2007–08 Writers Guild of America strike

2007–08 Writers Guild of America strike
Wga rally - ave stars - crossing street.JPG
Striking WGA members at Fox Plaza, Los Angeles, on November 7, 2007
DateNovember 5, 2007 – February 12, 2008
Location
Caused byLack of agreement on a new contract between Writers Guild of America and AMPTP
GoalsIncrease funding for writers
MethodsPicketing, protest
Resulted inAgreement to end strike reached on February 12, 2008
Parties to the civil conflict

From November 5, 2007, to February 12, 2008, all 12,000 film and television screenwriters of the American labor unions Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), and Writers Guild of America West (WGAW) went on strike.[1][2][3]

The strike sought increased funding for the writers in comparison to the profits of the larger studios. It was targeted at the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), a trade organization representing the interests of 397 American film and television producers.[4] The most influential of these are eleven corporations: CBS (headed by Les Moonves), MGM (Harry E. Sloan), NBCUniversal (Jeffrey Zucker), The Weinstein Company (Harvey and Bob Weinstein), Lionsgate (Jon Feltheimer), News Corp/Fox (Peter Chernin), Paramount Pictures (Brad Grey), Anchor Bay/Liberty Media/Starz (Chris McGurk), Sony Pictures (Michael Lynton), the Walt Disney Company (Robert Iger), and Warner Bros. (Barry Meyer).[5]

Negotiators for the striking writers reached a tentative agreement on February 8, 2008, and the boards of both guilds unanimously approved the deal on February 10, 2008.[6] Striking writers voted on February 12, 2008 on whether to lift the restraining order, with 92.5% voting to end the strike.[7] On February 26, the WGA announced that the contract had been ratified with a 93.6% approval among WGA members.[8] The Writers Guild later requested a court order seeking that the agreement be honored and implemented.

The guilds were on strike for 14 weeks and 2 days (100 days).[9] In contrast, the previous strike in 1988, the longest in the history of the Guild, lasted 21 weeks and 6 days (153 days), costing the American entertainment industry an estimated $500 million in opportunity costs.[10][11] According to a National Public Radio (NPR) report filed on February 12, 2008, the strike cost the economy of Los Angeles an estimated $1.5 billion. A report from the UCLA Anderson School of Management put the loss at $380 million, while economist Jack Kyser put the loss at $2.1 billion.[12][13]

The resolution of the strike was unclear: while they lost out on short-term deals, they received a new percentage payment on the distributor's gross for digital distribution based on the deal that the DGA made during the strike.[14]

Issues in the strike

Writer-actor Jeff Garlin of Curb Your Enthusiasm (foreground, right) and others at a WGAW rally outside the Fox Studios in Los Angeles.
We are ready to meet at any time and remain committed to reaching a fair and reasonable deal that keeps the industry working, but the DVD issue is a roadblock to these negotiations.

— AMPTP president Nick Counter[15]

Every issue that matters to writers, including Internet reuse, original writing for new media, DVDs, and jurisdiction, has been ignored. This is completely unacceptable.

— WGA Negotiating Committee[16]

Every three years, the Writers Guild negotiates a new basic contract with the AMPTP by which its members are employed. This contract is called the Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA).[17] In 2007, negotiations over the MBA reached an impasse and the WGA membership voted to give its board authorization to call a strike, which it did on Friday, November 2, 2007; the strike began the following Monday, November 5, 2007.

