Hollywood’s Writer Stand-off: It’s Not Just About Money

Photo: Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Jonathan Handel
April 30, 2023

Information asymmetry: in bloody wars or heated contract negotiations, when one side possesses key data the other doesn’t, the impact can be decisive. That’s why spies and cryptographers thrive. It’s also why the Hollywood labor guilds pushed for transparency in “new media” data even before the streaming wars of the past decade. (The 2008 union contracts required confidential disclosure of license agreements.) It’s why the Directors Guild engages media analysts to inform its negotiations. And it’s one reason that the Writers Guild’s recent campaign against the talent agencies included information-sharing requirements. Knowledge is indeed power. 

With a WGA strike looking like it could begin as early as this week, let’s analyze the standoff through an information lens and try to discern what each side—and the public—really knows about writer pay, viewer consumption of their work, and media company profits. These are the most pertinent questions when considering what’s a “fair” deal for the writers. 

In comparison to its peers, the WGA West is uniquely transparent: it publishes annual reports for all to see. The WGA East, DGA and SAG-AFTRA don’t; in fact, SAG-AFTRA doesn’t even let its own national board members retain copies of its financials. All of the unions (and their affiliated pension and health plans) also file public reports mandated by law, but these annual LM-2s and 5500s are of limited use in assessing member compensation. The WGA reports are more useful, as they include not just the union’s own audited financials, but also data on writer earnings, including initial compensation and a detailed breakdown of residuals.