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Writers’ Reps Tell the Story | Negotiating With Hollywood

Top negotiators for the writers guild believe the studios’ interests “are no longer sufficiently aligned to allow them to easily negotiate together”

Writers are finally back to work in Hollywood after the WGA and studios reached a deal, which has left many in the industry asking, “What took so long?”

Chris Keyser and David A. Goodman, the co-chairs of WGA’s negotiating committee, pin the blame on the stall tactics that the studios used alongside the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, one that was rendered ineffective by the solidarity built between the WGA and other unions throughout the summer.

“The AMPTP was created in the 80s during the Reagan era, a very anti-labor time. Now, labor is reasserting itself over the last few years, and the AMPTP can’t use old tactics anymore of stalling and trying to squeeze the unions,” Keyser told TheWrap.

He continued, “The broad response I have heard from people I’ve spoken to after seeing the deal we negotiated is anger at the studios, people asking, ‘Why did you take a strike? Why did you take five months and allow so much damage before taking this reasonable deal?’”

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The WGA’s deal saw the union earn a great deal of what it pushed for over the summer-long strike, including AI protections, a structure for minimum staffing requirements on streaming shows, a guaranteed two-step pay structure for screenwriters and minimum employment requirements for Appendix A shows like comedy-variety.

Now it’s SAG-AFTRA’s turn to get back to the negotiating table with a new round of talks starting on Monday. But even if a deal can be reached there, it won’t be long before the studios and AMPTP will be back to negotiate new contracts with IATSE and Teamsters Local 399 next year.

“I think what we found is that the AMPTP is an alliance of companies whose basic interests are no longer sufficiently aligned to allow them to easily negotiate together,” Keyser said. “The duration of this strike came from the AMPTP framework of handling labor, and it has caused them enormous damage. If they continue on this path, it won’t just be labor that says something has to change. I think it’s going to be the companies as well.”

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Read more of Keyser and Goodman’s thoughts on the WGA’s deal and how it can help SAG-AFTRA in its talks in the interview below, which has been edited for length and clarity.

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We have heard from other WGA negotiating committee members that the first day of the talks that led to the deal was so radically different from the talks in August. What first gave you the indication that there was a major change from the studios?
David Goodman: We had conversations with the CEOs leading up to those talks that definitely gave us the impression that they had been doing some work in the interim to try to come back with a proposal that would be more meaningful, especially around streaming. They had sort of given a preview of that without giving specifics, but they signaled they had that counterproposal. So obviously, when they made the proposal, that that was incredibly gratifying that they were doing something that they said they’d never do.

Personally, I think we did seal it on Wednesday, because that counter showed us that we were on the way to a deal, that they were now serious about discussing our issues.

Chris, we heard from studio sources that your conversations with several CEOs, including David Zaslav, were key to getting talks restarted. What did you hear from them that made you feel confident that things were in place for talks to get started again?
Chris Keyser: Well, as David said, and he was on several of those calls with me, it was the fact that they told us there was going to be a different counterproposal than what they urged us to agree to last month. We didn’t know for sure until we were actually in the room with them on Wednesday, but there was a tone and specificity to what they were telling us on those calls that led us to believe that they were being straightforward. And then once we actually saw it and they spoke to us in the room, we knew that we had moved out of that phase of posturing and power playing and it was time to just sit down and knock this thing out.

wga-strike-rally-la-brea-tar-pits writers strike

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How much do you think the public rejection from your members of the AMPTP’s August proposal played an impact on the studios?
Goodman: I think what’s interesting about that moment was that they weren’t ready to make a deal yet. They had made this offer that they thought was as far as they needed to go, and they wanted to use it as a cudgel to try to divide leadership from the membership.

What that showed was just a lack of understanding of what the strike was about, and their attempts of trying to convince the membership that the leadership is crazy, which is an old tactic that many companies use, was just not going to work.

How did the guild and studios settle on a streaming bonus model for writers as opposed to a residual structure as you initially proposed?
Keyser: I think one of the difficult things about that part of the talks is that in streaming, they’ve managed in some ways to divorce viewership from success. Linear TV had reruns and advertising, so if you ran it again, you made more money or if you sold one to another platform, you sold it for a certain amount of money.

