What to Expect from a Writer’s Strike

The members of the WGA (Writers Guild of America) voted to authorize a strike on April 25, 2017. The vote was a nearly unanimous 96.3 percent yes. The WGA contract ends on May 1st, 2017. A writer’s strike could begin as early as the next day.

Authorizing a writer’s strike does not guarantee there will be a strike. It is only one step in a complicated process. The WGA and the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) will sit back down to negotiate soon. A strong vote for authorization could give the WGA added leverage at the bargaining table. For a more detailed look at how this potential strike has developed follow this link.

In the history of the WGA, there have only been a handful of strikes, some lasting only weeks. Let’s briefly look at the two most recent strikes and examine their effect on writers.

2007-2008

Lasting 100 days, the last writer’s strike shortened the seasons of many scripted televisions shows, brought most of late night television to a standstill and increased the number of reality shows on the air. It also succeeded in bringing streaming services and other new media under the WGA prevue. That market brings significant revenue to hundreds of writers each year.

That strike had wide-ranging effects, many writers lost income, some were fired, a few crossed picket lines and did damage to their careers. For those reasons, longtime guild members are anxious to avoid a new strike. The effects can be personally devastating.

1988

The writer’s strike of 1988 lasted 153 days, the longest in the guild’s history. This strike delayed the fall television season (TV at the time was structured around a uniform fall to spring 22 week season), some shows were canceled due to the strike, and a portion of the public actually stopped watching television. The primary issue at hand was new media – at that time video – and that continues to be a major area of conflict.

Because it was such a long strike, it’s credited with sparking what some refer to as the golden age of spec scripts lasting into the early ’90s. With time on their hands, writers did what writers do, they wrote. When the strike ended, studios were hungry for material they could quickly put into production and were open to the idea of already completed scripts.

Image from 123rf.

What’s at Stake?

It’s mainly about compensation for television writing. Like any market, television is in a constant state of change. There is no longer one 22-week season that all shows follow. Shows pop up at all times of the year, seasons are shorter 8-13 episodes, and there can sometimes be more than a year between seasons. What that means is that writers are writing, and being paid for, 13 episodes in the time it once took to write 22. They’re spending more time on each script, which is great for quality, but they’re not being paid any more for that extra time. And, they’re typically signed to exclusive agreements and aren’t able to work during the down times, meaning there’s no way to make up for lost revenue.

What Would a Strike Mean To New Screenwriters?

Hard to say. It’s easier to figure out what it doesn’t mean to new screenwriters than what it does. It doesn’t mean that TV companies and film studios will start reaching out to non-union writers for scripts. Most of the 350 members of the AMPTP will shut down production during a strike. If they have completed scripts they will shoot them. Otherwise, they will wait until the strike ends.

If you are offered a position as a scab writer, you would be foolish to take it since the union could and probably would deny you entry when the strike ends and then no signatory would be able to work with you. A producer might promise to smooth things over for you but it’s a promise with no teeth since the eventual agreement will likely address scabs and no producer will be able to override it.

Should you be offered a writing assignment during the strike and you’re told the company is not signatory, you need to explore the situation fully before accepting. If you have any questions about who is and who is not a signatory click here. Should you have any other questions about working during a WGA strike, you should contact the guild directly (wga.org).

Should the strike continue for an extended time, you would be wise to focus on spec scripts—which should be any new screenwriter’s your focus anyway. It’s possible there will be a resurgence in the spec script market when studios begin to buy again. Yes, they’re most likely to purchase specs from established writers, but an active spec market—particularly if it lasts several years as it did in 1988—is always good for new writers, as well.

So, what should you do if there’s a writer’s strike? Well, like many other questions in a writer’s life, the answer is… write.

 

 

Wayne