Hollywood writers and studios to restart talks after 3-month standoff

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Hollywood writers and studios to restart talks after 3-month standoff
Striking writers and actors outside Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles, July 14, 2023. The major entertainment studios and thousands of striking writers have agreed to meet to restart talks after a three-month standoff, according to the writers guild. (Mark Abramson/The New York Times)

by Brooks Barnes and John Koblin

LOS ANGELES, CA.- When the Writers Guild of America told its members on Tuesday night that movie and television studios had asked for “a meeting this Friday to discuss negotiations,” it was the first sign of movement in a stalemate that had begun in early May.

It also signaled a shift in strategy for Hollywood executives working behind the scenes to resolve dual union strikes that have ground the vast entertainment industry to a halt.

The 11,500 screenwriters represented by the Writers Guild went on strike in May after contract negotiations with the studios broke down. Last month, they were joined on the picket lines by tens of thousands of actors after their union, SAG-AFTRA, called a strike. Both unions are worried about not receiving a fair share of the spoils of a streaming-dominated future, among other issues.

Faced with navigating a two-front labor war, the studios at first remained focused on the actors. If that strike could be resolved relatively quickly, at least cameras could start rolling again on movies and shows that are past the writing stage, or so the thinking went. Crucially, actors would also be able to rejoin the publicity circuit for already-finished projects. (During a strike, SAG-AFTRA forbids promotional interviews, social media posts and red carpet appearances.)

The actors’ guild has historically been more willing to negotiate with the studios, while the writers have taken a much harder line. Members of the Writers Guild have walked out several times through the decades, most recently in a 100-day strike that ended in 2008. The actors had last gone on strike in 1980.

Over the past week and a half, however, the companies reconsidered that thinking, according to three studio chairs, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the labor situation. The primary reason: Fran Drescher, the president of SAG-AFTRA.

Drescher, the former star and co-creator of the 1990s sitcom “The Nanny,” has launched broadsides at studio executives, including Disney’s chief, Robert Iger. Her sharp criticism of studios started at a news conference on July 13 and continued on picket lines over the next week. On Tuesday, she revved up the SAG-AFTRA membership anew, appearing at a New York City Council meeting and nearby rally. She called studio executives “greed-driven and disrespectful people.”

SAG-AFTRA did not respond to a request for comment.

Studios decided there could be a path forward with the Writers Guild after a small, informal meeting at a home in Los Angeles on July 26, the studio chairs said. A handful of executives met with three members of the guild’s negotiating committee, with senior showrunners helping to arrange the sit-down through back channels.

No negotiating took place, but the studio executives came away thinking that there could be a path to a deal, said a labor lawyer who was briefed on the meeting and discussed the private gathering on the condition of anonymity.

A spokesperson for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of the studios, declined to comment. A representative for the Writers Guild also declined to comment.

A broader group of studio leaders convened on Zoom on Friday, the lawyer said. This session included Alan Bergman and Dana Walden, the chairs of Disney Entertainment; Donna Langley, the chair of the NBCUniversal Studio Group; Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-chief executive; and Tony Vinciquerra, the chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

There continued to be disagreement over how to handle certain Writers Guild demands, including staffing minimums in TV show writers’ rooms. But some of the moguls — notably Vinciquerra, the labor lawyer said — pushed the group to move quickly to make a formal overture to the union.

Carol Lombardini, the lead negotiator for the studio alliance, called her counterpart at the Writers Guild on Tuesday. They agreed to meet in person on Friday to discuss a return to the bargaining table.

The three studio chiefs emphasized that discussions about how to resolve the standoff with SAG-AFTRA were also taking place. Pressure has been increasing from multiple directions — agents, local elected officials, some of Hollywood’s other unions — to reach agreements with both the actors and the writers by Labor Day.

The writers and actors went on strike after they raised concerns about their compensation and working conditions now that streaming content is affecting all corners of entertainment. The writers’ union has called its grievances “existential.” In a video address to members last week, Chris Keyser, a chair of the Writers Guild negotiating committee, said writers of all stripes had, for some time, been “fighting for survival.”

But in those same remarks, Keyser offered a self-described “olive branch” to the studios.

“If you are visionaries, envision a solution, not a stalemate,” he said, addressing the studio chiefs. “Because this isn’t a war we’re in — it’s a negotiation. It’s just a negotiation. And when you come to remember that again, we will be here as we have been here all along.”

Keyser also said the writers remained unified.

“You cannot outlast us — you cannot,” he said. “And not just because we have the will. Because we have power. Nothing in this business happens until we start to write, and we will not start to write until we are paid.”

When the writers first went on strike, the companies essentially turned away from them and focused on separate contract negotiations with the Directors Guild of America and the actors. Hammer out new agreements with them, or so the thinking went, and the Writers Guild, viewed as the most zealous of the three unions, would be boxed in, making its leaders more willing to bargain. It was a playbook that worked the last time the writers went on strike.

Studios reached an agreement with the directors’ union in early June. So far, so good. But then came an unexpected plot twist: The actors’ union angrily broke off talks in mid-July and joined writers on picket lines.

Since then, the clamor from actors has been relentless. On Wednesday, the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, a charity that is associated with the union but run separately, announced that Meryl Streep and George Clooney had helped raise $15 million for workaday actors in need of financial assistance. In a statement, Streep said, “We will stand strong together against these powerful corporations who are bent on taking the humanity, the human dignity, even the human out of our profession.”

Jeffrey Ruthizer, who spent 40 years as a labor negotiator at Disney, ABC and NBC and recently wrote a book, “Labor Pains,” described the stalemate as an “all-out war,” adding that he had never “seen it this bad.” He noted that leaders of the actors’ union had asked members to authorize a strike before negotiations even began.

“That’s highly unusual,” Ruthizer said. “You don’t stoke fear of a strike before sitting down. Once you inflame the passions, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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