Leaders of the Writers Guild of America won’t discuss the specifics of the contract proposals they’ve exchanged with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. But in an interview with Deadline on Tuesday ahead of next week’s start of negotiations, they made it perfectly clear a deal can be reached without a strike if the companies take the needs of writers seriously.
“We want to make a deal. It’s our goal to make a deal,” said Chris Keyser, co-chair of the WGA negotiating committee and a past president of the WGA West. “But just as important, there are lists of things that need to be accomplished for writers that cannot be put off any more. We need a partner to do that – the AMPTP – and we’ll see starting next Monday what their response is.”
Joining Keyser in the interview was Ellen Stutzman, the WGA West’s assistant executive director and chief negotiator who’s subbing for executive director David Young, who’s on medical leave; and former WGA West president David A. Goodman, who also co-chairs the guild’s negotiating committee.
DEADLINE: First off, let me ask you how David Young is doing? Can you share the general nature of his medical condition, and whether or not he’s going to be involved in the negotiations in an advisory capacity?
ELLEN STUTZMAN: Can’t really say. He’s on a medical leave and that’s all the guild is saying at this time. He’s not going to be involved in negotiations.
DEADLINE: Is the AMPTP asking for roll-backs? I ask because Adam Conover, a WGA West board member and member of the 2023 negotiating committee, says in a video posted on the guild’s website that “The AMPTP’s initial proposals always consist almost entirely of roll-backs and cuts to our compensation and other important protections and benefits.”
STUTZMAN: Right now we’re not characterizing their proposals. We’re reviewing them and then we’ll engage with them at the AMPTP next week.
DEADLINE: According to the guild’s latest annual report, before the pandemic, WGA film and TV earnings were going up and up each year. But in 2021, screenwriters and TV and digital platform writers earned more than $220 million less than they did in 2019. Do you have any data on how many members have lost their WGA health coverage during the pandemic due to this steep loss of earnings?
STUTZMAN: We haven’t really seen a loss in health coverage over the period. And that’s because it’s not a large amount of money to qualify for a year of health coverage. I think what you’re seeing in the annual report is consistent with what we’re hearing from the members and what we’re trying to address in this negotiation, which is a lot of downward pressure on compensation; a lot of attempts by the companies to have writers work shorter amounts of time and get more work done for less. So it’s the downward pressure on compensation, but not necessarily to the point below which they can’t qualify for health coverage.
DEADLINE: The bulletin the guild released today says that median weekly pay for episodic writer-producers has fallen 23% over the past decade when adjusted for inflation among several areas where “writers are falling behind” in compensation. Is it fair to assume that the 3% annual increases in minimums the guild usually get at the bargaining table isn’t going to fix this problem? And if so, what kind of overall increase in minimums is the guild asking for?
GOODMAN: We’re not going to get into the specifics of what we’re asking for, but generally, in terms of the basis of your question, all of the proposals that we’re talking about is about writer compensation across the board, which is down and which has been negatively affected by the streaming model. So the guild’s goal in this negotiations isn’t just minimums, but it’s also about making sure that writers across the board are protected in their compensation. And this effects feature writers; it effects comedy/variety writers; it effects television staff writers. From top to bottom, you have writers – including experienced showrunners who are now in the largest portion showrunners earning minimum that the guild has ever seen. Too many of our writers are earning minimum. So the broad approach that we’re taking is that writer compensation has to be addressed in this negotiation – not just minimums, but other things as well.
KEYSER: I think you’re right in assuming that 3% minimum increases that don’t even keep up with inflation are not sufficient.
DEADLINE: An earlier bulletin took issue with claims that the industry is contracting, but the recent wave of layoffs suggests that many of the companies are having a hard time meeting their profit goals.
KEYSER: Negotiation in some sense is always compromise, but we are very clear on our ultimate goal, which is that the companies cannot be earning the vast amount of money that they’ve been earning year after year after year, competing for dominance in the streaming world, while writers have an impossible time earning a living. So the idea that we need to fix the problem of writer compensation straight across the board, and the undervaluing of writers – the fact that writers are paid too little per week and for too few weeks, which means that they are never compensated adequately for the value that the companies are reaping right now – that is not negotiable.