Among the many proposals from both sides regarding the new contract, there were several key issues of contention including DVD residuals, union jurisdiction over animation and reality program writers, and compensation for "new media" (content written for or distributed through emerging digital technology such as the Internet).[18]

DVD residuals

Background

In 1985, the Writers Guild went on strike over the home video market, which was then small and primarily consisted of distribution via video tape. At that time, the entertainment companies argued home video was an "unproven" market, with an expensive delivery channel (manufacturing VHS and Betamax tapes, and to a much smaller extent, LaserDisc). Movies were selling in the range of between $40–$100 per tape, and the Guild accepted a formula in which a writer would receive a small percentage (0.3%) of the first million of reportable gross (and 0.36% after) of each tape sold as a residual. As manufacturing costs for video tapes dropped dramatically and the home video market exploded, writers came to feel they had been shortchanged by this deal.[19] DVDs debuted in 1996 and rapidly replaced the more-expensive VHS format, outselling VHS for the first time on the week of June 15, 2003. The previous VHS residual formula continued to apply to DVDs.

Prior to the strike, the home video market had become the major source of revenue for the movie studios. In April 2004, The New York Times reported the companies made $4.8 billion in home video sales versus $1.78 billion at the box office between January and March.[20]

Proposals

WGA members argued that a writer's residuals are a necessary part of a writer's income that is typically relied upon during periods of unemployment common in the writing industry. The WGA requested a doubling of the residual rate for DVD sales, which would result in a residual of 0.6% (up from 0.3%) per DVD sold.[21]

The AMPTP maintained that studios' DVD income was necessary to offset rising production and marketing costs.[19] They further insisted that the current DVD formula (0.3%) be applied to residuals in other digital media—an area which was also contested by the Writers Guild.

The WGA provisionally removed the increased DVD residual request from the table, in an effort to avert a strike and on the understanding of certain concessions by the AMPTP, the night before the strike began. However, after the strike began, WGAW President Patric M. Verrone wrote that the membership exhibited "significant disappointment and even anger" when they learned of the proposed removal of the request; and Verrone also wrote that, since the removal of the increased DVD residual request was contingent on concessions by the AMPTP which did not happen, the writers would and should continue to "fight to get our fair share of the residuals of the future."[22]

Conclusion

There was no change to the calculation of DVD residuals.[23]

New media

WGA West president and Futurama writer Patric Verrone speaks at a strike rally in Los Angeles.

Driven by the then-recent contract between Viacom and the creators of South Park,[24] one of the critical issues for the negotiations was residuals for "new media", or compensation for delivery channels such as Internet downloads, IPTV, streaming, smart phone programming, straight-to-Internet content, and other "on-demand" online distribution methods, along with video on demand on cable and satellite television.[25]

Background

Prior to the strike, the WGA had no arrangement with producers regarding the use of content online, and two models of internet distribution were negotiated. The first is "electronic sell-through" (also known as "Internet sales" or "digital sell-through"). In electronic sell-through, the consumer purchases a copy of the program and downloads it to a local storage device for subsequent viewing at their convenience. Examples include movies and television shows purchased through the iTunes Store and Amazon Video on Demand. In the second model, "streaming video", the consumer watches a program in real time as it is transmitted to their computer but is usually not saved. Current examples of this model include advertising-supported television programs streamed free to the audience, such as those available at nbc.com, abc.com, fox.com, cbs.com, thedailyshow.com, and hulu.com.

In either case, the program may be viewed directly on a computer or on a traditional television via media distribution devices (e.g. TiVo). The convenience of both these technologies lowers the barriers to entry into the digital distribution marketplace making it more accessible to mainstream consumers.

It was widely expected by industry observers that new media would eventually supplant both DVD in the home video market and television in the broadcasting market as the primary means for distribution.[26][27][28][29][30][31] As in the mid-1980s, the companies argued that new media represents an unproven and untested market and asked for additional time for study. However, feeling resentment from the 20-year-old home video deal and unwilling to make similar concessions in a so-called "new market" yet again, WGA members remained adamant that whatever deal they made for new media, it could not resemble the DVD formula.

