Love it or hate it, Hollywood is second to none when it comes to exporting America’s pop culture, grinding out blockbuster films and television for consumers the world over.
But Tinseltown’s mighty content production machine could grind to a complete halt next month should the Writers Guild of America (WGA) authorizes a strike, and voting begins today. A successful outcome would provide the trade union with heightened leverage in ongoing wage talks, but would also escalate tensions that might trigger a potential showdown with the industry’s powerful studios.
“The survival of our profession is at stake,” the WGA wrote last week, announcing the strike ballot.
Over the past decade, the companies embraced business practices that slashed our compensation and undermined our working conditions. We are asking to restore writer pay & conditions to reflect our value to this industry. The survival of our profession is at stake. #WGAStrong 3/3
— Writers Guild of America West (@WGAWest) April 3, 2023
Neither the WGA nor the representative body for the studios, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), could be immediately reached by Fortune for comment.
What may seem like a minor labor dispute involving a relatively small number of employees could have massive repercussions for the entertainment industry. The last time WGA’s members chose to picket employers more than 15 years ago, they left studios and broadcasters devoid of entertaining scripts, derailing numerous promising films and TV series in the process.
In early November 2007, writers staged a walkout that lasted 100 days in a crippling strike that cost California $2.1 billion, according to research by the Milken Institute, an economic think tank.
This year’s labor talks revolve around a number of issues regarding the complex way writers are compensated for their creative talent. But at the heart of the negotiations is the issue of a steady wage squeeze in the new streaming age. According to a survey of WGA members, half now receive the absolute minimum rate required compared with only a third 10 years ago.
“Writers are demanding protections that address all the ways the studios have cut pay, squeezed more work into less time or onto fewer writers, and demanded more work for free,” the guild said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times.
— Writers Guild of America West (@WGAWest) April 7, 2023
Meanwhile, studios like Disney are under heavy pressure from investors to end financial hemorrhaging after years of splurging on new content in a bid to win the streaming wars and compete with industry heavyweight Netflix.
While this week’s WGA ballot only requires a simple 50%-plus-one-vote to pass, the union urged its members on both the East and West Coasts to vote in favor in numbers large enough to raise the pressure on employers ahead of May 1, the end of their 2020 contract.
“An overwhelming majority is necessary to send a strong message to the studios that the membership is united in support of the bargaining agenda,” the organization wrote.
Online voting starts at 8:30 am local time on both East and West coasts, and ends on April 17, two weeks prior to the expiration of the existing contract.
if you are in the #wga i strongly, strongly implore you to vote yes on the strike authorization. it is the only way to show the companies that we have the leverage and mean business. without this power, there is no way to get what we’re worth.
— javier grillo-marxuach (@OKBJGM) April 7, 2023
The last time tensions came to a head was six years ago
A vote in favor of picketing doesn’t necessarily mean writers will go through with a strike. A similar authorization achieved 96% support back in 2017, but the two sides managed to avert a damaging walkout at the last second.
Should the creative minds behind the camera follow through, however, the repercussions for studios already suffering from a drop in the theater-going public could be severe.
In an interview, Daniel Craig resorted to four-letter expletives when recalling his frustration after the 2007 strike left the Hollywood star stuck rewriting parts of a “bare bones” script himself in his forgettable second outing as the fictional British spy James Bond. Actor Christian Bale likewise pointed to it as partly responsible for the weak, action-heavy plot in Terminator Salvation.
Meanwhile TV shows didn’t fare better better, and truncated seasons the norm at the time. Many fans of the TV show Heroes blame the strike 15 years ago, which saw creator Tim Kring picket his own show, for the sharp drop-off in quality that doomed the hugely popular series after its first season. When the walkout finally ended, late night host David Letterman celebrated by having his beard, grown during the unwanted hiatus, shaven off on air.