Studios Begin Stockpiling for a Writers Strike: “We Learned the Hard Way Last Time”

As the Writers Guild signals it is “ready for a battle” over streaming revenue, producers are giving early series renewals and extending episode counts in case Hollywood shuts down this summer.
In C-suites and writers rooms throughout Hollywood, chatter is growing: Will the Writers Guild of America’s roughly 15,000 members walk out as they did a decade ago if they can’t reach an agreement with the studios? And if they do, is the town ready for a strike?

The current three-year contract won’t expire until May 1, and it’s hard to know how amenable the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers will be to the WGA’s demands, which are likely to center on compensation in the streaming era, when backends are being limited or eliminated, residuals are down and shows are producing fewer episodes. That hasn’t stopped executives at the major studios, networks and streaming outlets from building contingencies wherever they can. In recent months, that’s meant ramping up unscripted content, turning to non-U.S. material as backup and stockpiling scripts. It’s all part of an effort to lessen the impact of a strike, which in 2007-08 cost the Los Angeles economy an estimated $2.5 billion, a number that would likely be higher in the age of Peak TV. As one manager puts it, “There’s been a lot of ‘Hurry up.’ ”

A strike, however, is by no means a sure thing ­— which guild leadership is quick to point out. “The WGA is a union. We therefore have to be ready for a battle if the circumstance demands it, including a strike,” WGA president David A. Goodman says in a statement. “But predicting the outcome of negotiation right now is like asking in the first quarter if a football game will go into sudden death overtime. It’s nonsense. Nobody knows.” (The AMPTP declined to comment.)

Nevertheless, wherever feasible, film and TV projects are being fast-tracked. “The one thing you can do, in theory, is make sure all the writing on a potential show is done before it’s pencils down,” says HBO programming chief Casey Bloys. In some cases, that’s meant discussions about forgoing a typical months-long hiatus between seasons in favor of rolling almost immediately into the next season. (Insiders say there are active conversations about doing so on CBS’ Magnum P.I., Fox’s 9-1-1 and multiple CW shows.) Whether it’s a matter of strike preparation or to hit the ground running quickly after, renewals also are being doled out earlier than usual, and outlets like The CW, which typically produce pilots, are handing out straight-to-series orders for the first time.

Elsewhere, CBS quietly upped its episode count on midseason drama MacGyver from 13 episodes to 22, so that it would have fresh content available during a possible shutdown. At corporate sibling Showtime, the Kevin Bacon-Aldis Hodge drama City on a Hill saw its second season cut from 10 episodes to eight as a way to avoid an incomplete season in the event of a strike. At Netflix, at least a few writers rooms have been accelerated, say sources, in an attempt to bank more scripts by late April.

The irony of such requests is not lost on writers, some of whom feel like they are being asked to dig their own grave. “Showrunners have an inherent conflict of interest when executives come to them asking for additional content,” explains veteran writer-producer Marc Guggenheim (Legends of Tomorrow). “On the one hand, we feel an obligation to our casts and crews to keep them working. On the other hand, if scripts are being stockpiled, are we actually not just helping the studios and networks weather a strike? And are we perhaps increasing the likelihood of a strike by essentially filling up the war chest of the people we are about to go into negotiations with?”

Other strategies being discussed include investing more heavily in non-U.S. development, already a growing trend at outlets like Netflix and HBO. At least one broadcast network is in talks to acquire a Canadian show with the express purpose of having strike-poof fare, a tactic that was employed during the 2007-08 strike as programmers grew desperate for original content. Studio sources say previously passed-over scripts, particularly valuable in cases where there’s an entire season’s worth, are being dusted off for the same reason. On the feature side, in addition to rushing to see drafts of scripts before the deadline, some studio execs are said to be asking for lists of non-WGA writers.

Also standing to gain: animation and reality, two genres that already have experienced an uptick in the lead-up, particularly at the broadcast networks. “Buyers are stocking up a little more than they normally would at this time of year,” confirms ITV America president Adam Sher, who funnels a robust slate of alternative series across platforms. In fact, sources in the unscripted space suggest that many “passes” now come with a caveat: If there is a strike and the project hasn’t sold elsewhere, sellers will reconsider — or, as one put it, “they’re calling dibs.”

Still, three months out, there are many more questions than answers. Chief among them is how far-reaching a stoppage would be. “Crossing the picket line becomes really tricky for people. So even if you get ahead and stockpile, the odds of actually making those things diminish because the sister and brother guilds [might not] agree to work,” says WarnerMedia Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, who watched as many actors picketed in solidarity with the WGA during the last strike. At this stage, some studios are considering proactively ceasing all production until a deal is struck. “We learned the hard way last time,” says one studio exec, noting how often productions need to write their way out of situations, whether because of lost light or locations, and how problematic that becomes when there isn’t a writer available.

For the town’s top showrunners, a strike can put them in a murky position of technically being allowed on set as a producer but not being able to offer any writing services. “A lot of us have contractual producorial and directorial responsibilities, [so] you have to go, but we don’t rewrite anything,” says Shameless co-creator John Wells. “It gets a little awkward.” There will be plenty more who’ll flat-out refuse, which some execs and reps say could put them at risk of having their deals suspended. If a strike were to carry on, the lucrative overalls of the past few years could fall prey to force majeure.

For now, execs seem to be preparing for the worst, particularly after watching the WGA’s feud with the talent agencies over packaging fees and affiliate production, which has only served to fire up guild hardliners. “Usually at this point, [three] months out from the end of a contract, it would be a huge struggle just to get people to know that it’s happening,” notes The Good Place showrunner Michael Schur. “But the protracted thing we’ve been going through with the agents has led to a lot more engagement than you usually have with writers in the guild.”

Intensifying concerns is the fact that the Directors Guild and Screen Actors Guild contracts are both up June 30, just two months after the WGA’s. It’s not unusual for the DGA to hammer out a deal many months in advance, and, in fact, the guild revealed on Feb. 4 that it would begin formal talks with the AMPTP on Feb. 10. Once those formal talks commence, the DGA’s negotiations tend to be brief and serve to set the pattern of bargaining for the other guilds. “We’re all just watching and waiting,” says Wells, a former WGA West president.

If that weren’t enough, rumblings about the possibility of Netflix, the only major player that’s not a part of the AMPTP, negotiating its own separate deal with the WGA is further ratcheting up studio executive anxieties — it could mean that writers would, at least for a period of time, be able to work only for Netflix. There’s precedent, after all, considering the streamer struck its own pact with SAG last summer and is in the process of doing so with below-the-line labor union IATSE.

The streamer has its own in-house labor relations team, led by Stephen Carroll, a former vice president of AMPTP. Few are privy to those internal discussions, of course, but that’s done nothing to quell speculation and sniping from rivals. “It’s [Netflix’s] business model at the heart of this,” laments one studio exec, “so that would be ironic.”

Additional reporting by Lesley Goldberg, Rick Porter and Borys Kit

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