Primer: Beginner’s Guide to the WGA & AMPTP 2020 Negotiations

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Cheyne Gateley/Variety Intelligence Platform

This is the first piece in an ongoing Variety Intelligence Platform series on the 2020 contract negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

Twice delayed, negotiations for the master agreement between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, set to expire on June 30, have finally gotten underway. 

WGA head David Young labelled the AMPTP “despicable” last month, after the AMPTP President Carol Lombardini said she would have to consult AMPTP members on a WGA request to extend healthcare coverage to the end of the year given the COVID-19 pandemic. With language like that banded around, it could be assumed that the negotiations may be fiery at times, especially as the WGA has taken on a more militant tone in recent years, with their one-year-long-and-counting feud with major talent agencies the best example.

The industry had anticipated that the negotiations would fail, with a strike being called, the first since 2007, seen as likely. Key to a speedy resolution this time will be no lowball offers from the AMPTP; given the reduced time for negotiations and the aggressive side the WGA has been showing, coming in with a purposely low offer designed to negotiate may raise their ire.

Negotiations have been tense in the recent past. In 2017, a WGA strike was averted “in overtime” after the current deal expired with no agreement, as the guild and AMPTP locked horns on the sticky issue of residuals (royalty payments to writers when their shows air or stream). 

Residuals remain a key issue, as the traditional TV and home entertainment markets have bottomed out as streaming boomed, meaning writers have seen a significant decline in income. Attention will be on what the two sides dub “high budget SVOD shows”, which now has come to cover almost all streaming production, ranging from content on small services like Shudder to the giants of Netflix and Amazon. 

With there unlikely to be another revolution in how entertainment is distributed (prior revolutions were over-the-air broadcasts; home video first on VHS and then DVD; and finally streaming), this is likely the final stand to fix what the guilds see as long-standing underpayment, compounded by the shift in consumption away from traditional TV and home video. The AMPTP recently came to terms with the Directors Guild for a near 50% increase in the SVOD residuals rate, and are expected to offer these terms to the WGA. Whether they accept, or push for more, will be something to look out for.

Complicating the matter is how the online streaming giants have paid talent. With the audience for cable reruns mostly vanishing, streaming services dominate viewing. The SVODs have moved to pay talent upfront, removing the valuable tail payments that occur once a show is no longer producing new episodes, and which help keep talent afloat when looking for a new gig. 

Additionally, streaming shows have exacerbated the issue that Cable TV’s Golden Age created, namely shorter season orders. The result of this has been smaller windows of employment for writers, and thus less money for those paid on a per episode basis as episode orders shrink.

This plays into another key issue the WGA hopes to put to rest in this round of talks. What has been dubbed the “span” issue refers to the length of time committed to working on shows. Currently, writers paid on an episodic basis are paid every 2.4 weeks per episode contracted, and is something the WGA is committed to reducing further.

The threat of a strike may have been lessened with the pandemic’s production shutdown, but that doesn’t mean the talks will go smoothly. Before COVID-19 hit, negotiations were to begin on March 23, leaving 14 weeks until the contract expiration. Talks now have to take place across a much-truncated 6 weeks. With strong epithets used before negotiations even began, expecting there to be no fireworks may be naive, to say the least.