The last time the Writers Guild of America went on strike was 1988. The strike lasted more than 5 months and paralyzed Hollywood, forcing TV networks to pack schedules with unscripted news shows and pushing film studios to release films three to six months later than expected. In 2001, the Guild threatened to strike again over upcoming contract negotiations, but the work stoppage was narrowly avoided. Now, with contracts once again up for renewal, Hollywood is whispering the “s”-word, and it’s got some people nervous.
But what are the chances of a strike, and what would it mean to you, the lazy viewer in search of easy entertainment?
A “sneak preview” of sorts occurred last fall when a dozen writers for the CW series “America’s Next Top Model” went on strike demanding union representation. To most Americans, it was a shock to find out that their favorite “reality series” did, in fact, employ scriptwriters. (They called themselves “reality storytellers.”) More than 400 writers rallied in a Los Angeles park on Sept. 20 at the behest of the Writers Guild of America West to show their solidarity.
That mini-strike pointed to one of several major gaps still plaguing the Writers Guild contracts. One of the reasons renegotiations happen so often is that the entertainment industry changes so rapidly. Eight years ago, who could have imagined the explosion in reality television and the sudden need for writers to script these types of shows?
One of the other big issues on the table for writers, directors and actors (whose unions usually follow suit with a solidarity strike) is control over the creative content in the new realm of digitally downloaded product. A decade ago, writers and producers had to go to the mat over profit-sharing regarding those newfangled DVDs. Now, the digital genie is out of the bottle, and contract negotiators must wrangle with video iPods, Internet downloads, digital satellites, on-demand cable broadcasting and a dozen other methods of disseminating product that didn’t exist a few years back. Like DVDs, videotapes and television before them, these are likely to be very profitable in the coming years. And the writers are ready to ensure their fair share.
According to the WGA, negotiations between film and TV studios and the WGA should start sometime around June. At the end of the day, producers know they’re going to have to cough up a percentage of the profits from reality shows, digital downloads and the like. Odds are fairly high that some sort of compromise will be worked out before the picket signs are painted.
But what if a strike does occur? Film studios have stockpiled product and lined up release dates through the end of the year, so moviegoers aren’t likely to feel much of an effect until well into 2008. TV is another story. Right now, Hollywood is in the thick of “upfront season,” during which all the potential pilots for the upcoming fall season are written, cast and filmed. Network execs have put production teams on double time, ensuring enough product is shot in the next couple of months to launch the new season in Sept./Oct. even if a strike does materialize. ... And if that doesn’t work, there’s always plenty of “Deal or No Deal” to go around.