As the old rule of politics has it, one should never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel. And perhaps in the past few months, Hollywood has earned its own, updated version: never start a war of words with anyone who spends all day in front of their laptop. Incredibly, that is what the studios did in May, when they refused to back down in a contract dispute with the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) – the union which represents the 11,500 screenwriters currently earning a living, or trying to, in the US film and TV business. And even now the bitter 146-day strike which followed is over, only now is the real trouble about to begin.
The WGA has already made great claims for the “exceptional”, “meaningful” deal secured by their negotiators. Exactly what is in the deal remains a mystery, though the industry newsletter Puck has reported that most of their headline demands have been met. Crucially, the threat of AI has been warded off, with new protections written into contracts, while a new payment scheme has been devised around streaming, in which writers’ residuals – essentially, ongoing bonuses for successful work – will be calculated in line with viewing figures, just as they once were for DVD and VHS sales.
Yet while the WGA’s triumphal language seems justified, that’s not to say disaster has been averted. These five days of apparently venomous negotiations followed a five-month shutdown across the whole business. And as with the Covid-era lockdowns, the nightmarish broader consequences are still lurking in the months ahead, claws sharpened and fangs bared.
Nightmare number one is the matter of the concurrent actors’ strike – which remains in full force, and isn’t expected to be resolved until mid-November at the earliest. This began in mid-July after a disastrous attempt by the studios’ negotiating body, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, to outmanoeuvre the WGA by thrashing out a new contract with SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, at speed. Again, the threat of AI and the question of residuals were crucial talking points; again, the studios’ initial intransigence proved catastrophically misjudged.
The last straw apparently came when Carol Lombardini, the AMPTP’s chief negotiator, reportedly barked at representatives to “be civilised”, prompting them to troop out of the conference suite en masse, with SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher – you may know her as publicist Bobbi Flekman in This is Spinal Tap – shooting back through the door as it swung shut, “Now you’ve got two unions on strike.”
That show of hard-headedness took the studios aback – and last month prompted them to make the strategic call to deal with the writers first. (It was clear the actors weren’t going to be pushovers.) With the WGA strike now theoretically resolved, the studios can reopen negotiations with SAG-AFTRA, with a view to finally getting filming and promotional duties back under way before the lunacy of the Oscar season descends. But here, too, a speedy resolution seems unlikely, given the determination of both actors and writers to see the strike through no matter how long it takes. The reason for their resolve is simple: the widespread perception, both within the business and outside it, of rank incompetence among the higher-ups.
To put it gently, this impression is hardly unfounded. In the past decade, the studios have very publicly made a meal of almost every major issue they’ve faced, from #MeToo scandals, pandemic shutdowns, political feuds and streaming self-sabotage to franchise-induced creative rot. The actual strikes were just the latest example: what, precisely, were the studio chiefs up to for the 141 days before the bargaining started in earnest?
Not making a persuasive case for the defence, that’s for sure. Instead came a string of clownish unforced errors, such as David Zaslav, the Warner Bros chief, claiming in a TV news interview that the striking writers would back down quickly because of their “love for working”, days before the news broke that over the past five years, Zaslav had been paid $498 million (£410 million). Such flubs were easily weaponised on social media, in order to galvanise the strikers and sway public opinion behind them.
Actors and writers might not be the most sympathetic figures, but they’re puppies and kittens next to executives. In short, there is no respect for the leadership because, in the old-school Hollywood mogul sense – big dreams, dynamism, a well-chewed cigar – there is no leadership.
Which brings us, with a full-spinal shudder, to nightmare number two. Once the actors’ union has been pacified, production on the stalled films and shows can finally recommence. Except they all can’t – or at least, not in concert. With cast and crew members pulled in multiple directions, simply working out who can go first, and which studio spaces they’ll use, and renegotiating each performer’s contract in line with the new agreement, will require a four-dimensional spreadsheet.
Actually, make that five-dimensional. With the Oscars and Baftas closing in – and the strikes having turned the three major autumn festivals, Venice, Toronto and Telluride, into largely star-free zones – campaigning commitments must also be factored in. Add the publicity drives for the various completed films whose releases were postponed due to the strike – epic sci-fi sequel Dune: Part Two, tennis love-triangle drama Challengers, gothic Oscar contender Poor Things, another Ghostbusters sequel, Sony’s Kraven the Hunter – and it will take most of 2024 to clear the backlog.
And then, at last, a return to shiny, happy business as usual? Not if nightmare number three has anything to do with it. Throughout the 2023 strikes, one group has been trapped in the crossfire, with no hope of employment and no say in the resolving process either. They are the film crews – camera operators, editors, costume designers, sound recorders, prop masters, and everyone else working behind the scenes. Their union is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). And guess whose contract with AMPTP is up for renegotiation on July 31 next year?
Here, too, the issues are far pricklier than in a standard labour dispute. Just as the rise of AI and streaming raised existential problems for actors and writers, the trades represented by IATSE have also found themselves at a critical moment. In 2021, the accidental fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the Alec Baldwin western Rust became an emblem of how the industry was failing its technical workers. Thanks to the studios and broadcasters’ unslakeable appetite for content, unmanageably long hours and frantic filming schedules had become the norm, and as a result basic safety on set was suffering, never mind typical standards of work.
Smarting and broke after the past few long jobless months, Hollywood’s 170,000-strong army of behind-the-scenes technicians will rightly expect a show of solidarity from the rest of the business come next summer – and maximum tractability from the studios who will have (presumably) by then brokered deals with their more glamorous colleagues.
Will they get it? One assumes if they don’t, there will be hell to pay. If you thought the 2023 strikes were bad, wait until you see the 2024 reboot.