At midnight on Tuesday, May 2, what had been feared for months happened. For the first time in fifteen years, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike against the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers (AMPTP). At stake is the livelihood of thousands of people throughout the industry who will be impacted by the fact that all narrative, late-night, and other written film and television productions have halted.
We had the opportunity to connect with working post-production professionals to get their take on the strike and how they feel it will impact their corner of the film and television world. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic and because, as one person we contacted said, “...retribution is real in this industry,” the respondents chose to remain anonymous.
Before we get into their responses, let’s briefly cover what the strike is about and why this one is so different from the last industry strike of 2007-2008.
What’s at the core of the WGA strike?
Every three years, the WGA and the AMPTP negotiate over contracted terms to arrive at what’s called a Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA). If the two organizations are unable to agree, the union calls for a strike. These negotiations happen with all the major unions (e.g., DGA, SAG, etc.)
Conflict typically arises from disagreements in compensation and/or working conditions—and they can cost the entertainment industry hundreds of millions of dollars. The longest strike in the WGA’s history was back in 1988. It lasted for 21 weeks and cost an estimated $500 million. The strike of 2007-2008 lasted 100 days and cost $1.5 BILLION!
A recurring theme in WGA strikes
Whenever there’s a new technology that changes how television shows and movies are delivered to the masses, residual compensation becomes a key sticking point.
When DVDs and other physical media became prominent in the late 80s, payment to writers for their work on these media was the issue.
In the ‘07-’08 strike, a key driver in the disagreement between the WGA and the AMPTP was compensation and residual payments for projects distributed via emerging “new media” channels. These included digital downloads from sites like the iTunes store and streamers like Netflix.
Not unlike the last WGA strike, this one is also closely tied to the impact streamers like Netflix have had. But a key difference between then and now is that where the WGA’s overall objectives are homogenous, due to the make-up of distributors today, the needs and objectives of the AMPTP members are different.
New vs. old models of distribution
In the previous era of film and television distribution, the overwhelming members of the AMPTP were representatives from traditional studios like Paramount, Universal, Sony, etc. The primary business models for all these entities were the same.
The entertainment landscape today has evolved significantly. Companies like Apple and Amazon are now part of the game, and frankly, a protracted strike will not impact them as much as traditional studios. Whether a WGA strike lasts for 100 days or even 100 months, companies of this size—with revenue sources significantly broader and larger than traditional studios—could hold strong.
Streamers are probably well suited for a longer hold-out as well due to their large number of non-scripted shows (e.g., documentaries and reality TV).
Could these disparate business models and media categories motivate the AMPTP to be more cooperative? Perhaps. However, the gulf between the WGA and the AMPTP—which relates to myriad issues like staffing numbers, working period, Artificial Intelligence, and residual payments for hit shows—suggests we could be in for a strike that lasts well into the fall.
And that is where we come to the central theme of this article.
The impact of the WGA strike on post-production
The professional post-production world spans a wide variety of industries. In addition to film and television, there are corporate, gaming, and event professionals. The overwhelming number of people who responded to our inquiries were in film and television. The TL:DR of the responses we received can be summarized in these points:
- Post-production started feeling the effects months before the strike occurred
- With respect to film and television, narrative and late night will be hit the hardest, with non-scripted shows and features with long post seasons fairing best
- Post houses and professionals focusing on corpo and promos won’t be affected by the strike directly but could see increased competition from film and TV freelancers expanding their repertoire for additional work
- Regardless of what happens, solidarity is with the writers, and it’s generally understood that the outcome, if beneficial for the writers, will set precedents that benefit the other union guilds as well.
Here’s what they had to say.
How the pros think the WGA strike will affect post-production
“I was living in LA during the WGA strike in the mid-2000s. I had just moved to LA and was establishing my network. Work dropped off at the top level, feature film jobs and the like. Since no work was being done at that level, those working there took the B- and C-level jobs. That really closed the door on a lot of potential gigs I could get. I had to rely on my Plan B, which was teaching editing and consulting gigs.
I eventually had to take a job in video engineering [major color house]. Though I appreciated the money, it was a job I wasn't exactly suited for. I was rather desperate for work, and when that gig went away, I had to go into survival mode. Essentially, I went broke.
Fortunately, my connections at Apple (from an earlier gig on Final Cut Studio 3) had a job for me back up in Cupertino as a QE on FCP 7 and Motion 4. I bailed out of LA and moved back to San Francisco. I've been there ever since.
Yes, the WGA strike and the diving US economy crushed my LA dreams to dust. My advice is to be prepared for a long haul. Set up Plan B and Cs, and cut your budget, especially if you are not well established with your network. For those in LA high-end post. I wish you luck!”
“My prediction is, mild impact varying from slightly less work to slightly more. There might be more packages rolling into live shoots, repurposed/remixed existing footage, clips shows, verite style reality or docs. But corpo and ad work will be the same and features are on such a long post-production timeline that editors can be kept busy in their dungeons for a month without letting them into the sunlight. Some shows that might just now be kicking off will be on pause, and that will cascade down to editors being put on pause.”
