Two months into the Writers Guild of America’s 2023 strike, an article sourced entirely from studio executives’ anonymous quotes appeared in the trade publication Deadline. “I think we’re in for a long strike, and they’re going to let it bleed out,” said someone reportedly “intimate with the POV of studio CEOs.” “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” remarked another. A third called the coldheartedness of that approach “a cruel but necessary evil.” “Not Halloween precisely, but late October, for sure, is the intention,” a “top-tier producer” said, regarding plans for the next sit-down with writers.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Productions, the trade association representing the big studios, immediately denounced the story and issued a statement saying that the anonymous sources did not speak on AMPTP’s behalf. But the bravado on display was still telling—that plenty of behind-the-scenes people in Hollywood’s C-suites figured that they had the upper hand, and that frustrated writers would be easy to sweat out.
Instead, in late September, a deal was struck that was regarded as an overwhelming win for the WGA, addressing almost all of the union’s concerns; the “exceptional” agreement (as the WGA called it) was quickly ratified, with 99 percent of voting members in support. And last night, the Screen Actors Guild reached a similarly triumphant accord after a strike that also exceeded 100 days, with a tentative deal that reportedly contains a big pay increase and language on AI protections, among other gains. “We didn’t just come toward you, we came all the way to you,” Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos told SAG-AFTRA leaders, according to Deadline. In both cases, the unions’ victory was definitive but hard-won, and the result will probably lead to months of recrimination as the film and TV world takes its time to spool back into action.
The studio strategy for handling the strikes was simple but remarkably ineffectual: a total freeze-out, in hopes that desperate writers and actors would be compelled to take an unsatisfying deal after months without a paycheck. Both the WGA and SAG strikes briefly saw negotiations resume midway through. And in both cases, the AMPTP swiftly cut off talks, publicly displeased that the unions were unimpressed by offers that only marginally improved on the initial terms that led to the strikes in the first place. Topics such as residuals for streaming media, strict protections against use of artificial-intelligence technology, and minimum staffing numbers for writers’ rooms were initially declared dead on arrival by the studios—but all made it into the final WGA agreement (the exact details of the SAG-AFTRA deal have yet to be revealed).
What changed? In the end, the anonymous executives’ swagger about waiting workers out until late fall was unintentionally revealing. By late October, the devastation of so many halted productions was rippling through the release calendar, threatening to upend an entire season of broadcast television and the whole 2024 movie-release schedule. Hollywood’s recovery from the COVID lockdowns, gloriously affirmed by the twin box-office successes of Barbie and Oppenheimer, was about to feel incredibly short-lived. The studios, who refused to resume talks for months, had sweated themselves out, and their need for rapid resolution led to a near-total capitulation. They had correctly identified October as crunch time, only it was for their own businesses, rather than the mortgages of sitcom writers.
Read: Hollywod’s dual strike isn’t just about the writers and actors
Anytime I spoke offhandedly to a striking writer or actor, the prevailing mood was always the same: You can’t kill us, because we’re already dead. As streaming content became more and more prevalent over the past decade, Hollywood’s traditional economics of success began to change; if you worked on a streaming show, you’d generally be producing fewer episodes at a lower pay scale. The healthy residuals that broadcast TV and theatrical films pay out don’t exist at Netflix and its many streaming clones, whose black boxes of viewing data are jealously guarded.
For the WGA and SAG, the strikes were existential, approved by virtually every voting member with the intention of enacting real change, rather than just agreeing to healthy pay bumps. Prior WGA strikes had revolved around some sea change in the business: The 2008 action was over booming DVD sales, the 1981 strike was over the emergence of premium TV and home video, and the historic 1960 shutdown established residuals for reruns in perpetuity. By 2023, streaming had become a juggernaut that could not be ignored, but part of the reason for its rampant expansion was how cheaply it could be made. To the WGA and SAG, those savings were coming at the cost of fair compensation for their members.
In the end, the unions’ victory was unambiguous, and also established bulwarks to build upon in future negotiation. The industry can get back to work and try to salvage a 2024 release calendar that currently feels alarmingly thin, to keep up the momentum of 2023’s post-COVID comeback. But issues abound: Trying to cram in reshoots, finish productions, and start new ones all at the same time will be difficult, especially for stars with packed schedules. More labor unrest could bloom in 2024 as the contracts for crew workers expire that July; another shutdown would be a blow to an industry trying to stagger to its feet. Still, we have yet to see if the studios have learned a more fundamental lesson: that all of this didn’t have to take so long.