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Hollywood on Edge as AMPTP, WGA Point Fingers After Talks End

Hollywood’s blood pressure is rising. The decision unveiled Friday night by the Writers Guild of America to seek a strike authorization vote, following two weeks of contract talks with the major studios and networks, has the industry on edge about the prospect of a work stoppage.

The WGA West’s board of directors is expected to vote Monday night on the negotiating committee’s request for a strike authorization vote. The WGA East’s governing council is expected to consider the matter on Tuesday. If approved, which seems likely lest the guilds’ leaders appear divided, the ballots could be out by next week. As of Monday, there was no date on the calendar for the sides to resume talks.

A strike authorization vote doesn’t mean the writers will immediately walk, but it does enable the boards of West and East to call for a strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers companies after the current Minimum Basic Agreement covering film and TV work expires May 1. Friday’s announcement marks the first time the WGA has sought a strike authorization against the AMPTP since 2007, the last time scribes hit the picket lines.

There’s been a short runway for strike talk this time around compared to the environment a decade ago, when the guild spent more than a year organizing and educating members on the issues at hand. This time around, the studios have had far less notice to stockpile scripts, which means the pipeline of product would shut off that much faster in many cases. Even TV shows with a season’s worth of finished scripts would be hard-pressed to complete production without showrunners on the job.

The finger-pointing on Friday night between the guild in its message to members and the AMPTP in its statement was a disconcerting echo of the 100-day battle that raged from Nov. 5, 2007 to Feb. 12, 2008.

The guild asserted that the studios have largely refused to respond to their efforts to address the financial strains that many TV writers in particular are facing amid broad changes in the industry. And the WGA health plan is in need of a capital influx to avoid a big shortfall in the future. The wrangling over this issue led the WGA to describe the AMPTP’s proposals on benefit cuts to shore up health care as “rollbacks.” The AMPTP, meanwhile, chided the guild for ending the negotiations on Friday “in order to secure a strike vote rather than directing its efforts at reaching an agreement at the bargaining table.”

One industry observer with experience in Hollywood labor negotiations opined Monday that there still does not appear to be a clear-cut “strike issue” on the table that would energize film and TV writers to take to the streets. Work is plentiful in the Peak TV era, although the need for writers to balance multiple jobs in a year to maintain the income levels once provided by a traditional gig on a 22-episode-per-season drama is one of the big pain points.

In 2007, the guild was focused on getting a foot in the door of the digital content arena that has since exploded on the foundation of high-end TV series productions that all start with WGA members. The rallying cry then was simple. The WGA pointed to the guild’s failure to push hard for a stake of the profits from the home video revolution and urged members not to make the same mistake again with digital.

This time around, the observer said, the issues of compensation and the structure of employment terms that are becoming onerous to mid- and lower-level writers “could be dealt with easily if people are willing to sit at the table and be reasonable.”

Still, the mood among many writers is volatile — even more so at a time when a spirit of activism and “resistance” has been spurred by the widespread opposition to the Trump administration. An exchange of heated rhetoric from both camps in the coming days could inflame the situation.

By many accounts, leadership of the AMPTP is mindful of the need for delicate handling of the talks. The hardball stance taken at the start of the negotiations in 2007 gave the WGA plenty of ammo to convince writers of the need for a strike. At the same time, the onset of a strike authorization vote could stir up a more militant stance among WGA members, adding pressure for negotiators to deliver meaningful gains in the new contract.

A key indicator to watch, according to industry veterans, is how long it takes for the sides to agree to go back to the table. With the contract expiring on May 1, the clock is already ticking.

Dave McNary contributed to this report. 

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