The WGA Deal 10 Commandments, Part I

The WGA says the new deal contains $233 million per year of gains, which is almost three times the $86 million that the guild says the studios were offering before the nearly five-month strike (though it’s nowhere near the $429 million the guild sought).
The WGA says the new deal contains $233 million per year of gains, which is almost three times the $86 million that the guild says the studios were offering before the nearly five-month strike (though it’s nowhere near the $429 million the guild sought). Photo: John Nacion/Getty Images
Jonathan Handel
September 28, 2023

Have you read the full Writers Guild deal with the studios? No? I’ve now combed through all mind-numbing 94 pages of the contract so you don’t have to. Unlike in past years, where WGA members had up to three weeks of balloting, members will have only one fast-tracked week to vote, starting Monday, the same day that SAG-AFTRA is restarting negotiations with Carol Lombardini, the AMPTP and “company representatives” in the room—which I’ve learned mean the company C.E.O.s, a critical necessity to getting a SAG-AFTRA deal done. Meanwhile, the WGA deal will almost certainly pass—after the 2008 strike, 93.6 percent of guild voters said Yes—and become not just the governing document for studio-writer relations for the next three years, but also an influence on the resumed actors’ talks.  

The WGA says the new deal contains $233 million per year of gains, which is almost three times the $86 million that the guild says the studios were offering before the nearly five-month strike (though it’s nowhere near the $429 million the guild sought). Those numbers are a bit misleading—how can A.I. protections be valued, exactly?—and how you feel about unions probably dictates whether you believe the estimated $5 billion in lost economic activity during the five-month strike was worth these gains. With all that in mind, let’s look at ten major takeaways from the WGA deal. We’re publishing the first five tonight and the rest on Sunday.

  1. Minimums: Writers Gave to Get More 

    The WGA achieved a historically high first-year increase in wage minimums of 5 percent, and yet also settled for a historically low first year increase in minimums of 5 percent. Huh? The answer to that brainteaser is that, while 5 percent is higher than what the union has achieved in decades, it falls dramatically behind—in real dollar terms—the inflation rate of the past few years. Remember, basic wage increases represent a disproportionately large portion of the total deal package. That 5 percent increase is no better than what the Directors Guild achieved without walking out for five months. But sacrificing wage increases—and going on strike—was the WGA’s key to unlocking other historic achievements in this deal. SAG-AFTRA, by contrast, has asked for an inflation-compensating 11 percent, and it is highly unlikely to agree to anything as low as its sibling guilds agreed.
  1. Features: Progress on Persistent Problems

    Feature film writers ceded the spotlight to TV scribes a decade ago. Everyone talks about Peak TV while in the same breath bemoaning the collapse of theatrical originality into the IP abyss. That said, movies are still a thing, and the WGA obtained several key gains for feature writers. Notably, in an attempt to curb long-standing abuse, such as so-called producer’s rewrites and other free work, studios must now guarantee feature writers the opportunity to perform and be compensated for at least one rewrite after writing or selling a first draft. This applies only if the first draft compensation does not exceed twice the minimum for such work, on the (partially flawed) assumption that writers with leverage to negotiate more compensation also have leverage to negotiate a rewrite. That said, the WGA has struggled for years to insulate feature writers from pressure to do free rewrites, without ever achieving anything in that realm, so a guaranteed paid rewrite for some is a real victory. The studios blinked—and now that the principle has been established, you can expect the guild to seek to raise that 2x cap in the next round of talks three years from now, extending the protection to more writers. Meanwhile, agents and attorneys for overscale writers not covered by the new provision can nonetheless use it to buttress the case for a guaranteed rewrite. 

