What to Expect from a Writer’s Strike

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The members of the WGA (Writers Guild of America) voted to authorize a strike on April 25, 2017. The vote was a nearly unanimous 96.3 percent yes. The WGA contract ends on May 1st, 2017. A strike could begin as early as the next day.

Authorizing a strike does not guarantee there will be a strike. It is only one step in a complicated process. The WGA and the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) will sit back down to negotiate soon. A strong vote for authorization could give the WGA added leverage at the bargaining table. For a more detailed look at how this potential strike has developed follow this link.

Image courtesy of the WGA.

In the history of the WGA, there have only been a handful of strikes, some lasting only weeks. Let’s briefly look at the two most recent strikes and examine their effect on writers.

2007-2008

Lasting 100 days, the last writer’s strike shortened the seasons of many scripted televisions shows, brought most of late night television to a standstill and increased the number of reality shows on the air. It also succeeded in bringing streaming services and other new media under the WGA prevue. That market brings significant revenue to hundreds of writers each year.

That strike had wide-ranging effects, many writers lost income, some were fired, a few crossed picket lines and did damage to their careers. For those reasons, longtime guild members are anxious to avoid a new strike. The effects can be personally devastating.

1988

The writer’s strike of 1988 lasted 153 days, the longest in the guild’s history. This strike delayed the fall television season (TV at the time was structured around a uniform fall to spring 22 week season), some shows were canceled due to the strike, and a portion of the public actually stopped watching television. The primary issue at hand was new media – at that time video – and that continues to be a major area of conflict.

Because it was such a long strike, it’s credited with sparking what some refer to as the golden age of spec scripts lasting into the early ’90s. With time on their hands, writers did what writers do, they wrote. When the strike ended, studios were hungry for material they could quickly put into production and were open to the idea of already completed scripts.

Image from 123rf.

What’s at Stake?

It’s mainly about compensation for television writing. Like any market, television is in a constant state of change. There is no longer one 22-week season that all shows follow. Shows pop up at all times of the year, seasons are shorter 8-13 episodes, and there can sometimes be more than a year between seasons. What that means is that writers are writing, and being paid for, 13 episodes in the time it once took to write 22. They’re spending more time on each script, which is great for quality, but they’re not being paid any more for that extra time. And, they’re typically signed to exclusive agreements and aren’t able to work during the down times, meaning there’s no way to make up for lost revenue.

What Would a Strike Mean To New Screenwriters?

Hard to say. It’s easier to figure out what it doesn’t mean to new screenwriters than what it does. It doesn’t mean that TV companies and film studios will start reaching out to non-union writers for scripts. Most of the 350 members of the AMPTP will shut down production during a strike. If they have completed scripts they will shoot them. Otherwise, they will wait until the strike ends.

If you are offered a position as a scab writer, you would be foolish to take it since the union could and probably would deny you entry when the strike ends and then no signatory would be able to work with you. A producer might promise to smooth things over for you but it’s a promise with no teeth since the eventual agreement will likely address scabs and no producer will be able to override it.

Should you be offered a writing assignment during the strike and you’re told the company is not signatory, you need to explore the situation fully before accepting. If you have any questions about who is and who is not a signatory click here. Should you have any other questions about working during a WGA strike, you should contact the guild directly (wga.org).

Should the strike continue for an extended time, you would be wise to focus on spec scripts—which should be any new screenwriter’s your focus anyway. It’s possible there will be a resurgence in the spec script market when studios begin to buy again. Yes, they’re most likely to purchase specs from established writers, but an active spec market—particularly if it lasts several years as it did in 1988—is always good for new writers, as well.

So, what should you do if there’s a writer’s strike? Well, like many other questions in a writer’s life, the answer is… write.

 

UPDATE: The WGA reached a tentative agreement with the AMPTP on May 2nd, 2017. A strike has been averted.

 

 

author-avatar

Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at marshallthorntonauthor.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

7 Replies to "What to Expect from a Writer's Strike"

  • comment-avatar
    Richard Willett April 27, 2017 (9:16 am)

    Great article, thanks. My one question is, besides writing during a strike, will it be OK to continue querying to get scripts read? I understand that production and hiring would/should stop, but what about just querying to get a script read for possible future interest? Will there be any point in continuing to do that or any negative repercussions from doing it?

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton April 27, 2017 (9:33 am)

      Good question. Producers are the ones who have the agreement with the guild, so they’re the ones being struck (should that happen). You would have no problem querying agents and managers–and then submitting if they show interest. If you’ve found a producer who’ll accept a query I’d say it’s safe to query them. If they want to see a script, though, I’d double check with the guild before sending it. There will be people there happy to answer questions. It’s probably fine to show a producer your work, but I’d seek guidance at the point just so you know if there are problems ahead.

  • comment-avatar
    Cobalt Blue April 27, 2017 (2:01 pm)

    Thanks for the article Marshall.
    I come from a Union family (Carpenters, Railroad…) so I understand not crossing picket lines and what happens to scabs. So my question isn’t about whether or not I should make a deal during the strike, if it happens, because I wouldn’t dream of crossing a picket line…
    What I am wondering:
    Wouldn’t it be best to cease the marketing process if you have something that a Studio might be interested in? For instance, InkTip… would a listing be worthwhile during a strike? If so, why?
    And, do coverage services still operate during strikes?

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton April 27, 2017 (2:23 pm)

      Thanks for commenting. I’m not real familiar with Inktip. I went and looked, it looks very indie. It doesn’t appear that studios are looking for scripts there strike or now strike. Indie producers seem to be… and almost all films end up studio films because of the way distribution works (or they go nowhere), but not all films start out that way. Indie producers have lots of projects they’re trying to interest studios in. Whether it’s worth it during the strike depends on the makeup of the producers who use InkTip. You can do anything you want with a producer who’s not signatory to the WGA. If the producers who use InkTip are mainly signatory, though, then it might not be worth it.

      If you mean commercial script coverage services, then I doubt they’ll be affected. If you mean will the studios be doing coverage, they may not because agents and managers won’t sending them scripts.

  • comment-avatar
    Cobalt Blue April 27, 2017 (3:11 pm)

    Thanks Marshall.
    As for InkTip, from my understanding from listing on the site MMP Studios do use it with undercover production company names to remain anonymous unless they are interested in your work. (Because of writers who might otherwise violate the rules of engagement) Which is my reason for the concern.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton April 27, 2017 (3:19 pm)

      This can be a business about gut. If you’re concerned then you’re probably right to be. And remember the longest strike was 153 days. There may not be a strike at all and if there is chances are it won’t be record-breaking. If you’re at all concerned waiting a few months is probably not a bad idea.

  • comment-avatar
    Richard Willett April 30, 2017 (11:02 am)

    Thanks for you response, Marshall. That helps. I’ll play it by ear.

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