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The Hollywood Strike Forces A Reckoning For The Trades

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JULY 19: Striking SAG-AFTRA members picket with striking WGA (Writers Guild of America) workers outside Netflix offices on July 19, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Members of SAG-AFTRA, Hollywood's largest union which represents actors and other media professionals, have joined striking WGA (Writers Guild of America) workers in the first joint walkout against the studios since 1960. The strike could shut down Hollywood productions completely with writers in the third month of their strike against the Hollywood studios. Netflix reported second quarter earnings after the closing bell today.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

If you were on the website-formerly-known-as-Twitter last week, first of all, my condolences, we are in hell together, and second, you might have seen a flurry of furious tweets from TV and film writers. Specifically, that anger took the form of retweeting a Variety article that focused on a key demand from the Writers Guild of America that drove them to strike, along with a simple message: “I asked for this.

The Variety article in question quoted “one prominent showrunner” as saying that “every” showrunner they know is against key proposals the WGA brought to the table when talks started earlier this year with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), a proposal that would set a minimum number of writers that must be hired at each stage and size of television production. The WGA’s proposal has the number ranging from six up to 12, depending on those factors. “Nobody asked for this,” was the quote from an anonymous showrunner. 

Here’s the short form of the argument: For decades, best practices for television were to have a large staff of writers to help outline a season of television, write scripts, and then be on set to produce their scripts, helping to make the changes as needed. This not only allowed the show to benefit from having writers around, it helped the staffers advance to running their own writers' rooms and eventually, the hope goes, their own shows. The cases where a single person wrote every single script of a show were few and far between. 

The problem is that this standard was just oral tradition among good showrunners. And since execs wanted shows to be good and long-lasting, they approved budgets for that setup. Streaming undermined these norms, with CEOs who want a show that lasts two seasons, not 10 years, making it near impossible for showrunners to run things in a way that made sense. And so those few outliers—the cases where one writer did everything—became an excuse for studios to say, “You don’t really need writers.” When it came time for a new contract, the WGA determined that the best thing for the majority of writers was to force the studios to codify a system of bigger writers' rooms. 

It’s been clear since before the strike that showrunners are not only supportive of a minimum writing staff but desperate for it. It was also evident early on in the strike that this was the case, as showrunners on Twitter pointed out how difficult their job had become without having at least six writers on staff. As a publication whose sole focus is the entertainment industry, there was no way for Variety to not know that those disagreeing are in the extreme minority. 

And yet, the article isn’t framed as a small minority speaking up. It’s framed as the union forcing people who disagree to keep silent. While some attention is paid to why the WGA feels the need to mandate room size, it also presents a requirement as an undue burden on the few that don’t want a writers' room. What it neglects to mention–while stating that the WGA has given awards to shows written by one person–is that a union by its very nature has to do what is best for a broad collection of workers across the whole industry, not the handful of (often very loud) people who work differently.

It did not take long for the striking writers, extremely online and with a surplus of righteous anger on their hands right now, to seize on the story. This is because it was flagrantly wrong and also because they’ve had a lot of practice. You can have a great time on Twitter just plugging the link of any trade story on the strike into the search bar and watch striking actors and writers debunk it in real-time. There’s been a constant drip of suspiciously pro-studio strike stories in the trades since the strike began in May, and those on strike have been very quick to rebut them.

While it has always a bit of an open secret that the Hollywood trade publications can be little more than studio public relations, the strike has absolutely shattered their credibility. This tension has always existed in an industry town where the idea of “getting good publicity” serves all sides, creating a symbiotic relationship that has made the trades entirely dependent on studio sources. As the biggest entertainment story in decades unfolds, the trades’ practices are being exposed, with reporting that alternates between being useless to outwardly harmful. 

Under normal circumstances the work that Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Deadline—and at this point in our late-stage capitalism hell, it is worth noting all three are owned by the same company, Penske Media Corporation—does is a form of access journalism that can seem harmless. Think fluffy profiles, actors interviewing actors, breathless awards speculation or hyping casting announcements and release dates. 

The problem for the trades is all of that depends on being in the good books of the studios. Because they are industry papers, the assumption is that everyone in the industry reads them. That’s why the trades make so much money off of “for your consideration” ads, designed to get fellow insiders to vote for certain movies and actors in awards season. Not only is it de rigueur for studios to pay for those ads, actors placing their own is seen as declasse. So the most direct route to the trades has always been through the studios, and the studios likewise saw the trades as the best route to the rest of the industry.

For an example of how jealously the trades guard their access, you don’t have to look further than two weeks ago with Scott Feinberg and “the email heard around Hollywood.” Feinberg, the “executive editor of awards” for The Hollywood Reporter, got word that writers from other outlets were getting to see films before him. This was unacceptable to Feinberg. As Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein reported, he treated studios to a truly magical email stating, in part, “As you plan the rollout of your film(s), I would like to respectfully ask that you not show films to any of my fellow awards pundits before you show them to me, even if that person represents himself or herself to you as (a) a potential reviewer of it, (b) needing to see the film in order to be part of decisions about covers, or (c) really anything else.”

So the trades depend on the studios. But why are the studios sending things to the trades when, in theory, the writers and studios are under a media blackout? Since the WGA and the AMPTP are back at the bargaining table, neither side is supposed to be trying to manipulate the other through the media. 

One answer is that the AMPTP fumbled the PR game real bad when the strike began. Ridiculously bad. There was not a rake they did not step on happily.

