WGA guides describe “existential” crises that writers face

With less than a week to go before negotiations with major studios begin, Writers of Guild America leaders are already taking a stand on why writers deserve better pay.

In an interview with The Times, the guild’s chief negotiators argue that many WGA members are struggling with a steady decline in income despite the surge in content in the streaming age. Despite the uncertainties they face, studios can afford to pay writers more as new distribution models emerge, they say.

To back up its claims, the guild released a report on Tuesday showing that average salaries for writers have fallen over the past decade, a sign of how each side is charting its positions ahead of what are expected to be contentious negotiations to replace a Three -Annual contract expiring on May 1st.

“The economic challenges writers face are deepening and becoming existential,” Chris Keyser, co-chair of the negotiation committee, said in a wide-ranging interview with The Times.

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

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

The interview has been shortened for clarity.

How do you see the upcoming negotiations?

Good man: Member support is very strong as we try to address issues affecting our members. On the corporate side, we can’t really predict what they’re going to do.

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

Keyser: The transition to the streaming model has devalued authors’ work in ways we’ve never seen before, leaving us with an agenda central to authors’ economic survival. So we know what’s going on here is of great importance. How others react to it is up to them; we’ll know in a week.

We live in a world where 50% of writers have at least an MBA degree [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 contractually agreed level, they either work too few weeks with an unreasonable pressure to perform, or too many weeks without their salaries increasing.

There is no ladder of success in business, there is no brass ring at the end. As companies make billions of dollars and spend more and more on streaming, writers are making less and less. This is unbearable. It’s not sustainable.

What are your top priorities in the negotiations?

Good man: Compensation has fallen across the board in all sectors of our membership – feature writers, comedy/variety writers, episodic television writers, top to bottom. So our priority is to address the compensation of all these people in this new model that companies have decided is going to be the model they are going to pursue. It’s not one or two problems. This is how writers in all industries make their living.

Studios are laying off staff and cutting spending. Does that make it harder for you to meet your salary increase goals?

Keyser: There is no question that they are looking for a better bottom line. They look for profits wherever they can find them. They would love to make those profits by reducing the amount of money they pay authors, but eventually that’s not okay. There’s never a good time, is there? Studios never say, “Oh, thank God you came this year because this year we can afford it.” That never happens.

They continue to spend enormous amounts of money on the stuff that we write first and then they make: $19 billion that they plan to spend on streaming this year. So you spend a lot of money. They’re spending it because they know there’s going to be a slew of winners in the global streaming business, making companies fabulously rich.
There is an interruption and we must end this interruption. Authors are just as valuable as they were before the streaming model and need to be paid as well.

Stutzmann: We look at the industry over a very long period of time and see how successful and profitable it has been. The content that writers and others create in this city has tremendous value. Businesses have monetized it worldwide with great success and will continue to do so. It is not the authors’ business to pay for the poor decision-making of companies that choose to undertake expensive mergers or take on large debts. These are short-term things that will change and we need to negotiate a contract that will last for decades.

Could it mean less work for writers if you raise salaries?

Stutzmann: What we want to get out of these negotiations is to ensure that there is a future and a career for writers and that there is a sufficient number of jobs for the amount of work. That writers are kept around and given sufficient time to get the job done rather than crammed into as few weeks as possible, and that they’re paid appropriately. We are concerned with protecting this career and the ability of authors to work.

Good man: I don’t think we can honestly predict how companies will react, but we can certainly set guidelines to ensure that the number of jobs does not shrink and that these jobs are well paid.

Keyser: I have been in business for over 30 years. I did shows decades ago where the company spent a lot less, where it took a studio 100 episodes to make sure they got their money back, where we were all paid fairly and had much smaller budgets. Now the budgets are a lot bigger, they spend a lot more money, the risks are a lot lower. We ask for more money. Is it possible for them to reply to us and say, “Well, we’re not hiring you?” I guess they could; it would be an irrational business decision. But now they can. Nobody tells them how many writers to hire, we can’t.

Can a deal be struck without a strike?

Good man: The companies really have to decide that. We present our agenda, we present what we need, and we present the strength of our union, which I believe has never been stronger. I’ve been in the guild since 1988 and I don’t think there’s been a time when membership has felt so strong and companies have understood that. Companies will try to get the cheapest offer. They will try to pay us as little as possible. And the question is, how much leverage do we have as a union to stop them from paying us our living wage? It comes out in the negotiation. And again, I’ve been to five of them. And every time it’s a surprise where we end up.

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

Good man: We have had discussions with the (Directors Guild of America) and (SAG-AFTRA). Its members are also facing difficulties with compensation. Whether we actually negotiate with each other is another matter and we are not prepared for that. But it seems that for the first time in a while there is at least open communication and some matching interests. However, the issues we are talking about are fairly writer-centric. We always hope that these three unions can join forces and work together in the future. And certainly I feel support from them that we didn’t have before.

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