The hottest new trend in Hollywood? Walking the picket line.
On Tuesday, 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike after the major studios and streamers (under the umbrella of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) failed to reach a deal with the union representing TV and movie writers for a new three-year collective agreement. The main issue is money, with the WGA arguing that the streaming era has turned what used to be a steady career into something resembling the gig economy. Gone are residuals from broadcast and cable syndication deals that used to sustain writers between projects, while series that used to involve 20-episode commitments have been slashed to eight or six.
“From their refusal to guarantee any level of weekly employment in episodic television, to the creation of a ‘day rate’ in comedy, to their stonewalling on free work for screenwriters and on AI for all writers, they have closed the door on their labour force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession,” a statement from the WGA read.
But what does the strike mean for Canadians – both the audiences who consume vast amounts of American content, and the homegrown creatives whose livelihoods depend on U.S. series and films shot within our borders? Here are the answers.
How will this affect what I’m able to watch?
It won’t, at least not immediately. Given the nature of the production pipeline, most series that are airing now – including HBO’s Succession – completed work on their latest seasons months ago. The same goes for the rash of new and returning series set to arrive over the near future. Apple TV+ alone has a half-dozen new, fully shot series arriving this month, including such high-profile projects as the Seth Rogen-Rose Byrne sitcom Platonic and the high-concept sci-fi thriller Silo.
What about if I watch late-night television or daytime soap operas?
Given that those productions are shot daily, with large writing staffs, they will go off-air immediately. During the last writers’ strike, which lasted 100 days in 2007-08, some talk shows aired with hosts improvising to fill the time, including Conan O’Brien, who donated his salary to his striking crew. This time around, there appears to be a more unified approach, with all the major late-night stars – Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon – choosing to go dark and air reruns instead of attempting to produce a writer-free show. The same goes for Saturday Night Live, which is cancelling this weekend’s show with host Pete Davidson.
Can I still watch my favourite reality-television trash?
Yes, reality TV, entertainment news, sports and interview-based talk shows are not staffed by WGA writers. If the strike lasts longer than a few months, get ready for even more Love Is Blind.
What about all the U.S. series shooting in Canada right now?
Right now, if a show is in production past the script stage and not in need of rewrites, production should continue apace. But if the strike goes on a decent amount of time, any film or series that requires WGA members is going to be in trouble, no matter whether it is shot in the U.S. or Canada. And given that Canada has become an extremely busy hub for what are called foreign “service” productions – projects whose creative origins and players are international but rely on Canadian crews and tradespeople – the financial impact could be felt hard within our borders. (In 2022, 103 service productions were filmed in Ontario alone, generating more than $1.95-billion in total expenditures.)
Even before the strike was called for, members of Canada’s screens sector have been sounding the alarm of a slowdown, with Hollywood studios nervous about starting projects. So, yes, if the strike goes on much longer, the second season of HBO’s horror-thriller The Last of Us, which is set to shoot in B.C., could be delayed indefinitely.
Couldn’t Canadian writers help out by writing for American shows?
Not if they want to remain in good standing with their own guilds and peers. Any project being worked on by members of the Writers Guild of Canada – including homegrown series like Citytv’s Hudson & Rex or CBC’s Run the Burbs – will be fine. But WGC executive director Victoria Shen has said that her organization’s members will not accept work on productions involving WGA writers. And any dual member of both the WGA and the WGC must follow the U.S. guild’s strike rules and avoid work on so-called “struck” projects.
Is any of this good news for Canadian television creators?
Sort of. During the 2007-08 strike, some series that were produced for Canadian television ended up getting picked up by U.S. networks desperate for fresh content. CTV’s police drama Flashpoint, for instance, was sold to CBS, while CTV’s paramedic thriller The Listener got scooped up by NBC. Arguably, this led to a mini-boom in American broadcasters turning to Cancon to pad their lineups (see ABC’s Rookie Blue, NBC’s Saving Hope).
Perhaps in anticipation of the strike, the CW acquired U.S. broadcast rights to the new CTV drama series Sullivan’s Crossing last week. But unless the strike stretches beyond around the three-month mark, expect any Canadian gains to be short-lived. In other words, HBO isn’t going to be picking up CTV’s Children Ruin Everything any time soon. (Although you have to wonder if BET+ isn’t now kicking itself for pulling out of the second season of CBC’s The Porter.)
How long will this go on?
Anyone who says that they know the answer to that question is lying. But there are four plausible scenarios being batted around by industry reporters and pundits at the moment.
The best-case scenario: The AMPTP has a come-to-Jesus moment in which they realize they’ve been gambling with the future of their industry on the backs of the people who actually make it happen, and offer almost everything that the WGA is asking for, with minimal impact on series and film development.
The mid-case scenario: The Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists also have renegotiations coming up this summer, and if they make deals, then the WGA may have little choice but to settle for whatever gains they are able to wring from the AMPTP. At which point the production pipeline is dented but easily repaired.
The pretty-bad scenario: The stalemate stretches into the fall, threatening the Emmy Awards and starting to seriously affect film production, which has a longer lead time. The studios and streamers, having saved money over the spring and summer, budge a little and a relative peace is achieved.
The worst-case scenario: It’s the late fall or even the winter. Netflix subscribers are no longer interested in watching foreign-language series or more dating shows. Studios are having to push tent-pole movies a year or more to fill gaps. And countless people are out of work. At this point, one hopes that someone on either side of the WGA or AMPTP will hit the panic button. Because otherwise, no amount of Macy Murdoch (CBC Gem’s Murdoch Mysteries spinoff, for those who aren’t familiar) is going to satiate audience hunger.