The studios made a bet that the public opinion would be against privileged writer elites keeping regular Americans from their entertainment. But the writers were not alone, they were joined by the 160,000 actors of SAG-AFTRA. Add to that recent polls showing public opinion in favor of striking writers and actors at a time when union support has experienced a resurgence in the country. It’s easy to see why the public is behind the unions, as studio executives cannot seem to keep their expensive shoes out of their definitely-worth-$40-million-per-year mouths. The PR problem is so severe that the AMPTP has reportedly begun bringing in multiple PR firms to help them with messaging. 

It’s because things are going poorly for the studios that they once again are looking to the trades for help. For example, in June, The Hollywood Reporter published a profile of Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan—billed as “THR’s Producer of the Year”!—that probably didn’t go as anyone involved expected. While the article asks us to “appreciate what Sheridan has accomplished,” that’s not what happened. The AMPTP probably hoped the interview with Sheridan, who has happily put himself up as one of those one-in-a-million writers who does not need any help with his shows, would undermine the WGA’s demand for a minimum writers' room size.

Instead, Sheridan showed an intense lack of knowledge about how TV is made, proving he was not a solitary genius but someone who didn’t care about all the people who work on his shows. Sheridan claimed he receives no studio notes on his scripts and that “they tell me there’s a story coordinator, but I don’t know who that is.” First of all, it’s impossible not to have studio notes. If nothing else, lawyers have to make sure nothing in a script will get a studio sued. Also, as many writers, producers, and others in Hollywood pointed out, the job is script coordinator and they were probably making below a living wage to make sure those non-existent notes Sheridan claims are not in the script are actually incorporated. 

It was a masterclass in discrediting yourself, which Sheridan capped off by threatening to leave the WGA over writers' room minimums. There was a rush to Twitter to point out that Sheridan’s view was, at best, wrong and, at worst, outright dangerous

Not to leave out one of the other trades, Deadline—already with a reputation for publishing rumors its staid sisters wouldn’t—put out an article that said, “We heard that WGA strike captains and negotiating committee met yesterday to parse through the AMPTP’s offer. By the end of today, sources tell us we’re bound to have further clarity on talks.”

Now, had every fact in that sentence been correct, you could still suspect that the source was the AMPTP or an individual studio, since it frames the success of the talks as contingent on a meeting by the writers. Unfortunately for Deadline, not only were the facts wrong, writers were quick to point out that it was an absurd statement.

Some quick math: The negotiating committee is 26 people. There are over 200 strike captains. The negotiating committee and the WGA board make decisions to get an agreement that can be presented to the entire membership for a vote. Strike captains, as the name suggests, run the day-to-day organizing of the actual strike, and are too busy and too large as a group to do the job of a whole separate group of writers.

The line is gone from the article now, relegated to an editor’s note at the bottom stating, “The original story has been corrected to reflect the fact that the WGA-AMPTP meeting was in person, and that a rumor about WGA strike captains participating in the review of the AMPTP’s counterproposal was not confirmed.” I can only wonder if they got contacted by the WGA or if the roasting on Twitter was enough for Deadline’s editors. 

If the studios had hoped to use the new round of talks between the WGA and AMPTP as a chance to rebrand their efforts, they may need to hire several more PR firms to clean up the mess. If they wanted to claw back the perception of their CEOs as reasonable business people, and the WGA as out-of-touch elites with ludicrous demands, it’s not working. Each of these stories shows the same old, ineffective strategy at work. It’s the same reason those FYC ads appear: they want to sow chaos among those further down the call sheet who read the trades. This might have worked during previous strikes, in an era where union leadership couldn’t communicate with the rank and file via cell phone. 

I want to stress again that all three of these publications are owned by the same company. And they’re making the same mistakes over and over, burning credibility with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. At the end of the day, without outright stating it, by printing these stories they are effectively taking the side of management in a labor dispute. That’s a bad look for anyone, it’s frankly a weird look when one of the groups striking is the writers. Because you’d think if anyone would fully understand the situation of the WGA, it would be other writers suffering from the same squeeze as the ones who work for TV and film. The way media has consolidated, fallen victim to vulture capital and Silicon Valley, and finally been replaced by AI, is everything the WGA is fighting. So while giant companies siding with giant companies wouldn’t really be a surprise, it is a problem when the company at issue is a media one. 

It’s hard to tell what combination of malice and laziness is at fault here. Corporate overloads being what they are, they clearly want to keep studio connections comfortable and ad money flowing. That leaves the writers and editors at the trades, who chose the path of least resistance. It’s easy to do this in culture writing because so many people truly want access to famous people, glamorous red-carpet premieres–all the stuff fans use to populate their Instagram feed. Being confrontational is clearly not what the trades hired for, and sadly that’s contributing to the broader trend in media of devaluing of real reporting.

The trades need access to writers and actors for their stories, and, more importantly, to sell FYC ads–because, again, the value of those ads is that the trades are read by those in Hollywood—with actors being the largest bloc in the industry—who vote in the awards. What are they going to do with the Emmys postponed due to strike and FYC campaigns at a pause? What purpose do the trades serve if, at the end of all of this, actors and writers don’t trust them? And if they aren’t useful propaganda for the studios, what’s left for them? 

When actors and writers can go directly to their peers and fans via social media, it seems that “access” isn’t what it once was. And if you can’t credibly cover the biggest entertainment story and there is no access, what’s left? Demanding to be the first in a screening, I guess.

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