Hollywood is still coming to a close.
Unions representing thousands of TV and film writers said Monday there was overwhelming support for the strike, giving union leaders the right to call for a walkout when writers’ contracts with major Hollywood studios expire on May 1.
Unions affiliated with the East and West Coast branches of the Writers Guild of America, more than 9,000 writers, approved the strike authorization with 98 percent of the vote.
WGA leaders have called it an “existential” moment for writers, arguing that compensation has stagnated over the past decade despite the explosion of television series in the streaming era. In an email to writers last week, the lead negotiators said, “The very existence of writing as a profession is at stake in these negotiations.”
With two weeks left on the deal, there are no signs of progress in talks. In an email, the negotiating team said the studios “failed to provide meaningful responses on key economic issues” and offered only minor concessions in a few areas.
“In short, the studios have shown no intention of addressing the issues our members have determined to fix in these negotiations,” the email said.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates on behalf of Hollywood production companies, said in a statement that the strike authorization “should come as no surprise to anyone.”
“A strike authorization vote has always been part of the WGA’s plan, announced before the parties exchange proposals,” the statement said. “Our goal is, and continues to be, to reach a fair and just agreement.” Further, “an agreement is only possible if the Guild is committed to focus on serious bargaining by engaging in full discussions of the issues with the companies and seeking reasonable compromises.”
In recent weeks, Hollywood executives have been bracing for the strike by shelving scripts and scriptwriters preparing to produce unneeded reality series. David Zaslau, chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns Warner Bros. film and TV studios and HBO, said at a news media event last week that he hoped a deal could be reached. He added that the strike would be a challenge for the entire industry.
Still, he said the company is fully prepared in case of a walkout.
“We assume the worst from a business perspective,” he said. “We are ready. We have a lot of content produced.
A strike authorization does not guarantee that writers will go on strike in two weeks. In 2017, a last-minute deal with studios came shortly after 96 percent of writers voted to authorize a strike. The last time the writers went on strike was in 2007. That stoppage dragged on for 100 days and, in early 2008, cost the Los Angeles economy an estimated $2.1 billion.
If the strike begins in early May, late-night shows like “Saturday Night Live” and talk shows hosted by Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers will immediately go dark. In scripted TV series and movies it takes several months of the strike before viewers start to notice an effect.
The streaming era has led to a significant rise in the number of scripted TV series, but writers say working conditions haven’t kept pace.
“Writers are working longer weeks for less money,” said Eric Haywood, veteran writer and producer and member of the WGA negotiating team. “And in some cases, senior writers are working for the same money or, in some cases, less money than they were making a few years ago.”
The timing of the negotiations is further complicated given the ongoing financial challenges facing all media and entertainment companies.
Over the past year, the companies’ stock prices have nosedived after Wall Street began questioning why many streaming services were losing billions of dollars a year. After years of focusing primarily on growth, studios are quickly trying to make those streaming services profitable. The shift comes at a cost.
Disney is in the midst of 7,000 job cuts. Warner Bros. Discovery, facing a debt burden of about $50 billion, shelved projects and laid off thousands of workers last year. Other media companies are taking similar cost-cutting measures.
The writers don’t seem sympathetic.
“The current situation is unsustainable,” said Mr. Haywood said.
The authors have taken particular aim at so-called minirooms. There’s no one definition of a miniroom, but they’ve proliferated in the streaming era.
In one example, the studios would assemble a miniroom before a show was picked up by the studio for broadcast. A small number of writers develop a series and write several scripts in two or three months.
But union leaders said that because studios don’t order series, writers can justify paying less than they would in a proper writer’s room. Because of the relatively short tenure, those writers are scrambling to find other work if the show doesn’t get picked up.
A union leader compared the minirooms to “labor camps” during the negotiations, according to two people familiar with the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions.
A WGA spokesman said the remark was not real and came during an hour-and-a-half-long presentation.
“Development work is always paid at a premium because you come up with the idea,” Ellen Stutzman, the WGA’s chief negotiator, said in an interview. “If you’re going to have these rooms before you pick up a show or a season, you have to pay a premium to the writers.”
The remnants of what Ms. Stutzman called “the profit participation of the middle-class writer” — writers have said have suffered in the streaming era. Before streaming, writers could receive residual payments whenever a show was licensed, be it syndication, an international deal, or DVD sales.
But in the streaming era, with global services like Netflix and Amazon reluctant to license their series, those distribution arms have been chipped away and replaced with static residue, Ms. Stutzman said.
“If most content writers are building streaming sites and they’re completely cut off from global growth and success, that’s a huge problem,” he said.