Editor of trailers, promos, and ads for games
“I work in documentary and unscripted, so I am largely unaffected. If anything, I have more work. I think the writer's demands are more than fair, and I've seen all the same exact problems they have with streaming giants, so I fully support them—same as I supported the movement within IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) to strike. Even before the strike, my colleagues and I had started calling this the era of "Insta-Docs"—where we conceptualize to air documentaries in just 2-3 months max.
Have you noticed the streaming giants just produce so many similar-looking documentaries, they have their moment in the sun and then are gone, never to be spoken of again? When was the last time we had a Man on Wire or Hoop Dreams that transcended its original platform? I'm not saying good documentaries aren't still being made, but we've been explicitly told, all these streaming giants care about is "length to profitability," which just means how fast can we get enough viewers to show profitability of the project, which means we can get greenlit for another, and another. Anything after the profitability mark is just a bonus; but really they don't care about the longevity of their products. So for me personally, the most I'll be affected is likely just to be asked to work on lower-quality content than I'd prefer until the strike is over and things settle down.
All of this feels so very reminiscent of the 2007/8 strike. The networks and studios believe cheap content will be good ammo against the writers, but once again, they are wrong. The public and the industry as a whole are on the writer's side. If the writers can hold out, they will ice out the networks from having top-tier content and they will eventually cave.”
“I’d just say I support the writers wholeheartedly and hope they’re able to get everything they’re negotiating for. A lot of their demands have heavy implications for post-production, especially those regarding artificial intelligence, so I hope they’re able to make big strides and set a precedent for protecting human jobs that the other guilds can follow. A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say.”
“We’ve been planning this since January. Nobody can really start shooting again until at least mid-August because the bond companies stop bonding on July 1 for at least 6 weeks. And nobody still firming up script can do a deal, not even distribution due to WGA strike rules. Most international is in solidarity. Post will have a major bubble upon return, which will cause all sorts of delivery issues. The most we can hope for is what is stated in Deadline’s Strike Talk podcast with the execs and writers (not negotiators) getting in the room to do the right thing within the coming month. But since Wall Street, not humans, are so in control of Hollywood these days, it’s hard to know how this will come together. There are sane people at the smaller AMPTP companies who might broker their own deal with the WGA if it comes to it.”
“Studios and networks have seen this coming for months. So there has been pre-planning on getting shows done early or just not starting up new shows. Next seasons are already on hold if not already shot. Upfronts will be awkward in a few weeks as most of the new shows can't go into summer production. Late night is gone, so those editors are out. Reality shows will be a lot of the summer and new shows depending on how things play out and how long things go. Different edit sectors will feel it differently, and it will be a bit before the full effects hit post.”
Post Supervisor for a Promo/trailer house
One industry veteran we spoke with that didn’t mind being mentioned was Zack Arnold (ACE), editor & associate producer of Netflix’s Cobra Kai.
This is a once-in-a-generation strike that goes far beyond writers fighting for their slice of the pie. This is about ensuring the future of all creative professionals in the entertainment industry, setting boundaries that protect our livelihood outside of the work, and being valued for the creative contributions & ideas we bring to each project. As much as we'd all love to go back to work as soon as possible, this fight now will protect future generations from the rampant exploitation of Hollywood creatives. We have to do this right before doing it fast.
A word about Artificial Intelligence
It’s worth noting the WGA’s request that producers do not turn to AI-generated scripts as a replacement for human writers, or that they should share screen credit, or affect writers’ compensation. Rest assured that whatever agreement the WGA makes with respect to AI will be emulated by other areas of production that can be affected by AI.
It’s becoming more apparent that Generative AI will impact post-production. Programs like Synesthesia and Runway’s Gen-2 text-to-video program are opening new ways for post-production to be aided (and in some cases replaced).
Arnold has some thoughts about AI as well:
With the rapid progression of A.I., not only in post-production but all creative fields, the days of making a living as a specialist with one very specific skillset are over. The AI revolution will be the rise of the generalist with a broad range of knowledge in a multitude of crafts & skill sets. If we don't protect our creative work from A.I. right now - if we don't regulate what is and is not acceptable for using A.I. in generating original creative material - there is no future discussion to be had. The can cannot be kicked down the road the way we did with streaming as "new media." This fight over the future of our creative ideas having value is now or never.
It’s unlikely these programs are ready to edit a Christopher Nolan opus or a 12-episode series on a major streamer. But it’s not too far-fetched to see AI tools like this being virtual assistant editors and creating stringouts based on descriptions of the kinds of scenes and soundbites you want. It would be short-sighted for MPEG (Motion Picture Editors Guild) not to factor AI into their negotiations.
All opinions expressed by named or unnamed participants are their own and do not imply an endorsement by Shift Media or any of its employees.
Header image computer credit Jacob Owens on Unsplash. WGA strike image courtesy Jorge Mir (CC BY)