After weeks of relative peace, there is commotion again on the strike front in Hollywood this week. Trade union WGA, which represents 1,000 screenwriters, is said to be close to an agreement with the alliance of Hollywood studios (AMPTP), news agencies report. It could be completed before this weekend. Or else? Then it might take until the end of the year.
That sounds like negotiating with a knife on the table, but in any case the parties have been talking to each other again since Wednesday, after a month of silence. “If all goes well, we won’t hear anything for a while,” says Peter, a showrunner at ABC who argues in front of the iconic gates of Paramount Pictures. “No news is good news.”
The last official talks were on August 21, after which both sides believed it was the other’s turn; On crucial points such as wage inflation, minimum compensation and agreements on AI, little concession was made to each other, to the growing frustration of the rest of the film industry: technicians, security, transport, make-up. They also suffer from the strike.
This week, the WGA union was visited by a group of concerned showrunners, including Yvette Lee Bowser (Dear White People) and Courtney Kemp (Power). They questioned the negotiators about their strategy and argued for more flexibility with some poignant examples. Some of their crew members are now said to be living in their cars and donating blood for grocery money.
Also read: ‘Dune Part Two’ is a victim of the Hollywood strike
Cracks in the front
But there are also cracks in the united front among employers; AMPTP struggles with its mutual competitive position. The alliance includes the so-called ‘legacy’ studios – Paramount, Universal, Walt Disney, Warner Bros. and Sony and their TV channels ABC, CBS and NBC – versus the new streamers and tech companies: Netflix, Apple TV+ and Amazon.
Sharing viewer data is also the stumbling block among each other. This is a requirement for the unions to reach new agreements on ‘residuals‘, the profit sharing with writers and actors that has been common in Hollywood since the 1960s. This is based on viewing figures, which the ‘old’ studios and TV channels traditionally make public, also with a view to advertising rates. Netflix broke with that tradition: it does not provide information about the popularity of specific titles, unless that is convenient. For Netflix, data about target groups and viewing habits are a gold mine that you cannot simply share with the competition. A nice side effect is that there is no basis for ‘residuals’. And that makes streaming a lot cheaper than film or television on that point.
Besides Netflix, two tech giants with streamers – Apple and Amazon – could hold things up for a long time. For them, Hollywood is often just a sideshow. If this new round of negotiations stalls, the writers’ union would like to have separate discussions with studios. Individual studio heads would also be sympathetic to this, according to a WGA statement. “Also on points that the AMPTP has publicly said are deal breakers,” the negotiating committee recently wrote, which is also fighting with an anonymous studio head who would like to meet all their demands. Naturally, the unions would like to see discord in the enemy’s camp. Separate deals then serve as leverage towards the streamers.
Actors in the wings
Meanwhile, the actors of SAG-AFTRA are waiting in the wings. Their 160,000 members voted by almost 98 percent in favor of a strike this summer, which started on July 14. There has been no contact with the studios since then, said actress Natalia Castellanos, a member of SAG-AFTRA’s negotiating committee. Castellanos took part in previous discussions about the new contract with AMPTP.
She suspects that the studios are strategically keeping the actors away from the negotiating table, she says in Studio City, fifteen minutes from the strike post at Warner Bros. “That is a tactic from the old Hollywood playbook: first make an appointment with one person in order to get the other one in line.”
She thinks that the willingness to strike remains high: “Our members know that we are not striking because we want to make things difficult, but because we are fighting for our future.” The solidarity of George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, who contributed $15 million to the strike fund in August, or of film stars who organize playful collections are a blessing, but also a curse, according to Catellanos. They generate attention and confusion. “We do not do this for the rich 8 percent, but for the 86 percent of our members who do not have health insurance because they do not earn enough.”
The spirit on the streets has apparently not yet worn off: five and two months later, respectively, thousands of WGA and SAG-AFTRA members are still demonstrating every day at eight locations in Los Angeles and four in New York. “I understand that they hate it inside,” says showrunner Peter while the demonstrators loudly sing along to Beyoncé’s ‘Love On Top’. “And the fact that we’re having a party, especially.”
It may be over quickly or the energy may be spent for months on exhausting and fueling the enemy’s camp. SAG-AFTRA negotiator Castellanos. “If we cannot reach an agreement quickly, official mediators may have to be involved. Let’s hope that isn’t necessary.”
Also read: Hollywood actors are concerned about AI and streaming and are demanding better pay
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