Veteran Hollywood writer William Lucas Walker broke down the differences between the WGA writers strike of 2007 and the ongoing battle writers are now facing with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, pointing to streaming services and their reluctancy to bring forth a fair deal.
Walker, a writer known for his work on “Frasier,” Roseanne” and “Will & Grace”, said the onus lies on Netflix and others.
“[Networks and streamers] are probably not happy with each other because the networks want to get back to work, but they can’t until the streamers to do their thing,” Walker said. “The streamers are the ones who have the most egregious things to address and they don’t want to.”
It’s been nearly three weeks since the 2023 WGA writers strike began on May 2, which came as a result of the WGA and the AMPTP’s failure to agree on a new basic contract during their negotiations — an event that occurs every three years. The strike is now the largest interruption in American television and film production since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and the biggest stoppage since the 2007-08 strike, which lasted 100 days. Walker believes this one could be longer.
“I think it’s going to be three or four months, I really do,” Walker told TheWrap while joining his fellow writers who were striking in front of Paramount. “I think the issues this time are so much more complex. The networks are already giving us a lot of what we want, the streamers aren’t. With networks we get good residuals, so you get a lot of episodes per season. Those are a lot of the things I think people who are writers in streaming want.”
The biggest issue is residuals and how much lower the royalty check amount is for writers who work on streamed shows in comparison to broadcast series that air reruns through cable television or syndication given the working conditions writers undergo.
“Over the past decade, while our employers have increased their profits by 10s of billions, they have embraced business practices that have slashed our compensation and residuals and undermined our working conditions,” the WGA said in a memo sent to members back in April of this year. “The survival of writing as a profession is at stake in this negotiation.”
The most recent update was a 46% percent bump in residuals that went into effect in 2020. However, some writers have yet to see the increase in compensation in their checks. A one-hour episode of an Amazon or Netflix series would earn a writer $72,000 in residuals over a span of three years, and would eventually increase to $114,000 over a seven-year time frame.
“The WGA’s proposal on foreign streaming residuals represents a 200% increase over
current rates and treats foreign subscribers the same as domestic subscribers,” the AMPTP wrote in a May 4 statement to media. “However, subscription fees vary from country to country, and in many countries, the subscription fee is substantially less than it is in the U.S. Nevertheless, the companies have recognized the importance of foreign streaming and have offered to increase the residual. These improvements apply to all types of streaming programs, including all feature-length streaming programs.
Per the WGA’s latest annual report, which was released in June for the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2022, the residuals the WGA collected increased by 5.4% from last year to an “all-time high” of $493.6 million. Total television residuals increased by 4.7% with screen increased 6.9%. The largest residual category overall, new media, accounted for almost half of the total residuals collected at 45.2%.
And streamed shows usually yielding fewer episodes, with the average series producing eight to 13 episodes compared to what has traditionally been between 16 to 22 episodes for broadcast TV, doesn’t help the matter either.
“The industry has changed so much since , and streaming has changed, it’s really turning into a gig,” Walker said. “I wrote for a bunch of sitcoms in the ’90s, like ‘Roseanne, ‘‘Frasier’ and ‘Will and Grace,’ and I was able to buy a house three years after I joined the [Writers Guild]. I still live there. Writers today can’t even begin to think about that.”
How streaming has transformed writers’ careers into gig-like workshops, and the emergence of the so-called “mini rooms,” is another pressing issue for writers. Mini-writers rooms usually include as few as two to three writers, and in them the group writes and develops an entire season of a show or a series pilot with no certainty that they will be brought on for the production process or that the show will even be greenlit.
Walker said he’s spoken to writers who fear the mini-room model is crippling the career growth and living wage for writers.
“[A writer] said, ‘Yeah, I started out on a Nickelodeon multicam that had 22 episodes,” Walker explained. “He thought that’s what it was going to be like and said all he’s been able to get since then have been mini rooms that last like six to eight weeks. He said he just did a mini-room right before the strike that was two weeks and they told him they’d give him a script and they offered him $2,000 for it.”
Walker continued: “[Writers] are constantly stressed about where their next job is coming from. When you’re on the standard network show, like I was, you were employed for a year, and they can pick up or not pick up your ops at the end of the year, but you certainly had enough money, and with the residuals that were coming in…I mean, I still get residual checks from episodes I wrote 25 years ago. [Writers today] don’t have that. It’s it’s a whole different ballgame.”
In a statement distributed to media on May 4, the AMPTP said the WGA’s claims that writers’ jobs have turned into a “gig economy” aren’t accurate.
“Employment as a writer has almost nothing in common with standard ‘gigs’ jobs,” the AMPTP wrote. “For one thing, most television writers are employed on a weekly or episodic basis, with a guarantee of a specified number of weeks or episodes. It’s not uncommon for writers to be guaranteed ‘all episodes produced.’ Plus, writing jobs come with substantial fringe benefits that are far superior to what many full-time employees receive for working an entire year, including employer-paid health care, employer-paid contributions into a pension plan and eligibility for a paid parental leave program.”
The 2007 WGA writers strike was over the guild and the AMPTP reaching an impasse during negotiations for a Minimum Basic Agreement. Key issues in the strike were related to a disagreement on DVD residuals, union control over animation and reality programs and compensation for “new media,” content that was written for or distributed through digital technology like the internet.
“In 2007, we were striking for the future of the internet,” Walker said. “Nobody knew what that was but we recognized that it was it was looming enough that we should get protections — and we did. Now the internet has become streaming, and it’s a mammoth. It’s what everything is now. It’s changed everything for everybody.”
And that “everybody” includes actors, producers, directors, who all get a financial piece of the streaming pie. Members of SAG-AFTRA, the DGA and the PGA have joined the WGA at the picket lines, signaling what could be the rise of an all-around strike of unions.
“If the DGA, or the actors strike, the whole industry will shut down like overnight, and I think there will be a quick resolution because they can’t film without them,” Walker said. “There’s a lot more actors this time that are joining us. Drew Barrymore the other day said she’s not going to host the [MTV & TV Awards] show because she’s in solidarity. There wasn’t as much of that in the last stretch, and I think because it’s an existential problem for all of us, for every union, and for different reasons, we all have different concerns.”