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What will a Hollywood writers' strike mean?

2017-04-28 06:00
 

Los Angeles — Hollywood is facing a cliffhanger after members of the Writers Guild of America voted overwhelmingly to authorise a strike that could begin as soon as next week.

Negotiations resumed Tuesday as the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers grapple over issues including compensation and health care.

The previous writers' strike lasted 100 days in 2007-08 and was costly to the businesses that serve Hollywood and to consumers expecting to be entertained.

A walkout's impact would come in waves and affect different parts of the industry differently. Here's a look at how it could play out if writers trade their laptops for picket signs.

THE ISSUE

The changing nature of how television is delivered to viewers is a major reason for the impasse.

More than 400 series were available on broadcast, cable and rapidly expanding streaming platforms this season, double that of six years ago. But shows have fewer episodes than the roughly two-dozen per season once common on network TV, and short runs of as few as 8 to 12 episodes mean less money for writers getting paid on a per-episode basis.

Contracts binding writers exclusively to a series have cut into their compensation as well.

According to the WGA, which has about 20 000 members, median earnings for writers dropped between the 2013-14 season and 2015-16, and more and more scribes are finding it difficult to make a living under current deals.

The guild is seeking a wage increase and wants salary minimums to apply equally to streaming, cable and broadcast. Health care, an issue that echoes beyond Hollywood, also is on the table. The two sides are at odds over what concessions the guild would make in return for producers contributing more to the health plan.

TELEVISION

TV viewers won't be laughing much if writers take a hike, with the most immediate impact on late-night talk and comedy shows including Saturday Night Live.

In the 2007 walkout, shows including NBC's Tonight and CBS' The Late Show with David Letterman went dark for two months. They returned during the strike either without writers or, in Letterman's case, with a separate guild deal through his production company. That won't be an option for CBS' current Late Show host, Stephen Colbert, because a CBS entity now produces it.

For prime-time TV, the strike would come as the fall-to-spring broadcast season winds down. But with year-round programming now commonplace, networks and cable channels likely will call on reality shows to help fill the void.

Reruns, sports and news — especially given ratings-grabbing Trump administration coverage — also would be key, said entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel.

Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon could be winners because their original series tend to be produced further in advance of release, Handel said.

THE BIG SCREEN

The slower pace of film production, where it takes up to three years or more for the biggest movies to be made, means a strike wouldn't cause as much immediate havoc in the movie business. But it would still greatly alter the well-ordered pipelines of Hollywood productions, big and small.

Most significant would be the impact on large franchises that might not have a script quite ready for shooting. That leaves studios with a choice of whether to press pause on a franchise or push ahead with an unfinished screenplay.

The 2007 strike affected the making of movies like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the James Bond film Quantum of Solace and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. All of those films received poor reviews, and many of the filmmakers and stars involved later said the movies simply didn't have the screenplay or the writers that they needed.

Some films will be rushing to get scripts ready before any potential strike, but others will inevitably be left in limbo.

Screenwriter and WGA member David Atkins, who teaches film and TV at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, said he's feeling the squeeze already.

He and a writing partner have a script ready to sell but "it's an extremely awkward time" with a possible strike looming, he said. "We've decided not to move forward at this point, to wait and see what happens."


DOLLARS AND CENTS

The 100-day writers' strike that started in late 2007 cost the economy in the Los Angeles area around $2.5 billion, according to estimates at the time. The entertainment industry at that time contributed $58 billion a year for the area's economy.

That has grown to $83bn as of 2014, according to a report by Los Angeles County's Economic Development Corp.

The producers group on the other side of the bargaining table said the 2007-2008 strike meant $287m in lost compensation for writers.

CBS said then that TV ad revenue fell 15%, hurt by the strike and other factors. But Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, said international sales of shows offset ad-sales losses.

(Photos: AP)


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