How the looming writers strike could hurt Chicago

Writers Guild members who voted overwhelmingly, on both coasts, to authorize a strike, now wait with baited breath as the negotiating committee meets today with AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) after talks broke down two weeks ago.

In an email sent out yesterday to members, the committee stated, “Dear Colleague – The results of our strike authorization vote are now in. 96.3% voted YES. 67.5% of eligible WGA members voted, a historic turnout. We thank you for your resolve and your faith in us as your representatives. We are determined to achieve a fair contract. Talks will resume tomorrow.”

The two sides have been battling over issues of compensation and benefits. Guild members seek pay increases, including bigger residuals for shows streamed on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, and increased employer contributions to its health plan, which has faced deficits in recent years.

“None of us want a strike,” Chris Keyser, co-chair of the WGA’s negotiating committee, said in a podcast produced by the Guild. But he stated the Guild’s biggest piece of leverage in negotiations “is either the threat of or the actual practice of a strike.”

“None of us want a strike,” says WGA co-chair Chris Keyser

According to the Guild’s website, the entertainment industry is experiencing unprecedented prosperity. In 2016, the six major media companies that dominate film and television, and employ almost all Guild writers (CBS, Comcast, Disney, Fox, Time Warner, and Viacom), reported almost $51 billion in operating profits.

This represents the collective profits of the companies after deducting the direct costs of operations, but before the inclusion of non-operational items like taxes and interest. The information comes from public documents submitted by the companies to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Another key driver of the industry’s success has been the global growth of demand for American television series and feature films. There are now more than 400 dramas and comedies airing per year. So even if the strike “only” lasts the same amount of time, many of those shows could see their seasons shortened.

The last time the writers walked out was during the devastating 2007-2008 strike for 100 days. This forever changed many of the practices of the film and television industry.

According to AMPTP statistics, writers lost $287 million in compensation that was never recovered, deals went away, the script development process was decimated, lucrative spec screenplay sales disappeared. Not to mention the dire financial straits the strike put everyone in, from craft service people to local businesses.

The strike also helped propel the popularity of reality TV (which is actually written by writers), including the premiere of “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

Chicago will feel the impact

While the brunt of the 2007-08 work stoppage was felt primarily in Los Angeles and New York, the production landscape has now changed dramatically. Many full-season TV series are produced in other cities such as Chicago, Atlanta and Vancouver.

Chicago plays home to the hit Fox series, Empire, four Dick Wolf shows on NBC, Sense 8 on Netflix, Captive State, The Exorcist, APB and feature films including the Bruce Willis remake of Death Wish and Sam Jackson’s Inversion. While the writers may not be here, the impact of their walk out will be felt.

Source: Writers Guild of AmericaChicago Film Office Director Rich Moskal weighed in on the potential effect a strike could have. “When the strike happened in 2007, I believe we had more feature films in production here. So, producers had scripts that were essentially ready to go. Now we’ve had an explosion of episodic TV. The writing is more immediate there. Nine full-season shows shot here last year and even more are coming.”

Moskal is referring to shows such as Patriot on Amazon, The Chi on Showtime and Bryan Cranston’s new mini-series, Electric Dreams, on Amazon.

As reported in the January 17th edition of Reel Chicago, the state of Illinois reported a whopping $499 million in revenue from 345 projects in 2016. As Moskal stated, that number is expected to rise with new productions.

But according to Moskal, with an impending strike, a walk out could affect show’s start dates thus affecting crew, 90% of whom are local, actors, photographers and local businesses such as stage and office rentals, hotels and even restaurants. For example, Showtime’s Shameless is scheduled to begin production May 5.

Moskal adds, “Vendors from grip truck rentals to camera rentals will be affected. I really hope a bargain can be reached.”

If a new bargain is not reached by 11:59 May 1, writers could walk out as early as midnight May 2. The immediate impact will be felt on late night talk shows. Next will be “SNL” which is scheduled to air a new episode on May 6. Another potential casualty: Live programming such as awards shows, starting with the MTV Movie and TV Awards on May 7.

LA-Based Colin Costello writes for film, TV, advertising and of course, Reel Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @colincostello10.