The Writers Guild is ratcheting up pressure on the studios, indicating it will strike May 2 if a new deal isn't in place that gives scribes a bigger piece of Peak TV revenue, among other proposals. And at a meeting Tuesday packed with hundreds of members, the union began the six-day process of obtaining a strike authorization from its members.
While support for a strike seems strong among the rank-and-file WGA membership, a small but powerful faction has reason to be conflicted: showrunners and top writer-producers.
"The guild is behaving like the coal miners who want to go back to the way it was," Janis Hirsch (Will & Grace) posted April 7 on Facebook. "I cannot come up with one good reason … why I should authorize a strike vote."
But 11 days later, Hirsch had become convinced, writing to a colleague in an email that she subsequently provided to The Hollywood Reporter, "The more I read, the more I LISTEN, the more I realize that the only way to stand is with you and my Guild."
Says Stephen Falk (You're the Worst): "The idea that we should just roll over and take it up the ass because it might affect other people [is] a terrible, terrible thing, and I really hate that."
On Wednesday, Joss Whedon (Buffy, Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) tweeted, "Vote YES on strike auth. Th[e] story of our country can't b[e] th[e] have-alls taking everything from th[e] do-alls. Not when we WRITE the story."
Meanwhile, Fargo and Legion writer-producer Noah Hawley is fully supportive of the union but sees the downside of a strike. "The goal is to find a way to share [company] profits with the artists; whether we need the strike to get that or not, I'm not sure," he tells THR. "I have to review where the board is and everything."
"Where the board is" will depend on how the studios plan to address the $350 million gap between them and the WGA. It's understood that since that estimate there has been some movement on both sides, but observers find it difficult to see how so large a gap will be bridged prior to contract expiration, which comes just a week after now-suspended talks resume next Tuesday.
Why might showrunners be torn? For one thing, they're generally the guild's highest earners, which means they have the most to lose if a strike delays their shows, let alone pushes marginally-performing series - those "on the bubble" - over the edge and into the oblivion of cancellation.
And, many of them have been through the 2007-08 and even 1988 strikes, making them acutely aware of the impact. Writers - and directors, cast and crew - lose wages during a WGA strike, and writers sweat it out on picket lines, while company executives sit in air conditioned offices cutting costs and pivoting schedules to sports, news, reality and reruns. Among those cuts are so-called "force majeure" terminations of showrunners' overall and development deals. During the last strike, studios and networks used the work stoppage to clean house on those pricey pacts.
In short, writers and other workers worry about making rent and mortgage payments during a strike, while company executives are generally successful in making a significant amount of lemonade from the lemons they're handed.
With the picture so grim, why strike? That question, too, has an answer: A threat of a strike, and an actual strike, are seen as nearly the only powerful weapon a union has. Someone familiar with past public employee job actions might wonder whether mass sick-outs and overly punctilious "work-to-rule" actions might be effective, too, but those tools don't seem to be employed in Hollywood.
Said guild president Howard Rodman, "[A strike] authorization is the single best and largest piece of leverage we have to get writers what they need and deserve." And, of course, the threat of a strike causes much less pain than an actual strike.
But the trouble with threats is that they quickly lose effectiveness if not backed up by action. And so, if threats don't get the desired result, a strike may soon follow. In addition, even those reluctant to strike believe the writers are being denied a fair share of the vast revenue streams flowing to content studios. "Anybody on either side of the table would be crazy to want a strike," says Better Call Saul's Vince Gilligan. "But this is a business that made $51 billion for the companies last year."
(That figure, the guild's compilation of operating profits, includes income from non-core areas, which can include theme parks, cruise ships, local cable systems, animated films, news and reality TV and doesn't reflect any deduction for taxes, interest charges or depreciation.)
Like many, Joe Weisberg (The Americans) is "hopeful that cooler minds will prevail all around." Then again, he notes, "I'm an optimist."
April 19, 1:35 p.m.: Updated with Hirsch's revised position.
April 19, 1:45 p.m.: Updated with Whedon's tweet.
Kim Masters, Brian Porreca and Jackie Strause contributed to this report.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.