Hollywood breathed a collective sigh of relief Sunday night when the Writers Guild of America and major studios announced a tentative deal for a new contract.
While the nearly five-month strike — one of the longest in the union’s history — secured what the union called significant gains for the writers, it also had a devastating impact on the livelihoods of thousands of cast and crew members who had been out of work for months.
“We can say with great pride that this deal is exceptional – with significant gains and protections for writers across all areas of the membership,” the WGA’s negotiating committee wrote in a memo to members Sunday evening. The union did not disclose deal points, but the proposed contract is expected to include bonuses tied to the success of high-budget subscription streaming programs and address the guild’s deep concerns about artificial intelligence, among other things.
But the optimism and elation surrounding the agreement, which came after 146 days of picketing, was also tempered by the sobering realization that Hollywood’s return to work will be neither immediate nor easy.
The Sunday pact is just one of several pieces in a complicated puzzle that must be completed before writers, actors and crew members can return to work, even after the strike is officially over and the WGA contract is signed by the 11,500 film and television unions Union was ratified writers.
The union’s negotiating committee is expected to recommend that the union’s board approve the contract as early as Tuesday before it goes to members for a vote. WGA members can return to work before the ratification vote, but must first wait for guild approval.
In fact, it may take weeks or even months for manufacturing activity to return to anything close to the levels that existed before the work stoppage began on May 2nd. Late night shows and talk shows are expected to be the first to return to production.
“It’s one of those things that doesn’t just happen overnight,” said Todd Holmes, associate professor of entertainment media management at Cal State Northridge. “There will be a ramp-up period to get writers back to work and productions back on track.”
Chief among the remaining hurdles: The studios must now find a way to resolve their differences with SAG-AFTRA, whose members have been on strike since mid-July.
The WGA deal could be a template for the actors’ fraternity, which has raised similar concerns about artificial intelligence and compensation for hit streaming shows.
But it may not be a quick negotiation. While the demands of SAG-AFTRA and the WGA are broadly similar, there are differences. For example, AI could prove to be an even more sensitive issue for actors than for writers, as the technology to digitally reproduce a person’s voice and likeness already exists and is evolving rapidly, posing an immediate threat to performers’ jobs.
SAG-AFTRA said Sunday it looks forward to reviewing the agreement between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and remains “committed to achieving the necessary terms for our members.”
“We continue to stand on our TV/Theater contract and continue to call on the studio and streamer CEOs and the AMPTP to return to the table and get the fair deal our members deserve and demand,” SAG-AFTRA said.
For their part, some writers have pledged to join their fellow actors on the picket line as a sign of gratitude to the SAG-AFTRA members who have supported the WGA throughout its long negotiation process. The actors’ union and the AMPTP have not held formal meetings since the actors’ strike began.
“The entire business model has been transformed by streaming, digital and AI,” SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher said in a speech in July. “This is a moment in history that is a moment of truth. If we don’t stand firm now, we will all be in trouble. We are all at risk of being replaced by machines.”
AMPTP said in a statement in July that it had agreed to develop a “comprehensive package of provisions” to address these concerns. But SAG-AFTRA hinted at possible future tensions, saying the studios’ proposals didn’t go far enough.
Holmes estimated that productions would resume and Hollywood crew members could return to work in November, assuming actors and studios resume negotiations soon.
In addition to resolving the dispute between the actors, there are logistical issues to consider when returning to production. Those challenges include scheduling and availability of sound stages and workforce reductions for productions that have been paused or canceled, similar to when the industry tried to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It will be a few months before we get close to full production,” said Scott Purdy, head of U.S. national media at accounting, tax and advisory services firm KPMG. “Think of it like the auto industry: They go on strike and there are six months’ worth of vehicles that aren’t being produced. You can’t suddenly produce all six months’ worth of vehicles in three weeks.”
The two Hollywood strikes are estimated to have an economic impact of about $5 billion in California, Holmes said. Thousands of workers, including Hollywood crew members, were out of work due to production shutdowns, and small businesses, including prop companies and talent replacement firms, also suffered.
The long duration of the strikes hurt Hollywood workers, some of whom struggled to make ends meet and left the state to survive. While Holmes expects most workers will return when production resumes, he said, “Unfortunately, there will be some people who will not return to the industry.”
Staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.