May 29, 2024

WGA picket lines on the West Coast swelled Friday in response to the call from guild leaders for a strong turnout on the streets as labor and management negotiators gathered for a third consecutive day of talks aimed at ending the more than four-month-long strike.

In Hollywood, Netflix and Paramount saw big crowds of WGA and SAG-AFTRA pickets gathered by 9 a.m. The past week has been chock full of rumors spread by social media and private online and text channels that a deal is in the offing. In West Los Angeles, a typically large crowd made the rounds outside of Fox Studios.

Many WGA veterans urged caution at getting hopes too high for what may come out of the AMPTP negotiating room later today, after a third day of talks between labor and management that involved four CEOs.

“I’m a realist,” said Amy Berg, a showrunner and WGA strike captain who has dubbed herself the “Lot Mom” of Fox Studios. “You want it to be done. But at the same time, we’ve gone through this before. A few weeks ago that everyone heard on a Friday that the strike was suddenly over, and that wasn’t the case.”

As a former negotiating committee member herself, Berg also noted that the contract bargaining process is a slog that doesn’t move quickly and can be tricky to navigate under pressure. Simply put, if the deal isn’t right, Berg feels there’s a strong will among members to stay out if need be.

“Even if we’ve agreed on any big points, there’s so much language that needs to be worked out. We have to negotiate in contract language, especially in this strike, to get the protections that we need,” she said. So I’m open to being out here much longer if that means everyone’s going to be protected.”

Billy Ray, a screenwriter who has hosted the “Strike Talk” podcast for Deadline since shortly after the work stoppage began on May 2, stressed that the studios should not count on starving out writers with a long strike.

“I think one of the things that the companies miscalculated was that life was so hard on writers and actors before the strikes that being on strike is not that big a step down,” Ray told Variety as he made the rounds outside Fox. “I think the will to do this for months is there.”

Writers’ views of the strike and union tactics can vary greatly, Ray acknowledged, but what he has found consistent during the labor action now on Day 144 is an understanding that the battle being waged by WGA and SAG-AFTRA is part of a larger labor movement in the U.S.

“People are now thinking aboutwWhere does this strike now these strikes sit in a larger conversation about the corporatization of America, the power of labor, the worth of the individual? These are eternal issues,” Ray said. “Like and this is a stand and fight moment. Everybody out here has a sense of it.”

Other writers on the line Friday expressed a range of emotions, from extreme skepticism to anger at the studios for the duration of the strike to hope that the sides were getting to the finish line.

“I’m feeling very hopeful, but I am also very much waiting for word from leadership, because I know that there are any number of strategies that can be employed in heightening optimism to try to pressure a deal,” said WGA member Eleanor Morrison (“Veep”). “I am trying to keep that in mind as I approach the vibe today.”

By 10:30 a.m., the crowd of protestors outside Paramount had grown to about the same numbers as the first day of the WGA strike, which began May 2. The mood was upbeat and playful — it helped that by sheer coincidence, it was “puppet” day on the line, with many picketers marching with felt hand puppets or intricate marionettes — as guild members struck a tone of guarded optimism.

Peter Murrieta (“The Wizards of Waverly Place”), who was a strike captain during the 2007-08 WGA strike and served on the 2000 negotiating committee, echoed those sentiments. “When I read the reports that say things are this way or that way, I feel like that has to be probably coming from the other side of the negotiations,” he said. “So I take it all with a grain of salt. I’m very pumped up and ready to keep going.”

For Jamie Denbo (“Grey’s Anatomy”), the most important deal points were protections for AI and data transparency allowing for success-based residuals. “They are the most existentially threatening to business and society as a whole,” she said. “And if this business has to be the example for why that is important, then so be it. I’m here to fight those fights.” As for one of the biggest sticking points, writers room minimums, Denbo was candid.

“I work in a room that’s really big, because it’s an older model that has worked and continues to work, so I’m an example of that,” she said. “But I also do respect creators that have a single voice. I always think it should be an option. They have the fucking money, so give us a room minimum, and whether you want to use all those writers or not should be up to the creative.”

Denbo remained optimistic about a both sides reaching a deal — even if the underlying issues that have fueled the labor actions across so many business sectors remain unresolved.

“This whole fight is so symbolic of the ills of capitalism and corporatization without guardrails,” she said. “Do I think that we’ll be able to get a band aid that will hold this business together a little bit longer? Yes. Eventually we will. Because guess what, people still want ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ And they should, because it’s still good. And I write on it. And I’m a co-EP — put that in there. But I don’t think that this fight is going to end necessarily for a long time.”

At Netflix, writer Jane Anderson spoke for many veteran members when she emphasized that for her, the strike is about securing a solid future for younger writers. The strike has not been as hard on her as it has on younger and less experienced scribes.

“The spirit is so high,” Anderson said, noting that the onset of the SAG-AFTRA strike in mid-July was a jolt of energy that helped writers get through the past two months. “There was a big slump in July when it got super hot, and everyone was dragging,” she noted.

“I don’t suffer because I became a writer decades ago when I could make a great salary. I’m really doing this for the younger writers. I want them to be able to buy a house and support their families,” Anderson said.

Michael Cobian (“Power: Book IV”), who also came out to Netflix, was willing to express some hope but leavened with caution.

“It feels good that [negotiators] can speak back and forth, and that gives us hope,” Cobian said. “But obviously, just because we’re talking it doesn’t mean that the things we’re asking for in the next contract are going to happen just yet. I take it all day by day, just trying to get work done and stay positive.”

Travis Adam Wright is also encouraged to see the involvement of senior studio leaders — Disney’s Bob Iger, Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and NBCUniversal’s Donna Langley.

“It’s created a lot of positive noise,” Wright said as he picketed outside Netflix. “My fear is always that it’s just them positioning to say, ‘Oh well, we offered them better terms and they turned us down and we were so reasonable.’ The idea of making it seem like writers are greedy or actors are greedy — it’s just ridiculous to think we’re asking for too much.”

Adam Benic, another WGA foot soldier outside Netflix, emphasized that the core issues that sparked the walkout in May have not gone away and need to be resolved. As a writer who is on the middle rungs of his career, Benic said he feels stymied in his abilty to advance by the changes in the nature of writers rooms and TV series employment in recent years.

“Mini rooms and minimum staffing are big issues for me,” Benic said. “We need to have a minimum pathway for people like me who are mid- to lower-level to be able to graduate up because otherwise, they’ll just hire two showrunners and no one else.”

At the same time, he added, “I’m glad the CEOs are engaged, as they should be. It should have happened sooner, but better late than never.”

Peter Hankoff, screenwriter and documentary filmmaker who has been a regular presence outside Fox, said he feels the pressure from the near-historic duration of the WGA strike is weighing harder on the studios and streamers than it is on guild members. The longest work stoppage in WGA history was the 154-day strike that stretched from early March to early August in 1988.

“I don’t think the AMPTP wants to have the longest strike on record be on their backs. I think that they’re going to want to end this strike before Day 153. Because even though it’s a Pyrrhic victory, if they let the strike go on more than 153 days, they set the precedent for the longest strike in history. They’re also setting the precedent for the next strike to be even longer,” Hankoff said. “If I was [AMPTP president] Carol Lombardini, I would want to get this thing done. We’re their business partners, we’re not their adversaries, and people forget that.”

Hankoff firmly believes that writers retain enormous leverage because they are uniquely skilled labor. “People in the AMPTP have the power to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ But only writers have the power to say the words that go between ‘Fade in’ and ‘Fade out,’ ” he observed.

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