead on Tuesday, four Hollywood chiefs — Disney’s Bob Iger, Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav, NBCUniversal’s Donna Langley and Ted Sarandos of Netflix, leaders all of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — marched into a room to meet directly with WGA negotiators Chris Keyser and Ellen Stutzman, President Meredith Stiehm and former president David Goodman. 

And resolved strictly nothing. They didn’t negotiate. They didn’t exchange any new ideas. They didn’t even address the small matters that had been tinkered with by the negotiating teams over the previous week. 

Instead, this intensely high-powered group of people on whom the economic survival of Hollywood rests met for nearly two hours and produced no result, according to individuals with knowledge of the meeting who spoke to me. 

To repeat: After 113 days of a writers’ strike that has brought all new entertainment development to a halt, they came out with nothing. 

Instead, immediately afterward the CEOs released to the public their Aug. 11 proposal of concessions around the key areas of AI, writers’ room minimums, visibility into viewership data and other essential areas, to — what? Show everyone how reasonable and generous they are? Sow division among the Writers Guild membership and hope they’ll pressure leadership to take the deal? 

Are they stupid?

Instead of calming things down, the CEOs riled things up. These masters of industry, entertainment veterans whose jobs involve reading the room, schmoozing and backslapping, making deals across the length and breadth of Hollywood decided instead to… teach the WGA a lesson. 

And predictably, the ever-emotive WGA quickly issued a statement accusing the studios of bad faith, of aiming “to get us to cave,” and “to bet that we will turn on each other.”

This was ego-driven decision-making at its worst and colossally bad judgment on the part of the studios. I expect better from Bob Iger — I expect better from all of them. 

But the guild response was predictably vituperative. We get it. They’re angry, they’ve been angry and they’re not inclined to be coaxed to another position. 

How does this help end the strike? 

Everyone — and I do mean everyone — understands that the demands of the guild are based in reality. The writers’ needs for better residuals, more guarantees around the writers’ rooms, and an ability to protect their copyright reflect both current and future real-life issues that affect mortgages, education, health care and a decent living standard. But do they want a deal? Or do they want to be right? (I ask the exact same question of the studios.) 

My insiders tell me that the last 10 days of negotiation haven’t been fruitful. And it was that frustration that led to the ill-fated meet-up on Tuesday.

According to individuals with knowledge of the negotiations, the talks that restarted on Aug. 14 were slow, halting and not substantial. One described it as “people talking at each other,” rather than with each other. 

Some days, “negotiations” consisted of a half-hour meeting face to face, with the guild negotiators taking a studio proposal into a caucus to discuss it. There was no direct back and forth, with one side making a suggestion and the other side offering a counter. Instead it was a lot of speech-making, leading to one or the other side taking it under advisement rather than active discussion. 

By the beginning of this week, only minor issues had moved forward.

“Ultimately they were getting nowhere,” said one individual. “The back and forth were tiny nothings.”

Where to now? The talks have not officially broken off, but it’s hard to see how you get things restarted after the studio move that seemed aimed at embarrassing the guild’s leadership. Isn’t Rule One of negotiation that you let the other guy save face?

“The Teamsters, who just voted on the UPS deal, they didn’t have the company pull out of negotiations to say, ‘Hey, we actually have a great deal for you if you just not listen to your leaders,” one strike captain told our reporter Jeremy Fuster on Wednesday. “So why are our companies trying to do that to us? It’s just sort of infuriating.”

We need both sides to drop their egos — but it’s the studios who just stirred the pot. 

I would ask again — as I did early on: Where is a modern-day Lew Wasserman who can step in, establish trust, respect and ultimately achieve compromise? (We like attorney Ken Ziffren, what’s he up to?) The question was valid three months ago, and it’s more urgent now.