A fiery exchange of public statements preceded the potential beginning of the end for Hollywood’s writers’ strike. On Friday, leaders of the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers meet for the first time in months, but insiders tell TheWrap there’s much uncertainty on both sides.
“I’m cautiously hopeful that this is the real deal, especially since WGA leadership has privately [been] telling members that they don’t want to feed false hope by announcing anything prematurely,” “X-Men: First Class” screenwriter Zack Stentz told TheWrap. “I don’t think they’d be agreeing to renewed talks unless both sides saw at least a theoretical path forward.”
As TheWrap reported earlier this week, the heads of Hollywood’s various studios have recently met to talk plans about returning to the negotiating table. On Wednesday, insiders on both sides of the labor dispute told TheWrap that lawyers and representatives for the WGA and AMPTP have had back channel talks about a possible meeting, similar to how diplomats of different countries have informal talks to grease the wheels for a meeting between heads of state.
On Tuesday, those proverbial heads of state were ready to step forward as AMPTP President Carol Lombardini reached out to WGA West chief negotiator Ellen Stutzman to meet on Friday for the first time since they walked away without a deal on May 1, triggering Hollywood’s first strike since 2007.
But in a memo sent Thursday, WGA used that 2007 strike to caution members that there’s no guarantee that full-scale talks will resume after this meeting. During the first month of the strike, the WGA and AMPTP held talks to potentially return to the bargaining table, only for those talks to break off and for the strike to continue for another two months.
“When the companies came back to the table they weren’t serious about addressing the WGA’s proposals. They called guild leadership ‘out-of-touch.’ They waged a relentless campaign through the media and surrogates to spread dissent,” the WGA wrote.
“We won’t prejudge what’s to come. But playbooks die hard. So far, the companies have wasted months on their same failed strategy,” the guild continued.
In its own statement, AMPTP said that the guild’s “rhetoric is unfortunate.”
“This strike has hurt thousands of people in this industry, and we take that very seriously,” the studio rep said. “Our only playbook is getting people back to work.”
And that’s the energy of the two groups going into Friday’s discussions.
From the moment talks between the WGA and AMPTP began this past spring, the biggest sticking point between the two sides has been on WGA proposals that seek to codify the writers room in their contract.
The guild says that doing so is necessary due to trends triggered by the rise of streaming in Hollywood. Studios, particularly streaming-first ones like Netflix, have heavily pushed the use of “minirooms” to hire writers to write scripts prior to a show being greenlit and then only keeping one or two of those writers at most employed with the showrunner during production.
The WGA says that this practice costs younger writers both additional pay through script fees and the experience needed to work their way up to higher paid positions, such as writer-producer and showrunner. In their proposal, they sought to negate this through new rules such as a minimum staffing requirement for shows throughout the production process, with the minimum number based on the number of episodes ordered.
During negotiations, AMPTP insiders and entertainment law attorneys familiar with the studio perspective on labor talks told TheWrap that such proposals, which the WGA treats as a top priority on staffing would likely be rejected by the studios as it interferes with their control over employment decisions. Sure enough, the AMPTP didn’t offer a counterproposal to the WGA on those topics.
“If writing needs to be done, writers are hired, but these proposals require the employment of writers whether they’re needed for the creative process or not,” the AMPTP said in a four-page document publicly outlining its stance on the WGA’s proposal. “While the WGA has argued that the proposal is necessary to ‘preserv[e] the writers’ room,’ it is in reality a hiring quota that is incompatible with the creative nature of our industry.”
During the first few days of the strike, Stutzman told TheWrap that the only way the guild would return to the negotiating table was if the AMPTP provided a full counterproposal that addresses all of its issues.
“They would make us offers for an extra bump in certain areas like minimums if we dropped other proposals, and that’s not something we can agree to,” Stutzman said in May. “We need a counterproposal on everything we put on the table. There’s room for compromise on everything, but we won’t accept just a ‘no.’”
Guild insiders have told TheWrap that the negotiating committee’s stance on a full counterproposal has not changed. Such a stance has been backed by multiple WGA members who have spoken to TheWrap on the picket lines over the past three months, saying that a deal that addresses all of the issues put forward in the WGA proposal is key to avert an “existential threat” to writing as a stable occupation.
And not everyone on the picket lines is expecting significant progress to come out of Friday’s meeting.
“As we saw during the last strike, the first time they came to the table, nothing, they didn’t want to meet our demands,” said Brit Wigintton, a staff writer on the Freeform show “Good Trouble.” “I hope that we won’t negotiate anything less than all of our demands are met. I’m not confident that they will agree right during the first day.”
But the fact that there is even a “talk about resuming talks” in early August, even if it’s unclear whether there is true movement on writers room terms and other sticking points, is more than what some writers expected. Several guild members have told TheWrap over the past few weeks that they have been marching on the picket lines under the belief that they would have to do so for several more weeks, if not months, before talks between their leaders and AMPTP would resume in any form.
“I was on the phone with extremely smart and knowledgeable friends in the industry, all of whom were convinced that the strikes will continue until October at best and January or February at worst,” Stentz said. “Then I walked into my house, opened up my email, and saw the news that negotiations are restarting on Friday. It was a humbling reminder that William Goldman was right about Hollywood: Nobody knows anything.”
Dessi Gomez and Scott Mendelson contributed to this report.