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Film and TV writers are poised to strike — but they’ll probably make a deal instead

Nobody stands to benefit, even in the short term, if Hollywood shuts down.

Striking Writers Rally At Time Warner Center In New York
Writers went on strike in 2007. But a deal seems more likely this time.
Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Writers Guild of America has voted to authorize a strike, to the tune of 96 percent of the vote with the membership casting more than 6,300 votes. (That’s around 67.5 percent of guild members who were eligible to vote, which the WGA says is record-breaking turnout.) That’s a big deal. It means that if the WGA hasn’t signed a new deal with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (the group that represents studios, networks, and production companies that make film and TV) by the time the two groups’ current contract expires on May 1, a strike on May 2 is sure to follow.

Such a strike would all but shut down the film and television industries, stopping the production of many TV series and bringing late-night shows, in particular, to a complete standstill.

And May 1 isn’t that far away! There’s very little time left for the WGA and the AMPTP to agree on a new deal, and essentially any tiny misstep on either side will all but guarantee a strike.

But with that said, I don’t think a strike is terribly likely. As we’ve gotten closer the May 1 deadline, I’ve become less and less convinced it’s a real possibility. And others I’ve talked to both in the industry and outside of it (including other journalists) don’t seem particularly concerned either.

Could a strike happen? Absolutely. As I said above, any misstep — and there are a lot of things that could go wrong, which I’ll get to in a second — would essentially guarantee a strike. But at the same time, nobody in the entertainment industry is behaving as if a strike is anything other than a remote possibility. And that’s a marked difference from 2007, when the last strike was called.

The main reasons for a WGA strike involve TV production and health care

People on both sides of the WGA/AMPTP debate agree that the two organizations were very close to a deal a few months ago, until something blew up that deal. The WGA governing board has admitted as much to the union’s membership in meetings explaining why the WGA was asking them to authorize a strike.

The two most persistent explanations are that the talks broke down over either finding a way to pay TV writers more for work they do on shows with smaller episode orders (10 or fewer per season) or getting the AMPTP to contribute more to the guild’s health care fund. (Here’s a breakdown of the health care aspect of the potential strike from Vox’s Dylan Scott.) These two ideas have also come up in the arguments in favor of a strike released publicly by the WGA.

The most common read of the WGA’s strike authorization vote is that such a vote is the best bargaining chip the guild has when it comes to negotiating with the AMPTP. With lots of the writers voting to walk off their jobs, the increasingly lucrative — but still incredibly fragile — TV production cycle would grind to a halt, causing a ripple effect throughout the industry.

A big vote in favor of a strike was the best way for the WGA to get the AMPTP to make a deal favorable to the WGA. A lackluster vote in favor of a strike would likely have forced the WGA to take a less favorable deal.

Since the vote came down so lopsided in favor of a strike — and since a potential strike was so firmly backed by so much of the WGA’s eligible membership — it would seem the guild has exactly the result it wants as it prepares to resume negotiations with the AMPTP. Indeed, the AMPTP responded to the vote with a statement that essentially boiled down to “Nobody wants a strike,” instead of rattling sabers.

Why I don’t think a strike will happen

The world we’ve come to think of as the world of “peak TV,” where over 400 scripted TV shows aired in primetime last year, on dozens of different networks, is one that often stays just barely ahead of production.

TV shows on broadcast networks have always danced only slightly ahead of falling behind schedule, and it’s not uncommon for final cuts of those broadcast shows to sometimes be delivered to the network shortly before air. But the vast, gaping maw that is the need for more streaming content has expanded this delicate ecosystem throughout the industry. A strike would stop everything cold.

In essence, there’s just too much money at stake for the producers for a strike to proceed.

In 2007, the producers were genuinely fighting to keep writers from getting a share of the potentially lucrative streaming pie, and reality TV (which doesn’t require writers) was still filling holes all over TV schedules, so the strike proceeded apace.

But in 2017, because of the “peak TV” situation described above and the corresponding demand for scripted content, the writers hold a stronger hand when it comes to walking off the job. Bringing everything crashing down around the industry’s ears could pop the peak TV bubble a few years early.

What’s telling is that the producers aren’t really acting as if they think a strike is imminent. We’re not seeing dozens of reality shows ramping up production. We’re not seeing completed movie and TV scripts being bought up left and right. AMPTP’s board has barely issued its own statements on the strike, in comparison to the writers, who released an entire dossier. We’re not even seeing a major rush in the production chain to get more TV episodes finished before May 1. The AMPTP is largely acting as if it expects no interruption in production schedules.

A strike, then, would definitely suspend and potentially demolish a lucrative financial pipeline. Nobody is behaving as if one is about to break out. And the earliest reports on a potential strike suggested a deal had nearly been closed until talks broke down. My best guess is that there will be a deal, and the hefty vote in favor of a strike means it will be more favorable to the WGA than not.

Here’s how a strike could still happen

Of course, there are stress points where something could go wrong, and, again, something going wrong would make a strike much more likely. There’s so little time to iron out differences that if a single party stands its ground, the two sides might not reach a deal before the clock runs out.

The most obvious scenario that could trigger a strike would see one of the more financially successful producers in the AMPTP (the name usually bandied about in Los Angeles is Disney, which has Marvel and Star Wars movies to buoy its bottom line) decide to take a hard line with the WGA.

The studios, networks, and production companies more likely to be adversely impacted by a strike (like the perpetually in turmoil Paramount or any one of the streaming services, who need as much content as possible coming in as quickly as possible) will likely want to close a deal quickly, this line of argument goes, but a big fish like Disney could sway thinking enough to push back.

Then again, Disney owns ABC, among other TV networks. Even though its stake in the film world is larger than most, it certainly has a stake in the TV world, which would be hardest hit by a strike. I could see Disney — or a company of similar stature — showboating here and there, but probably not enough to break down the talks entirely.

Still, the strike authorization vote happened so close to the May 1 expiration of the WGA and AMPTP’s existing deal that anything could happen. The odds remain against a strike, but talks are down to the wire, and something could easily go wrong. And in that case, the situation could blow up in everyone’s face.

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