After 148 days on strike for a fair deal, 99% of the Writers Guild of America voted to ratify a historic new contract late last week for its 11,000 members. After months of stonewalling, stalling, and even threatening the WGA, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) has agreed to many of the guild’s demands. While the AMPTP’s version of the deal was valued around $86 million, the tentative agreement offers about $233 million—170% more than what they originally offered.
Central to the negotiations were issues around writer compensation, writers’ room sizes, and employment duration, as well as residual payments and protecting workers from being replaced by artificial intelligence. Compared to the AMPTP’s original offers in May, the gains are enormous. These wins will help all writers, especially historically disadvantaged writers, have a better chance of entering and advancing in the industry.
When the deal was announced, “it felt almost like a celebration,” said Y. Shireen Razack, a TV writer and co-founder and co-chair of the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity (TTIE). “The bars exploded with people going out and meeting up and just celebrating the win.”
As Keisha Zollar, a WGA and SAG-AFTRA member, said, “Getting a [WGA] deal was a huge sigh of relief because I desperately want to get back to some sense of normalcy … The strike went on much longer than I could have imagined, and I’m grateful it did to be able to get everything from the contract so many writers needed.”
While the WGA strike is over, and writers are now able to continue working on projects, their counterparts in the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) are still on strike, putting Hollywood into a transitional space. Hopes for their strike wrapping up quickly were dashed on Thursday, when talks that had resumed with the AMPTP fell apart. But WGA members are still picketing in solidarity with the actors in hopes that the entire industry can get back to work fairly.
“They’ve been with us since day one, and we’re there with them till the end, till they get the fair deal that they deserve,” said Tawal Panyacosit, a TV writer and co-founder and co-chair of the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity.
In their memorandum of agreement, the WGA and AMPTP negotiated increases to writer minimum compensation and residual bases for streaming shows, features, and variety and talk shows, especially for lower-level writers. They also established a new compensation tier for mid-level writers and a script fee requirement for staff writers.
Before the contract, staff writers—who held a lower-level position—were not required to receive flat fees for their scripts. By requiring script fees for lower-level writers, networks are less incentivized to keep staff at lower levels to avoid paying them, Razack explained.
The script fee “will put money in people’s hands,” Zollar said. “That was just the right thing to do.”
“Mini-rooms,” or smaller writers’ rooms that run for a shorter period and have become common for streaming platforms, have also become a major issue in the industry. On streaming platforms, writers can be paid less for completing more work over a shorter period of time and receive dramatically lower residual payments than their counterparts in network television.
In addition, smaller writers’ rooms mean fewer hires, leading to fewer opportunities for new writers to break into the field in an equitable way. The issue compounds since production companies could be less likely to take a chance on new or underrepresented talent.
As Jamey Perry, a disabled writer and vice chair of the Writers Guild of America’s Disabled Writers Committee, put it early in the strike, “None of the other proposals matter if you can’t get hired in the first place.”
The new contract issues major corrections to these problems, including premium fees required for development and writers’ rooms that last 19 weeks or fewer, and mandating that rooms last a minimum of 10 weeks. And while the AMPTP at first refused to counter the WGA’s proposals mandating minimum writers’ rooms sizes, they finally agreed to a compromise of requiring at least three writer-producers, with exceptions for some high-budget streaming and pay TV series.
“Pre-greenlight room premiums is essentially disincentivizing mini-rooms, and that works in concert with the minimum room size to try to keep the rooms at a reasonable level so that there is room for historically excluded writers and [to ensure] that they won’t be pushed out by the smaller rooms and the shorter timeframes,” Razack said.
The AMPTP also agreed to viewership-based residuals, which will force streamers to release, at least internally to the WGA, data on their most popular shows—information that they have kept notoriously secretive until this point. The contract also establishes higher residual rates for foreign streaming based on a tier system and higher health insurance and pension contributions. During the strike, the WGA and AMPTP had agreed to extend health insurance coverage eligibility an additional quarter.
Another major issue looming over the negotiations was artificial intelligence. The AMPTP and WGA made headway here from the AMPTP’s initial non-commitment to protect writers from AI. Now, it has agreed to terms acknowledging that “AI is not a writer.” Writers are allowed to use AI assistance if they want to but cannot be required to do so, and companies must disclose to writers if they are using it.
Panyacosit stressed the importance of this win for the representation of marginalized groups. Because AI algorithms rely on old content, which can often feature outdated or offensive portrayals; with “the usage of AI comes the regurgitation of a lot of old stereotypes,” he said.
“With larger rooms and bringing in historically excluded voices, we can be battling those narratives, which is much needed right now,” said Razack.
While none of the deal points explicitly address equity for marginalized writers, they will undoubtedly be a boon that will allow writers better compensation and more ability to advance in the industry. This is much needed—70% of historically excluded writers who developed new series projects in the past five years did so without pay, compared to 53% of non-marginalized writers, according to a 2022 TTIE survey.
“Seeing the deal points was really exciting because there really are some much needed changes that hopefully will help to slow the erosion of DEI issues,” said Panyacosit.
But this won’t happen automatically. While pay and employment terms will certainly improve, marginalized writers will still need to advocate for themselves, and disabled writers will still need to ask for accommodations on set, as Zollar noted.
Staffing of marginalized people improved significantly during the streaming content boom. But the strike occurred in the aftermath of that boom, as networks had begun to cancel, pull, and hesitate to greenlight new shows. In some cases, these diverse shows were the first to go. And with the rise of mini-rooms, low residuals, and low pay, many of the writers on these shows were not fairly compensated to begin with.
Both Razack and Zollar also underscored the importance of “leveling up,” or not just making that first job, but advancing in their careers. According to TTIE, in 2021, more than a third of marginalized writers repeated the entry level staff writer position. The new WGA contract could help rectify this by requiring script fees for staff writers.
But with the industry contraction, there are concerns about what kinds of development networks will be willing to greenlight. Amid a downturn in subscribers, Disney CEO Bob Iger has indicated that part of his strategy moving forward is to “quiet the noise” of the culture wars.
As Zollar said, “I always have the anxiety that during economic hardships, people are going to revert back to the status quo.”
Panyacosit and Razack echoed this concern. “In terms of new development for TV content, there’s been a lot of discussion around a move towards more ‘broad appeal.’ And I think that creates less room for three-dimensional narratives around historically excluded folks,” explained Panyacosit.
Yet according to an October 2021 Neilsen report, 87% of respondents said they are “interested in seeing more content featuring people from outside their identity group.” And there is profit, too, in representing diverse stories, despite what figures like Iger might think. A 2021 study by McKinsey found that “by addressing the persistent racial inequities, the industry could reap an additional $10 billion in annual revenues.”
Razack hopes that as the industry comes back to life, networks can be intentional about the way it promotes and supports marginalized writers. “The ramp up is always fast and furious,” she said. “What we’ve been advocating for is take a breath, slow down, remember diversity, inclusion, and equity in your hiring.”
But with SAG-AFTRA still on strike, Hollywood remains in flux. “I think we’re at a pivot point,” said Zollar. “I’m excited, nervous, scared … to see what will happen next.”