There’s a good chance that the 2023 Writers Strike could become the guild’s longest. At this writing, it’s 122 days and long since surpassed the 100-day work stoppage of 2007-08; up next is the ultimate 1988 record of 153 days.
But here’s what’s really unusual: At this point in a strike, writers usually start openly wondering if it’s enough already. During the 2008 strike, reports said a faction of top industry writers pressured WGA leadership to accept the terms offered to the DGA. Writers who experienced both strikes told IndieWire that “grumblings” — which were then broadcast by the AMPTP and its supporters — were a constant feature.
Similarly, when writers fired their agents over the packaging fees back in 2019, writers gathered in Discord and Slack channels to share their unhappiness with the guild, arguing that film writers were being asked to sacrifice for the TV writers’ fight.
This time, things are different.
“(In the past) whatever could be done to foment the gap between leadership and membership was done,” Howard A. Rodman, former WGAW president, told IndieWire of division tactics employed in past strikes. “In 2023, I’m not hearing any of that. No one is texting me, no one is calling me up, no one is emailing me saying, ‘Can you help get the leadership back on track because this is hurting me too much.’”
Many writers agree with their former president. Of course there’s some differences of opinion, and dissent, but they’re not being utilized to force the guild’s hand. This is about more than the historic leverage provided by the dual SAG-AFTRA strike; there’s tangible reasons why the WGA’s resolve and unity is more than a bargaining tactic.
‘They Know It’s Broken’
In prior strikes, it was easier to simplify the do-or-die issues. In 2007-08 the theme was jurisdiction over what was then called New Media, aka streaming. In 2023, it’s a crisis bonanza: It’s not just residuals, or minimum staffing, or AI, or data transparency. They all speak to the guild’s real message: Today’s business model makes it impossible to make a living as a writer and the strike is an existential fight for survival.
“I had expected the young people who were just getting a foothold in the industry would be more wavering because they’re in a position of real precarity. In fact, they’re more militant,” Rodman said. “They know it’s broken, they know it viscerally, they know it week-to-week, they know that they’ve gotten to the point where they’ve grabbed the gold ring, but it disappears.”
The general public gets it, too. A Gallup poll released this week said that 72 percent of the public sympathizes with the writers and actors rather than the studios. Other labor groups are also asking questions, including VFX workers at Disney and Marvel voting to unionize, Bethenny Frankel leading a charge of reality TV stars wanting their own representation, and even Alamo Drafthouse workers taking labor action.
According to writers we spoke with, their source of strength is simple: There’s no disconnect between the negotiating committee and the WGA board, or between the membership and the strike, or lot captains leading picket lines. Compared to years’ past, negotiating committee members engaged in more grassroots engagement with picketers. The guild also has done its best to avoid backchannel discussions or leaks to the press, and lead negotiator Ellen Stutzman has maintained a low profile even as her AMPTP counterpart Carol Lombardini was profiled in The New York Times.
“It’s been refined and dialed in over the past few years. Almost everyone has the feeling that the negotiating committee is as transparent as it can be with us on the various issues,” said Alexander Maggio, a strike captain at the Universal lot. “The members of the negotiating committee and members of the board are really accessible, and captains are a really useful conduit in between the board and negotiating committee. People have a strong sense that their voices can be heard.”
Maggio says the Discord and Slack feeds once reserved for dissent are now a tool to share memes and stave off those “feelings of existential panic or dread.” And he’s been heartened to see regular participation from members and even leadership in various theme days, such as a Dungeons & Dragons theme, a writers’ bake-off judged by negotiating committee co-chair Chris Keyser, or a singles mixer (arguably less successful).
“A lot of our communications are all about maintaining our own morale and sense of camaraderie and community,” Maggio said. “The mistake that’s often made is that everyone thinks all this picketing is about expressing rage against the studio, not that there isn’t a little bit of that going on, but a lot of it we’re doing it for ourselves to connect and spend time together. That’s really valuable. Writers will go on at length about how much they love other writers.”
Joy Gregory, a writer-producer on “Madam Secretary,” “Switched at Birth,” and “The Resident,” said every question she had, or rumor she heard, was answered or clarified in a “really forthright and clear” manner by a negotiating committee member while picketing with her (generally at the Disney lot, which has more shade).
For example, Gregory heard speculation that the guild might make a deal with traditional broadcast networks and break up the AMPTP. The answer: If that happened, some writers would be back to work while others remained in a faction of their own.
“Then we’re a divided union, and somebody loses,” she said. “We’ve just got to stick together until everyone has a fair deal.”
The Lines Are Drawn
On August 16, shortly after the AMPTP issued its first and only counteroffer to the WGA, Variety published an article in which seven different writers anonymously shared their belief that the guild’s minimum staffing proposal — a key sticking point in talks — wasn’t something they actually wanted and shouldn’t be a priority, with one saying, “Nobody asked for this.”
