Janae Pierre: Hey, everyone. I'm Janae Pierre, in for Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. It's good to have you with us. Have you watched anything good lately?
Speaker 2: They really aren't.
Speaker 3: Thank you very much [unintelligible 00:00:15]
Speaker 4: Aren't you two forgetting something?
Speaker 5: [unintelligible 00:00:18]
Janae Pierre: Hollywood and the writers that make movies and TV shows possible are in the middle of a labor battle, which could bring Hollywood to a halt for the first time in 15 years.
Speaker 6: I am voting yes.
Speaker 7: I'm voting yes.
Speaker 8: I'm voting yes.
Speaker 9: Writing should be a career that everyone can follow, especially writers of color.
Speaker 10: We have the power to protect our economic security.
Speaker 11: Because lower and mid-level writers deserve to be able to earn a living in this career.
Janae Pierre: On Monday, members in the Writers Guild of America Union cast their last ballots to authorize a strike. The writers' union is currently in negotiations with Hollywood studios. The current contract ends on May 1st, which is when the strike would begin if both sides don't reach an agreement.
At the core of this strike is the rise of streaming content and platforms, with writers feeling left behind with shorter seasons, longer production times, and smaller residual checks. To talk more about this is Brent Lang, the executive editor at Variety. Brent, thanks for joining us today.
Brent Lang: Thanks for having me, Janae.
Janae Pierre: Looking back at the strike in 2007, how have conditions in the entertainment industry changed for writers since that stalemate?
Brent Lang: If you look back in 2007, the entertainment industry as it existed then is almost unrecognizable from the one that exists today. The rise of streaming has completely disrupted the economic ecosystem of Hollywood. I think when you look at this strike authorization vote, where 97.9% of writers voted to authorize a strike, a record high, what you are seeing is that financial insecurity being manifested. A lot of that just has to do with the way that people are now compensated for the content that they create.
In the old days, movies were shown on the big screen in cinemas. Television shows were broadcast on cable or broadcast television. Today, so many of them are now accessed via Netflix, or Apple TV+, or Amazon, or HBO Max. That's really scrambled the way that these writers are compensated, and they're responding in kind.
Janae Pierre: Absolutely. What are some of the demands being made by the Writers Guild of America right now?
Brent Lang: Some of them are what you would expect, an increase in what they call minimums so they're more in line with inflation and rising costs. There are also some issues about what they call residuals, which is the money that they make for shows that are restreamed on different platforms. Every time a program like Friends or a movie like, I don't even know, Avatar gets licensed by Netflix or Amazon or another streaming service, that usually means a check for the writers.
What the writers are saying is that the compensation they're receiving for the content when it goes to a streaming service is not equal to the compensation they used to get when it was licensed to be broadcast on something like TNT and TBS, and then later something like HBO and Showtime. They're looking for that to become more equitable. Then the other issue that seems to be really dividing the writers and the producers or the companies that license this content, are so-called mini writing rooms.
What these are is they're smaller rooms and they're often done before a show is even green-lit, so that you don't just write a pilot. You actually write a number of episodes, so you have more of a proof of concept. What these writers are saying is they're not getting paid as much for these mini rooms as they are for the standard writing rooms. They would like those processes to be more in line.
Janae Pierre: On the other side of negotiations, what has the Alliance of Motion Picture and television producers said in response to the WGA's demands?
Brent Lang: I think what they're arguing is these demands couldn't come at a worse time. They may have a point because if you look at the media landscape right now, it's under a lot of pressure. These companies have made a big expensive bet on launching their own in-house streaming services as a challenge to Netflix. You have things like Paramount Plus and HBO Max and Disney Plus, all of which have come to market in the last few years. What happened is, in order to launch these, these companies made an enormous investment in terms of producing content that was exclusive to these streaming services, and taking back content that they were licensing to other outside services, which has put pressure on their finances.
In doing so, they've amassed a lot of debt. Now, what's happened is Wall Street has started to change its measurement for success. A few years ago, what it was looking for was subscriber growth, and that's how investors rewarded companies. In recent years, starting in 2022, when Netflix missed its subscriber content, the focus has changed a little bit. It's now much more on things like profitability. What you've seen is these companies are in a mad scramble to mop up all this red ink that they've spilled trying to launch these streaming services, so they don't have the financial wherewithal that they did just a few years ago.
Janae Pierre: Brent, I want to look back at that strike that happened back in '07 again. I'm wondering, how did that impact TV and movies and what could we see this year if a strike does happen?
