Hollywood writers continue picketing as directors guild labor talks begin
LOS ANGELES - With unionized writers already striking in search of improved wages and workplace protections, the Directors Guild of America Wednesday began its labor talks with Hollywood studios, with many of the same issues on the table.
The Writers Guild of America strike began last week, bringing some productions to a halt, most notably late-night talk shows and variety programming such as "Saturday Night Live." There was no word of any progress in negotiations between the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios.
In the shadow of that walkout, the DGA began its talks with AMPTP Wednesday.
"With the collective strength and unity of the full DGA membership, we are committed to winning a strong contract that sets a new path forward for our industry," members of the DGA negotiating team wrote in a message to the union's membership posted on its website.
According to the negotiators, the DGA contract priorities include wages addressing inflation, structural changes "to streaming residual formulas that account for the global growth of the audience," protecting DGA jurisdiction over foreign productions released domestically and improving safety on set by "expanding and encouraging training and addressing long workdays."
The DGA and AMPTP issued a joint statement saying they met Wednesday "to begin formal negotiations for the 2023 Agreement. The DGA and AMPTP also agreed that neither organization will comment to the media. The DGA's current contract with the AMPTP expires on June 30, 2023."
Streaming residuals are also one of the focal points of the Writers Guild's negotiating team, with the union pushing for an overhaul of the formula to include higher compensation for more popular programs.
The WGA strike, which began May 2, has been having an impact in Hollywood. On Sunday, the "MTV Movie & TV Awards" live ceremony was scrubbed in favor of a pre-taped event due to celebrities unwilling to cross WGA picket lines.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Vice President Kamala Harris had backed out of her planned appearance at an MTV mental health awareness event in Carson on May 18 to avoid conflict with the WGA strike.
Harris was set to appear alongside a surprise celebrity guest and young leaders at a Cal State Dominguez Hills town hall to raise awareness of Mental Health Action Day, according to The Times.
Sources familiar with Harris' plans told The Times they hope the event will be rescheduled.
Her decision came one day after President Joe Biden expressed support for striking writers, his first comments about the work stoppage.
"I sincerely hope the strike gets resolved, and writers are given a fair deal as soon as possible," Biden said Monday at a White House screening of "American Born Chinese" in celebration of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
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"This is an iconic, meaningful American industry and we need the writers -- and all the workers -- to tell the stories of our nation, and the stories of all of us."
WGA negotiators said no new talks are scheduled with the AMPTP, and none are expected in the coming days with some observers saying the strike could last for months.
Meanwhile, yet another studio executive insisted the walkout will not have a major impact on operations or viewers.
Speaking in an earnings conference call Tuesday, Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch said the network's emphasis on news and sports puts it in a good position to navigate the walkout.
"I think for us, we are well-positioned, and we think that with our strategic priorities and strategy in sports, but also in news, those are two areas that are not affected by the writers' strike and the audience will pivot when watching television to those categories," Murdoch said.
He also noted that Fox programs only two hours of entertainment nightly, and it is a mixture of scripted and unscripted content.
"We feel very well-positioned there," he said, adding that the network will not "be affected by the writers' strike really at all."
"There will be some scheduling changes with some of the scripted content but it's not something that will have a significant financial impact on us," he said.
His comments echo those made by several other studio executives, who have all contended they have sufficient material already "in the can" to keep programming going.
The WGA has shot back at such contentions, saying studios do not have an endless well of content on which to draw.
In a letter sent to union members Monday, WGA West President Meredith Stiehm said the strike is having a definite impact.
"You are being seen and heard, and supported," Stiehm wrote. "We've had massive national and international news coverage. ... Our picket lines have already shut down location shoots in N.Y. and L.A.; the late night shows went dark on Tuesday; and the `MTV Movie & TV Awards' live show was canceled because of our action. All in only four days on strike."
Stiehm also noted support the WGA is receiving from other unions and labor groups
"This action is about more than just our struggles as writers," Stiehm wrote. "It's about workers and labor across our country. We have historic solidarity from our sister unions, because they are feeling starved out too. They see their struggle in our struggle. Corporate dominance is trying to drive us to the margins, toward a gig economy -- and this union will not allow that. So go out there and fight, all week long -- and know that we are all in this together."
Local picketing has been conducted at Amazon Studio in Culver City, CBS' Studio City lot, Television City, The Walt Disney Co.'s corporate headquarters in Burbank, the Fox Studios lot, Netflix's Hollywood headquarters, Paramount Studios in Hollywood, Sony Studios in Culver City, Universal Studios and Warner Bros. in Burbank.
The last WGA strike lasted from November 2007 until February 2008. Various estimates from different organizations estimated that the 100-day strike cost the local economy between $2 billion and $3 billion.
The WGA is pushing for improvements on a variety of fronts, notably for higher residual pay for streaming programs that have higher viewership, rather than the existing model that pays a standard rate regardless of a show's success.
The union is also calling for industry standards on the number of writers assigned to each show, increases in foreign streaming residuals and regulations preventing the use of artificial intelligence technology to write or rewrite any literary material.
WGA officials say on the union's website that writers "are facing the most comprehensive assault on compensation and working conditions that they have seen in a generation."
The AMPTP issued a position paper Thursday outlining its take on some key negotiating points in the labor impasse. Responding to a union demand for minimum staffing levels and employment guarantees, the alliance contends such a move would "require the employment of writers whether they're needed for the creative process or not."
The alliance also pushed back on the issue of streaming residuals, saying the union's most recent contract gave writers a 46% increase in streaming residuals taking effect in 2022 -- increases that some writers may only now be seeing in their paychecks. The alliance contends the union's proposal would represent a 200% increase over current residual rates.
It also called for "a lot more discussion" on the issue of artificial intelligence, and suggested that writers "want to be able to use this technology as part of their creative process, without changing how credits are determined."
"The AMPTP member companies remain united in their desire to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial to writers and the health and longevity of the industry, and to avoid hardship to the thousands of employees who depend upon the industry for their livelihoods," according to an alliance statement issued when the strike was announced. "The AMPTP is willing to engage in discussions with the WGA in an effort to break this logjam."