    Also achieved for writers of this compensation level was an accelerated payment schedule, so that scribes won’t have to wait as long for their checks, addressing another persistent abuse. And finally, features made for streaming with a budget of $30 million or more receive an increase in minimums and residuals so that the delta is diminished—albeit not eliminated—between streaming features and those made for theatrical. That’s important: as more feature work shifts to Netflix and other made-for streaming platforms, lower streaming minimums effectively create downward pressure on feature compensation. Closing that gap brings the WGA closer to the goal of “script parity.”
  1. Appendix A: Late-Night Got Some Love

    The WGA agreement is stocked with appendices, exhibits, schedules, and sideletters. But by far the most misbegotten is Appendix A, which is the domain of late night comedy/variety shows, game shows and other unscripted fare whose writers have never gotten much respect. As if the anemic minimums and skeletal protections aren’t bad enough, none of them even applied at all to shows of this sort made for streaming. Now, many of them do, bringing protections to late night and other Appendix A shows made for streaming—which is presumably the future, as linear audiences age and shrink. Soap operas also receive new protections if they move to streaming platforms. Appendix A may not be the most exciting sector of the writing business, but these gains signal a guild determined to protect as many flanks of the profession as possible. Is a renewed push in reality TV next?
  1. Minimum Staffing: Writers’ Rooms are Safe (for Now)

    For the first time—under the rubric of “preserving the writers’ room”—the WGA achieved a minimum staffing level in TV and most made-for-streaming series (but apparently not for ad-supported series, such as made-for-FAST programming). This is a big deal, and the new rules, which take effect for seasons whose first episode is written after Dec. 1, are complex. For development (pre-greenlight) rooms, if there are three or more writers, at least three must be writer-producers; and if the room is 20 weeks or longer, there must be at least three writer-producers in the first season, and potentially more in subsequent seasons, depending on anticipated episode order. For post-greenlight rooms, the minimum staff size depends on season length, unless a single writer is employed to write all episodes (a.k.a. the “Mike White Rule”). The minimums are three writers for up to six episodes, five writers for seven to 12 episodes, and six writers for 13 or more episodes. In all cases, at least three writers must be writer-producers. 

    These numbers are not far off from the WGA’s demands: for instance, the guild originally sought a sliding scale that would have required eight writers for a ten episode season, and reduced that in August to seven for ten. The specific numbers are less material than the fact of the minimums, which the studios did not want to establish.  But in addition to pre- and post-greenlight rooms, the guild needs to be concerned with wiggle rooms—the unintended consequences. For instance, pre-greenlight rooms might simply fall by the wayside, with studios instead commissioning showrunners to write an episode script plus outlines (or perhaps a bible, one might imagine).
  1. Mini Room Duration: The Career Ladder Got Rebuilt

    Also significant are guarantees on duration of employment, which take effect on the same trigger date as minimum staffing levels. These new rules are important because they give mid-level writers a pathway toward becoming showrunners themselves. For pre-greenlight rooms, the minimum staff of three is guaranteed at least ten weeks of consecutive employment (as the guild had demanded), while for post-greenlight rooms, the guarantee is the lesser of 20 weeks or the duration of the room itself. Weeks worked in the pre-greenlight room count towards the 20-week guarantee. Those rules apply to television and most made-for-streaming series. 

    And for some of those shows—namely single-camera series made for premium cable (such as HBO) and most made-for-streaming shows—at least two writers must be hired during production, for the lesser of 20 weeks or the duration of production. Optionally, either or both minimum positions can be divided up among multiple writers so that writers can be brought back to produce the episode they wrote. The guild had asked for more: it wanted half of the minimum staff employed through production and one writer employed through post, and all writers employed during post to receive at least weekly miniums. Although it settled for less during production and no guarantees regarding post, what was achieved is impressive—and the union said it will continue to pursue weekly minimums in post via arbitration claims.

Jonathan Handel is an entertainment/technology transactional attorney, author (including a book on the WGA’s last walkout and ensuing SAG stalemate) and journalist. He regularly represents producers and others in their dealings with guilds, was previously outside counsel to SAG-AFTRA and was on the legal staff of the WGA in the early 1990s.