Brent Lang: I think if you look back at that strike, what you see is people were responding to a different set of pressures, but not ones that were totally unlike what's happening today. The industry was changing. You had seen the rise of some internet programming, things like YouTube. Netflix had not quite gone into streaming yet, but it had scrambled the home entertainment market a little bit with its delivery by mail DVDs. Writers were trying to figure out a way to be compensated in that new landscape. Not unlike what's happening today.
They were successful in some part. What happened is because the strike dragged on for 100 days, there was an enormous cost to the industry, I think as much as $2 billion in lost earnings and wages and economic activity. What you also saw was a real emphasis on reality programming because that kind of programming is not covered by the WGA contract. A lot of these companies, in order to guard against a similar situation, invested much more heavily in reality programming.
Janae Pierre: All right. Quick break here. We're talking with Brent Lang from Variety here on The Takeaway. Okay. We're back with Brent Lang, executive editor at Variety, and we're talking about the potential upcoming WGA writers' strike. What does a strike look like in Hollywood today?
Brent Lang: Well, I think the first thing that you'll see is a lot of the late-night programming will possibly go off the air, things like Colbert and Kimmel and Fallon because their monologues have to be written by somebody. Saturday Night Live, they still have a few more episodes left. They may have a shorter season. A lot of the programs have written the scripts up to their finale. It may be a little bit of a delayed reaction, but eventually, episodes won't be produced. Movies may have trouble getting produced because you need script doctors on sets and you need people on sets to punch up dialogue in these big blockbusters.
What may end up happening is there's more reality programming, there's more animated programming and movies being made because that's not covered by the WGA contract, and there might be more foreign programming. One thing that's really interesting is that, unlike in 2007, people have become much more interested in foreign content. Look at something like Squid Game or Lupin, or Call My Agent. These are pretty big hit shows and they're not impacted by the WGA contract.
Janae Pierre: Are there any notable shows or writers that have spoken out about the potential strike?
Brent Lang: You have seen a lot of support from different writers. The writers behind Yellow Jackets, for example, have been very pro-strike. I think you'll probably see even more people come out publicly in support of strike authorization. You'll probably also see actors and directors also for the movement. I think that there's a lot of people in the creative community who feel that the writers have legitimate grievances, that they have been left out of the streaming revolution and they haven't been able to participate in the profits being made.
Janae Pierre: Streaming platforms are definitely more pervasive than they were five years ago, but they also aren't completely brand new. Why has it taken so long to address the issues the WGA is now raising?
Brent Lang: I think that you're right, streaming platforms are not brand new, but what is brand new is the sheer tonnage of streaming platforms. Really, if you look at the new entries, entrants into the space, they've launched since 2020, so they're only about three years new. I think what people are also feeling right now is there's a constriction. There was a real content boom while these services were being launched. What's happening right now is the industry is in a period of retraction. There's a lot of layoffs and there's a lot of cost-cutting. Writers are looking at this and thinking, "Well, the next few years are going to be a lot harder than the ones that preceded them."
Janae Pierre: You're talking about a period of retraction, and I'm wondering, three years ago when we were in the height of the pandemic, how has the pandemic and the uncertainty of Hollywood during the lockdown affected writers?
Brent Lang: Well, I think the pandemic impacted everybody, not just writers, in a sense. I think that if you look at what's happened across the country, really, across the world, people are feeling emboldened. There's been a lot more labor unrest, labor strikes in many different industries because I think people are feeling like, "You know what? I just went through a really hellish period and I'm going to demand things from my employer, and I'm going to expect a different quality of life and different things from my work life." I think that that's what you're seeing in a lot of different sectors right now.
Janae Pierre: Brent, what do you think is the likelihood of the strike actually happening?
Brent Lang: It's hard to predict these things. If you look at both sides, there are reasons why they need to portray themselves as being on the brink of a strike, and that they're very far apart, and often deals are made at the 11th hour, that's said, looking at this vote authorization, looking at what's happened in other industries, I think a strike is more likely than not.
Janae Pierre: What leverage would a strike give the writers?
Brent Lang: Well, it's a tremendous amount of leverage because at some point, all of these streaming services and content companies need movies and shows to get audiences to subscribe to their channels, to pay for movie tickets, to watch programs that have advertising attached to them. If there's no content being produced, it's a very different industry.
Janae Pierre: Brent Lang is the Executive Editor at Variety. Brent, thanks so much for joining us on The Takeaway.
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