New media was widely seen by most WGA writers as the central issue for the strike. Writer-director Craig Mazin (Scary Movie 3) has dubbed new media "the One Issue" that matters.[32]

This sentiment was further articulated by a self-described "skeptic", writer Howard Gould, at a meeting of the full WGA membership the night before the strike date was announced. He said, to a standing ovation:

Soon, when computers and your TV are connected, that's how we're all going to watch. Okay? Those residuals are going to go from what they are towards zero if we don't make a stand now. ... This is such a big issue that if they see us roll over on this without making a stand - three years from now, they're gonna be back for something else. ... I might have been the most moderate one up here when we started, but I sat there in the room the first day and they read us those thirty-two pages of rollbacks. And what they wanted us to hear was that "if you don't give us what [we] want on the important thing, we're gonna come after you for all those other things." But what I heard was, if we give them that thing, they'll still come after us for those other things. And in three years, it'll be "we want to revamp the whole residual system," and in another three years, it'll be "y'know what, we don't really want to fund the health fund the way we've been." And then it will be pension. And then it'll be credit determination. And there just is that time when everybody has to see—this is one where we just gotta stand our ground.[33]

Conclusion

Despite the strike, the WGA "didn't get anything close to what they wanted" in New Media.[34] Instead, the WGA took the DGA's deal: For downloads, writers were granted 1.2% of distributor's gross receipts for rentals and 0.65%-0.7% of gross receipts. For ad supported streaming writers were granted 2% of gross receipts beyond the initial 17 days.[23]

Jurisdiction in reality and animation

The WGA's membership of approximately 12,000 writers (more than 7,000 in WGAW and more than 4,000 in WGAE) primarily work on live-action, script-driven movies and television programs.[35]

Exactly if and how the WGA's Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) should apply to other TV and film categories such as reality television and animation had been inconsistent over the years and were an area of much dispute.

The WGA had been pushing for jurisdiction of reality and animation, but dropped these issues as the WGA and AMPTP entered into informal negotiations.[36][37]

Background

The negotiations between the AMPTP and the WGA are at an impasse because the WGA has continued to press a series of unreasonable demands that have nothing to do with new media and the real concerns of most working writers.

— AMPTP statement: The State of the Strike: Day 47[38]

Programs such as Real People and That's Incredible!, which were arguably "reality" shows of the 1980s, were covered by the MBA, whereas more recently produced reality shows such as Survivor and America's Next Top Model are not.[39] Many producers of reality programming argue that since these shows are mostly, if not entirely, unscripted, there is no writer. The WGA counters that the process of creating interesting scenarios, culling raw material, and shaping it into a narrative with conflict, character arc, and storyline constitutes writing and should fall under its contract.

In the summer of 2006, the WGAW attempted to organize employees of America's Next Top Model.[40][41] The employees voted to join the WGA, but then they were fired and production continued without them.

Animated films and TV programs have also been an area of heavy contention. The majority of animated film and television writing is not covered by the WGA's MBA. Most animated feature films have been written under the jurisdiction of another union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 839, also known as The Animation Guild. IATSE's jurisdiction stemmed from Walt Disney's tradition of creating an animated feature via storyboards written and drawn by storyboard artists. In the years up until the strike, most studios began hiring screenwriters to write script pages which are then storyboarded. According to the WGA, 100% of animated feature film screenplays in 2005 were written by at least one WGA member.[21] Some animated features, such as Beowulf, were written under the WGA contract.[42] The only animated television programs affected by the strike were Fox's The Simpsons, Family Guy, King of the Hill and American Dad![43]

The WGA and the IATSE have an ongoing disagreement as to which union should represent animation writers.[44]

Proposals

Regarding reality programming, the WGA requested contract language clarifying that reality programming does fall under its jurisdiction. They further proposed the adoption of a credit, "Story Producer" and "Supervising Story Producer" to be given to those writers performing story contributions to a reality show.[45]

As for animation, the WGA proposed clarifying its jurisdiction to cover all animation in TV and film that did not encroach on the jurisdiction of another union.[45]

Conclusion

WGA president Patric Verrone announced that the reality and animation jurisdiction proposals were formally removed from the table.[46]

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