GOODMAN: Despite the “hard times” that you’re talking about that some of these companies are having, they’re spending in aggregate $19 billion creating shows and movies that writers write. So this idea that writers have to, at this point, take a cut in pay or accept less than they deserve because some of these companies may not succeed in this new streaming model is not something that we would adhere to – the idea that yes, perhaps as the streaming model shakes out, some of these companies may not survive – but overall, these models are working; overall; the heads of these companies are saying they’re going to be in profit in this new model. And their profit goals are about profit growth; they’re all in profit. But Wall Street demands profit growth. So that isn’t the same thing, and there’s no reason why writers should accept less than they deserve for the work they create.
STUTZMAN: The companies can afford our proposals. They have done a great job, around the world, monetizing the content that writers create, to tremendous profits. And we look at the business over the long term and see that they’ve been able to do that, and while Warner Bros Discovery decided to engage in an expensive merger that cost them a lot of money, the rest of the companies are still profitable, and I’m sure that Warner Bros will be profitable this year. So we don’t fall into the trap that some temporary, tiny, itsy-bit less-good-year means writers’ issues can’t be addressed.
KEYSER: We [writers] are not on their payroll every day like their executives are. They hire us to do a given project. So if they decide to spend tens of millions of dollars or hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie or television show, they just have to find room in the budget to pay us properly. If they don’t want to make that show or that movie, they don’t need to and they won’t need to pay us. But Netflix is profitable already. Bob Iger said in February in his earnings call that Disney’s going to be profitable in 2024; Warners is expecting profitability in 2025. We don’t get to negotiate again until 2026. We’re not waiting until then. They made $30 billion on average the last five years or so. They can afford what we’re asking for.
DEADLINE: It’s called “new media,” but new media has been around for over a decade. Why has it taken so long to address the issues that have left so many writers falling behind?
GOODMAN: “Well Dave, let’s take a look at the history of streaming. When we got that coverage in 2007-08, there were no streamers. Hulu, the first one, went live the day the strike ended. Netflix was a DVD club. Streaming didn’t exist. The guild, with a lot of hard work, saw the future, and the companies knew the future, which was why they were trying to keep us from getting that coverage. But shows didn’t really start to get produced for streaming for a number of years, and then in 2014, in that negotiation, we got our minimum set for subscription video on demand. We got that in that negotiation because finally the business was changing and they were starting to produce shows for the streamers. And we also improved our streaming residuals in that negotiation. The business was changing, and as it changed, the guild fought to get protections. As recently as four years ago, only 20% of our membership was working on streaming shows. Now it’s close to 50%. So this idea that we’ve taken a long time to get the protection fights the idea that the business has been changing. And at every step of the way, the guild has been there to fight to get the coverage necessary. But we couldn’t get minimums on subscription video on demand until there was subscription video on demand. That business had to be set up and then we needed to fight for it. So that’s why. The idea that we could see every facet of how the future would play out is not possible, but we saw plenty and got our foot in the door to make sure that we could get the coverage we needed when the time came.
DEADLINE: Another WGA bulletin, which took a deep dive into the gains the guild made in its 100-day strike of 2007-08, asserted that “by winning jurisdiction over new media, the WGA set a precedent on which the entire industry could negotiate moving forward.” But doesn’t this ignore the fact that the DGA – not the WGA – was the first to reach an agreement with the AMPTP over terms for new media in a deal that was reached on Jan. 17, 2008, while the WGA was still on strike?
GOODMAN : The reason the DGA was able get new media in its contract was because the WGA was on strike. That’s the only reason the companies gave that to the DGA. That idea that the DGA was fighting for that, that the DGA would have gotten that if we hadn’t been in the middle of our strike, just fights the truth of the situation. That’s the only reason the DGA got it. And the companies preferred to give it to the DGA rather than give it to us because they were trying to punish us for going on strike. But the fact is, it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gone on strike. So it’s not ignoring it, it’s saying the truth of the situation.
