WGA leaders describe ‘existential’ crisis facing writers

Less than a week before negotiations with the major studios, Writers of Guild America leaders are already pressing their case for why writers deserve better pay.

In an interview with the Times, the guild’s top negotiators argue that many WGA members are struggling with a steady erosion of income even as content has grown in the streaming era. Despite the uncertainties they face, studios can afford to pay writers more as new distribution models emerge, they say.

To bolster its claims, the union on Tuesday released a report showing average pay for writers has fallen over the past decade, a sign of how each side is framing its positions ahead of expected contentious negotiations to replace three – year contract ending May 1st.

“The financial challenges facing writers are deepening and becoming existential,” Chris Keyser, who co-chairs the negotiating committee, said in a wide-ranging interview with the Times.

The “Party of Five” and “Julia” writer was joined by co-chairman of negotiations David Goodman, former guild president and “Family Guy” writer. and the union’s chief negotiator, Ellen Stutzman, who stepped in to replace veteran leader David Young, who recently resigned to take medical leave.

A spokesman for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers declined to comment.

The interview has been condensed for clarity.

How do you feel about the upcoming negotiations?

Good man: Member support is very strong as we try to address issues that affect our members. From the company side, we can’t really predict what they will do.

What is it about this cycle that has so many people fearing a strike is coming?

Keyser: The shift to the streaming model has devalued the work of writers in a way we have never seen before and leaves us with an agenda that is central to the financial survival of writers. So we know that what is happening here matters deeply. How others respond to that is other people’s business. we’ll know in a week.

We live in a world where 50% of working writers have at least an MBA [the minimum level of pay set in the contract between writers and studios] Twenty-four percent of showrunners work at least. They work at the lowest level the contract realizes, working either too few weeks with undue pressure to produce, or too many weeks without a pay rise.

There is no ladder to success in business, no brass ring at the end. While companies are making billions of dollars, spending more and more on streaming, writers are making less and less. This is baseless. It is unsustainable.

What are your top priorities in negotiations?

Good man: Compensation is reduced across our membership — feature writers, comedy/variety writers, episodic writers, top to bottom. So our priority is to address compensation for all those people in this new model that companies have decided is the model they’re going to go with. It’s not one or two issues. This is how writers in every field of business make a living.

Studios are laying off workers and cutting costs. Does this make it harder for you to meet your salary increase goals?

Keyser: There is no doubt that they are looking for a better bottom line. They look for profits wherever they can find them. They’d like to find those profits by reducing the amount of money they pay writers, but at some point that’s not okay. There’s never a good time, right? The studios never say, “Oh, thank God you came this year, because this year we can afford it.” This never happens.

They continue to spend huge amounts of money on the stuff we write first and then make: $19 billion they plan to spend on streaming this year. So they spend a lot of money. They spend it because they know there will be many winners in the global streaming business that will make the companies fabulously rich.
There is a disconnect there and we need to end that disconnect. Authors are just as valuable as they were before the streaming model and should be paid that way.

Stutzman: We look at the industry for a very long time and see how prosperous and profitable it has been. The content created by the writers and others in this city has tremendous value. Companies have monetized it to great success worldwide and will continue to do so. It is not the authors’ responsibility to pay for the poor decision-making of companies that decide to pursue expensive mergers or take on large amounts of debt. These are short-term things that will change, and we need to negotiate a contract that will live for decades.

If you raise wages, could it mean less work for writers?

Stutzman: What we want to get out of this negotiation is to make sure that there is a future and a career for writers and that there are a sufficient number of jobs for the amount of work. That writers are kept around and given enough time to get the job done rather than crammed into as few weeks as possible, and that they are paid appropriately. We’re talking about protecting that career and the ability of writers to work.

Good man: I don’t think we could honestly predict how companies would react, but we can certainly put guardrails in place so that jobs don’t shrink and those jobs pay well.

Keyser: I have been in business for over 30 years. I’ve done shows decades ago where the company was spending a lot less, where a studio needed 100 episodes to guarantee they’d make money back, where we were all getting paid well, and much smaller budgets. Now, the budgets are much higher, they spend much more money, the risks are much lower. We are asking for more money. Is it possible for them to come back and say, “Fine, we’re not going to hire you?” I guess they could; it would be an unwise business decision. But they can do it now. No one tells them how many writers to hire, we can’t.

Can a deal be reached without leaving?

Good man: This is really up to the companies to decide. We are presenting our agenda, we are presenting what we need and we are presenting the strength of our union, which I don’t think has ever been stronger. I have been in the guild since 1988 and I don’t think there has been a time where membership has been as strong as the companies have realized this. Companies will try to get the cheapest deal possible. They will try to pay us as little as they can. And the question is, how much leverage do we have as our union to get them not to do that, to pay us the living wage? It’s up for negotiation. Again, I’ve been to five of them. And every time it’s a surprise what we end up with.

What efforts are you making to align with the other unions negotiating contracts this year?

Good man: We’ve had conversations with the (Directors Guild of America) and (SAG-AFTRA.) Their members are also experiencing compensation difficulties. Whether we will actually negotiate together is another thing, and we have not prepared for that. But it seems that for the first time in a while, at least there is open communication and some aligned interests. However, the topics we talk about are quite literary. We always hope that in the future these three unions could align and work together on this. And definitely, I feel support from them that we didn’t have before.

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