The guild jumped into overdrive. Virtually in unison, showrunners tweeted “I asked for this.” Others leapt to the conclusion that the piece was planted by the AMPTP, wondering why a trade would poll a handful of anonymous writers rather than dozens of members on the picket lines willing to put their names behind the stance.
However, as Maggio told us, there was some “confusion” around minimum staffing, and the grumbling during initial negotiations was not a myth. Now he says the “lines are pretty drawn” and, as some have already admitted online, many have come around to the idea after months of being exposed to different perspectives.
“We’re all aspirational people, but the idea that you might finally have the opportunity to create your own show, do your dream project and then be told or cajoled into not having any support from fellow writers… is a horrifying prospect,” he said. “If you’re going to get worked to the ground and chewed up trying to achieve your dream, then what’s the point of even doing it? It’s almost like a deterrent in wanting to get there. Having the ability and flexibility to have other people helping you when you’re trying to achieve your goal is really critical.”
Maggio helped talk Gregory off the ledge on minimum staffing. She said she would go down the rabbit holes of anonymous comments on Deadline saying that the deal point should be let go, that it’s too unrealistic and too divisive. She now believes this is part of the campaign to divide the union, and what the guild is seeking is reasonable. She also said endlessly reading comments and social media threads probably doesn’t help.
“No one is making that a black-and-white issue,” Gregory said. “I have yet to read a take from the many voices of lawyers and producers trying to explain why we’re overreaching that persuade me.”
The Ice Is Breaking
Of course, not all writers think alike. We spoke to one writer (who asked not to be named) who said the membership is still very much split on minimum staffing and that many other writers he knows feel the same.
He also slammed the guild’s position on interim agreements, saying it’s “killing” the independent film business, as well as the demands for weekly payments, which he calls an “absurd ask that doesn’t help writers or studios” and believes will lead to companies taking fewer shots and more writers working on spec.
He’s also surprised to see leadership digging in their heels this late into the strike. From what he saw in the AMPTP proposals released last week, he’s amazed that the guild isn’t in a position to have this settled by Labor Day.
“I was shocked (the AMPTP) moved on the things they moved on. I was very impressed in some ways. I thought they were really close,” he said of the studio proposals. “But then to see the reaction of our guild where they’re like, ‘We will not do anything short of all our demands,’ it’s just really frustrating. I don’t know if they get just how brutal this is. They know there are people losing their houses, but I feel like we’re there.”
However, the anonymous writer agreed that the guild should dig its heels in on data transparency, saying it’s “disingenuous to say we’ll kick the can” and negotiate on a success-based residual three years from now. He strongly believes that a writer should be able to sustain themselves on residuals amid the ebbs and flows of making a living.
“What I’m frustrated with now is it seems like the studios are coming forward with a path toward the things we’re asking for,” he said. “There’s this new world of streaming, and we need to figure out how to monetize it and stake our claim on what we created so that we get paid into the future. They just presented a thing that said they’ll give us reporting. Great. So let’s work through it. Dig in on the AI. Everything else, we’re there.”
Despite the rhetoric from the negotiating committee, which called the AMPTP’s proposal “neither nothing, nor nearly enough,” Gregory said she sees some real progress.
“As much of a tactical error I think it was for (the AMPTP) to release their counteroffer in an attempt to put pressure on us, at the same time I read it and thought, hey, the ice is breaking. Things are happening,” Gregory said. “The depiction of us as stubborn babies who want absolutely everything and will sweep the game off the table if we don’t get everything, that’s inaccurate. We’ve always accepted a deal at some point. This will be no exception. But this has to be a decent deal.”
Maggio thinks the real issue is not the terms, but the mistrust the studios created by going around the negotiating committee.
“It was baffling to us that they weren’t willing to keep going or just dictate those terms, because that was a positive step. We’re probably not massively far away,” he said. “But a lot of us I think see a path from these Aug. 11 proposals that most membership can find acceptable. It was just stunning to us that they weren’t willing to keep going from there.”
Both sides still have to work through issues on AI, the guaranteed “second-step” proposal for screenwriters, and agreeing to residual raises that the guild believes keeps up with inflation. For now, both parties are waiting for the other to respond and the studio CEOs have hired a crisis PR firm and met again about next steps.
For the writers, they recognize this is a rare moment of solidarity that likely won’t come around again.
“We all know now that if it’s going to take this much sacrifice to move the needle, we don’t want to go down that road again. This strike is it,” Maggio said. “We have to win here, or we might find ourselves back in the same place, and we hate it. We don’t want to be doing this, but there’s a real sense of, ‘You have to finish the job’ or we might be on this horrible merry-go-round again in a very short time.”