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DEADLINE: Publicly criticizing the trade press seems to be a common theme when the guild bargains for a new contract. In a video that accompanied today’s bulletin, WGA West board member Eric Haywood, who’s a member of the guild’s negotiating committee, said that “stories about how the business is crumbling” in the trades ahead of negotiations “are spread by the companies in order to discourage and disempower Hollywood labor by convincing us and the public that they can’t afford to pay us for the value we create.” He claimed that the information “is rarely challenged by industry trade publications that are dependent on those companies for their revenue.” Do you really believe, as Eric suggests, that the trade press is in cahoots with the companies?
GOODMAN: Cahoots? I wouldn’t use the word “cahoots.” I agree with what Eric said in the sense that the companies’ earnings issues are never challenged, in the sense that there is a generally accepted truth, it seems, that the business is contracting and that the streaming model is not going to be profitable; that these companies’ aren’t going to figure it out; that these companies are in trouble. But that’s just not true, and yet we see it reported all the time. So it’s hard for us, around that issue, to agree with the trade press’ presentation of what we know is not a fact. So that’s where we are dubious of some of the trade press’ presentation of the state of the business.
DEADLINE: But when the WGA puts out a statement saying that it’s not as bad as the companies are saying, that gets reported.
GOODMAN: Yeah, that gets reported, but I see long articles about how these companies are in trouble – talking about the layoffs – without challenging that these companies are doing quite well. Most of them are doing very, very well. And that is never part of these articles that talk about the layoffs and the supposed contraction. That’s where we take issue. It’s not that you don’t report what we put out; it’s that in the reportage of what the companies are doing, it doesn’t seem that it’s challenged.
KEYSER: I think it’s right for us to say to our members, “The messages you’re hearing from the companies are very deliberately meant to make you fearful; to decrease your belief in your own value; that you need to take all of those things with a grain of salt.” And they should. They shouldn’t believe everything they read in the paper. Which is why we communicate with them directly. The good thing is, in this negotiation, more than any that any of us have been in before, the membership fully understands what’s at stake; what they’re fighting for; the truth about what’s being done to them by the companies; and the absolute necessity of correcting it in this negotiation.
DEADLINE: How did the last negotiation, which took place three years ago just as the pandemic was shutting down the industry, affect the leverage the guild had at the bargaining table?
STUTZMAN: As you recall, we extended our contract because of the uncertainty. We obviously recognized three years ago that the situation was pretty uncertain, and that does make it challenging for a union to think about how to exercise leverage in a pandemic where everyone was at home. I think we still did what we could and made some really good gains in that contract, including paid parental leave, and money to shore up our pension plan, which is a tremendous benefit for writers. So we made some gains, but we also recognize that there were issues that we’re talking about now that were on the bargaining table but we weren’t able to address in terms of writer pay and residuals and that sort of thing.
GOODMAN: But in terms of paid parental leave, I just want to add to what Ellen’s saying – that’s something that no other union in the country has. And so it’s a reflection still that even in a weakened position that we were in because of the circumstances of the pandemic, the companies recognized that our union has power that they need to recognize.
KEYSER: To your earlier question, it’s been six years since we’ve negotiated outside of a pandemic. It’s one of the reasons why it’s taken us awhile to deal with all the issues that surround what we call “new media.” We get to do it every three years; the companies every single day are figuring out ways to pay writers less, as it turns out. So we’re going to take advantage of our once-every-three-years opportunity.
DEADLINE: Any final thoughts ahead of the negotiations?
Goodman: I don’t think we’ve seen a union that’s more united behind an agenda – certainly I haven’t going back my 35 years in the guild – and I think that the pattern of demands vote that we got was the highest we we’ve ever gotten in support. And I think that means that the things that are on our agenda are very meaningful to our membership, and they want us to do our best to get a deal that addresses them.
KEYSER: And if anyone asks you what this negotiation is about, you can tell them, in every sector of the business, at every level – from the newest writers to ones who have been here the longest – “It’s about compensation, compensation, compensation.”
DEADLINE: On Wednesday, the guild will hold the last of five membership meeting ahead of the contract talks. What kind of feedback are you getting and what have you been telling members?
STUTZMAN: Broadly, we’ve talked about what 7,000 writers told us in a survey, and how the viability and sustainability of writing as a career is at stake here, what we’re going to do about it, and how the industry is really doing and how they can afford to pay writers what they’re worth.