Hollywood is getting worried. In agents’ offices, on film sets and in cafés where all those who work in the heart of the film and entertainment industry meet, the question is on everyone’s lips: what if, on May 1, everything stops? What if, in one fell swoop, the entire sector is out of work?
The industry is anxiously following the latest news from the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the very powerful single union that represents the country’s 11,000 or so screenwriters. At stake are negotiations for a new three-year agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents about 300 producers and the major studios (Paramount, Sony, Disney, Warner, as well as Amazon, Netflix and Apple ).
The previous deal between the two parties, signed in 2020, expires on May 1. The writers of film and series scripts, and of late show sketches, those ultra-popular television shows, are threatening to lay down their thoughts if their demands are not heard. On April 17, 98% of its members voted in favor of a strike in the increasingly likely event that negotiations fail. They are demanding an increase in the minimum wage, stricter regarding regulations rewrites and corrections, often done for free, and better redistribution of the rights that result from their work.
The system has little changed over more than half a century for writers. In addition to the screenwriters’ salaries, there are royalties for each television re-run.
But Hollywood has changed. In recent years, streaming platforms (Amazon, Netflix, Disney+, Hulu) have become behemoths. Yet they don’t disclose their viewing figures and current agreements return very low royalties. In February, variety magazine presented the case of Timothy Dowling as an example. Co-writer of the romantic comedy Just Go With It, starring Adam Sandler (2011), he was pleasantly surprised in January 2022 to see the film climb to the second most watched content on Netflix. A success he didn’t see reflected when he received his royalty check a few weeks later. “Clearly, Netflix paid money for this,” he said in surprise. “But is that money trickling down to the writer?”
For years, these royalties, called residuals and established in 1953 during an agreement between the WGA and the studios concerning the reruns of episodes from series, were the financial cushion that enabled writers to cope with the insecurity that is inherent in the profession and get through periods without work.
But this has become a thing of the past. “The companies have used the transition to streaming to cut writer pay […] worsening working conditions for series writers at all levels,” the WGA said in a statement in late March. “While series budgets have soared over the past decade, median writer-producer pay has fallen.”
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