But in streaming, you put something on a service and it sits there forever and whether more and more people watching it over and over again had any positive effect on the streamer’s business success was hard to say. So when we made our proposal on streaming, we told them, “We know you know more than us on this, and if you don’t like the viewership residual proposal, propose something else.”

With the bonus model being set at a percentage of the total subscriber base, the standard of success to earn it adjusts depending on the subscriber size of the platform the show is on. Of course, we negotiated to try to get as many titles as possible to qualify for that bonus, but it was a foot in the door to gain more transparency in how successful a show was doing no matter what streaming service it is on.

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The studios did not want to talk about AI because so much of the technology is still hypothetical. Your members forced the issue, but how hard was it to negotiate terms when there’s still so much unknown about what AI can do?
Keyser: When we sat down the the executives individually, the AI discussions were easier compared to other stuff. It was just the legal language that made it so hard and took a lot of time at the end because, as you said, we don’t know the full effects that AI will have on the industry yet.

But we still got the two vital things we wanted on AI. First, there’s how AI affects our work going forward. We got really deep meaningful protections that AI is not literary material, that the credited writer has to be a person and that person’s compensation cannot be infringed upon.

The other question was about what has already been written and what what the rules were concerning how companies could use the work that we had written to train AI. Remember, this is different from the risks posed by ChatGPT and Open AI, that those who do not own the copyright might use the work that we have written to create new material. There, I think we and the companies are on the same side.

But what happens inside companies with the material that they already own, that we’ve already written, where they actually have copyright? It’s a little unclear how they intersect with AI, but they certainly have some legal copyright rights in that material. We, on the other hand, have contractual rights in that, and where those copyright rights and contractual rights intersect is the question. We think the right thing to do is to say, “We retain all of our rights under law in the MBA, the companies retain all the rights,” and then we will negotiate whenever the time comes that AI creates a situation where those rights have a conflict.

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There are so many different sections of this contract that secure higher pay, from two-step pay for screenwriters to guaranteed number of weeks of minimum pay for scripted and comedy-variety shows and a premium for working in a miniroom. How do you think we are going to see the overall trends in writers’ pay change in the next two years?
Keyser: Well, obviously, all writers’ minimums are going to go up substantially, so that downward trend on writer pay will be reversed there. What happens to above-scale pay is harder to predict, but we hope that this contract will give agents more ammunition to push for higher pay for their writer clients.

There are a number of companies that put a hard cap on salaries for writers that aren’t on overall deals — $12,500 per week is the figure we see get bandied about the most senior writers, but that’s not a remarkable above-scale rate for someone who has been writing for 10, 15, 20 years. Agents have had a hard time breaking that, but now with this contract, the scale rate in many rooms for writer-producers is $14,000 per week. We don’t know how the companies will act on this, but we feel that we’ve given agents more leverage to negotiate for higher pay.

SAG-AFTRA has also been looking to increase their members’ compensation, and during their talks they were pushing for a significant increase in basic rates. But in your contract, you agree with the AMPTP to the same basic rate increases as the Directors Guild while securing pay increases in many other areas. As SAG-AFTRA resumes talks next week, do you think that they can take a similar strategy if the AMPTP insists on the same basic rate increase?Goodman: I don’t think the big takeaway from our talks that can apply to SAG-AFTRA is about what path they can take but what path the studios need to take, and that’s to take the union’s demands seriously. We rejected the AMPTP pattern bargaining strategy that they have used for decades.

Now, we couldn’t completely overthrow it. There are still parts of this contract that we agreed to that the AMPTP patterned after the DGA deal, but we stuck firm to demands that were unique to writers until the studios understood that we wouldn’t accept any deal that didn’t properly address them. The actors have been doing the same thing with their unique demands out on the picket line since July, and I’m confident that they will get those demands satisfied in a way that, like our contract, doesn’t affect the companies’ bottom line.

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Jeremy Fuster: Box Office Reporter • • Twitter: @jeremyfuster