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Shortly before Hollywood’s latest strike was ordered by the Writers Guild of America on Monday night, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers announced that talks had ended without a deal, citing the guild’s proposals on “mandatory staffing” and “duration of employment” as the main reasons why the two sides reached an impasse.
Beneath those two phrases lies a deep concern by the WGA and its members that a decades-old standard for how writers are employed on TV shows is facing an existential threat, and that the only way to protect it is to hold firm on proposed additions to the guild’s labor contract with studios that the AMPTP saw as too inflexible and non-starters.
“The writers’ room is under attack,” said “New Amsterdam” creator David Schulner on Tuesday from the first round of picket lines at Netflix’s production offices in Los Angeles. “These proposals on mandatory staffing aren’t really a push for anything new. We’re fighting to protect the way television writers have worked and been paid for years. But because writers’ rooms aren’t something that is codified in our contract, streaming studios are systematically working to disassemble it.”
For writers who worked in Hollywood prior to the 2010s, the structure of television was simple: A writer-producer gets their show greenlit by a network and then assembles a staff of writers who are present through the entirety of a 22-episode season.
The rise of streaming, especially over the past few years, has muddled this process. Studios, particularly streamers like Netflix, increasingly use mini-rooms to order more scripts before a project is even greenlit. For a time, mini-rooms were seen by some writers as a way to sweeten the pot when convincing streamers to greenlight their shows, as they were able to give executives a better idea of where a show’s story was headed.
“Sometimes, writers with a show pitch would offer to do a mini-room as a bargaining tactic,” said Briana Hill, partner and co-founder of law firm Pryor Cashman’s Media and Entertainment Group. “Having more scripts would be a way to close the deal.”
But Luvh Rakhe, writer for the FX show “Dave” and member of the WGA negotiating committee, said mini-rooms have become abused in a way that has led to lower pay for writers, and fewer opportunities to gain the experience with the production process that naturally comes with traditional writers’ rooms, as only a fraction of the writers brought into mini-rooms end up being hired alongside the showrunner by the studio to oversee scripts through production.
“Not only are writers in mini-rooms only getting minimum pay, it hurts the creative process. Scripts aren’t just perfect things that come into being and are shot word for word,” Rakhe explained. “There might be a creative change in a character that has ripple effects on the script, like a location change. Or we lose an actor. It’s a responsive, reactive process, so the notion that it can all be written beforehand and just shunted onto a very small number of people means that these people are being overworked.”
Rakhe also said that since these scripts haven’t been produced yet studios can use that as an excuse not to pay the script fees a writer would get for writing a script after a show is greenlit.
“The work that they’re asking us to do in mini-rooms is some of the most essential parts of the creative process, because its the part where we determine how a story launches from a blank page,” he said. “And really, we are doing the producing as we are writing because this isn’t a spec script. In a writers’ room we know we’re writing something that’s going to be made, so we’re thinking about how and where it’s going to be shot.”
The proliferation of mini-rooms became such a major concern among WGA members that the guild included proposals that would make the structure of a traditional writers’ room part of its labor contract with studios and therefore mandatory for studios to follow.
The proposals were designed to eliminate mini-rooms where two or three writers would write out a significant portion of a series before it is greenlit at minimum rates.
- Requiring a minimum of six writers for all rooms, whether projects are greenlit or not, with at least four writers in mini-rooms designated as writer-producers to ensure they are paid higher wages for scripts that get picked up.
- Making studios hire a minimum writers based on the number of episodes in an ordered season, up to a maximum of 12 writers.
- Giving mini-room writers at least 10 consecutive weeks of work while employing at least half of the minimum staff on greenlit shows through the entire production process with a guaranteed three weeks of work per episode.
- Paying writers in all mini-rooms a 25% premium for their work.
With the exception of the mini-room premium, the AMPTP refused to address any of those proposals or provide any counteroffers. Its counteroffer for mini-room premiums only went to 5%, applying only to mini-rooms in which “three or more writers (including teams) are hired for 10 or fewer weeks before a Season 1 of a series.”
In a press conference in front of the Fox backlot on Tuesday, WGA negotiating committee co-chair Chris Keyser told reporters that the AMPTP’s lack of a counteroffer on staffing during the final week of negotiations was when the guild realized a deal wasn’t going to happen.
“At some point, some number of hours before deadline, the [alliance] came back to us and said, ‘We can make you a slightly better offer if you take off all the things from the table we don’t want to talk about,’” Keyser said. “We couldn’t make that deal. When we said to them ‘No,’ they said they have nowhere to go. And at that point there was no point in continuing.”
Studio insiders told TheWrap the AMPTP saw the proposals regarding staffing size and duration as nonstarters because the studios viewed them as too rigid to fit the increasingly fluid nature of how streaming shows are staffed. One producer with experience working on streaming shows who spoke to TheWrap on condition of anonymity said that studio execs are likely to see the proposals as a dramatic increase to their production spending and they don’t see it as necessary to have all writers employed for the duration of production.
“It’s a one-size-fits-all framework for a system that has moved past such things,” the producer said. “The way many of these shows get produced now the studios do it in a way where, if these proposals were implemented, a lot of the writers wouldn’t be needed for work for the duration of the time studios are required to keep them employed.”
Hill, who has served as outside counsel to independent studios at Pryor Cashman, also noted that sometimes showrunners make the choice to have fewer writers staffed.
“Sometimes a creator already has a firm idea of what the story is going to be and they say, ‘I only need two people, let’s just get to writing,’” Hill said. “There are a lot of reasons that there are mini-rooms or why a certain number of writers get staffed, and it’s not always nefarious. Studios have always determined how many writers they employ on a production and sometimes that is based on budgeting, but not every project needs that many writers because sometimes that is a creative choice.”
WGA negotiating committee member Adam Conover acknowledged some showrunners do prefer to work in much smaller rooms or sometimes do all the scripts themselves, but he pointed to the fact that over 5,500 WGA members approved the guild’s pattern of demands in negotiating and over 9,000 approved a strike authorization as proof that the vast majority of writers in Hollywood see the status quo as unsustainable and turning the profession of writing into a “freelance gig economy.”
“I can tell you from the meetings that we’ve had with our members before the talks that even the showrunners that request mini-rooms or work with [fewer] writers don’t want to be used as pawns,” he said.
“Right now, a studio might offer a show creator an incentive to not hire a staff at all… but five years from now, they’re not going to offer that incentive anymore,” Conover continued. “They’re going to tell you to write the show yourself with maybe a freelance writer or two, but they’re not going to allow for a writers’ room, they’re not going to even pay weekly. That’s why we’re pushing to have in our contract that shows have to be staffed the way every show has been staffed in the last 70 years.”
In Conover’s words, the stark differences in how the WGA and AMPTP approach these issues can become clear. For the WGA, these labor contracts are a way to safeguard against the worst possible future paths the entertainment industry can take, negating trends that are leaving writers — especially those younger and less experienced — with less financial stability and fewer opportunities for career advancement. Their proposals are written with thoughts as to how the entertainment industry could change, not just in the next couple of years but in the next decade.
For the AMPTP and its member studios, the focus is less on the hypothetical and more on the tangible. How would labor contracts with the WGA and Hollywood’s other labor unions affect production spending in the three years between now and the next time labor negotiations take place? Proposals that can’t be easily calculated into a projection on a studio’s balance sheets — such as requiring six to 12 writers on all greenlit TV series — don’t get included in the counteroffer.
“To really oversimplify it, these issues are line items and forecasting in studio budgets,” Hill said. “But for the writers, it was possible for a long time to have a solid income and a stable life as a writer or a director or an editor. For them, this is their livelihood.”