COMP NEWS – The Writers Guild of America has authorized its first major strike since 2007, leading to a major clash between writers seeking greater pay and benefits and the entertainment industry.
Entertainment writers are striking coast to coast. The clever signs they’re holding up on the picket lines (“Don’t pay us peanuts to write ‘Billions’”) are often as creative as their work.
Every three years, the Writers Guild of America, the TV and film writers’ union, negotiates a contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. It’s intended to cover issues such as minimum pay for various projects, health insurance and workplace safety. The AMPTP represents Hollywood studios such as Paramount Pictures and NBCUniversal, network television companies like ABC and Fox and, newly, streaming services like Amazon.
This year, negotiations began on March 20 and included a series of proposals touching on the changing nature of the industry, which has been transformed in recent years in large part due to the proliferation of streaming platforms. Proposals include new terms around how feature film writers get paid; how many writers can be staffed on TV shows and how long they’re to be staffed; the lack of minimums for comedy/variety shows (like late night programs) on streaming; and the regulation of AI in creating new material.
In the last decade, median weekly writer-producer pay declined 4%, or 23% after adjusting for inflation, according to the WGA. Screenwriters’ pay declined 14% in the last five years after inflation as well.
Over the years, writers say that Hollywood has stopped viewing writing as a continual job and shifted the industry towards freelance work. “Day rates” are becoming more common and work is irregular, leading writers to decry the “gig industry” unfolding that pays writers less for more work.
Hollywood is a Wild West of work contracts.
“It’s basically a freelance industry,” says Christine Becker, professor at the University of Notre Dame’s department of film, television and theatre. “You go from job to job,” and each contract can look different from writer to writer depending on their experience, for instance. Shows have different lengths and cadences, films have different budgets and so on.
Though WGA contracts guarantee minimum payments, writers’ take-home pay can be much less. Minimums are pre-tax and writers often must also pay teams that can include a lawyer, agent and manager — a group that can command a cut as high as 25%. They must account for union dues (1.5% of their pay). And they must save, since their work is notoriously precarious, and no one can ever be sure when their next paying project will arrive.
The last writer’s strike lasted over 3 months. As the nature of television has shifted towards streaming platforms, writers are pursuing residual payments for their work appearing on those platforms.
The last writers’ strike took place in 2007 and lasted 100 days. Negotiations stalled around issues like residuals for DVDs and pre-streaming versions of watching TV on the internet.
It is as yet unclear how long this particular strike will last. For his part, Iwinski is prepared to hold out for as long as it takes to guarantee the job parameters he and his fellow writers are proposing.
The fight against big studio heads might be intimidating, he says. But “we’re ready for this kind of scary.”
To read more about the WGA strike, click here.
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