Hollywood writers are largely celebrating the Writers Guild of America’s new minimum basic agreement as the strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the coalition of major studios, comes to an end after 148 days. The new contract still needs membership approval — members will vote between Oct. 2 and Oct. 9 — but it has been approved by union leadership. The contract guarantees regulations on artificial intelligence use, minimum staff numbers for writers rooms, and residual compensation for writers that work on streaming shows and movies.
“We can say, with great pride, that this deal is exceptional — with meaningful gains and protections for writers in every sector of the membership,” the WGA negotiating committee said on Sunday. A summary of the agreement has been published online; it’s a simplified version of the actual document.
Susan Schurman, a distinguished professor at Rutgers University’s Labor Studies and Employment Relations department, told Polygon that the WGA got an “excellent” agreement: “They got much of what they were looking for in terms of compensation.”
It’s a big moment for the WGA — and all union members — as “hot strike summer” transitions into fall. The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists’ Hollywood actors are still on strike as SAG-AFTRA’s video game performers enter their own bargaining sessions with a strike authorization in hand; WGA’s strike is a signal to those workers that unions (and withholding labor) work to secure better, more fair deals. With everything from AI use and compensation to transparency and wage increases, the WGA deal may be used to set a standard of expectations for other creative industries, so let’s break it down.
These are the key takeaways from the new WGA agreement.
Regulations on AI
Though artificial intelligence has existed for quite a while, AI became the new buzzword in 2023 as generative tools became more accessible and easier to use, replacing the hype around the metaverse and NFTs. We’re still in the “early days” of national AI regulation in the United States, according to the New York Times. Industries, and companies within those industries, are left to figure the technology out for themselves — a process that’s ongoing.
Hollywood is an early adopter of widespread AI rules with this new contract. Though Hollywood studios first rejected the union’s early proposals regarding generative AI, the WGA eventually won protections for writers concerning the use of generative AI. Crucially, the union contract does not wholesale restrict AI-generated content, but instead regulates the training of AI and crediting of writers.
“The technology can’t be used to write or rewrite or produce ‘original source material,’ Schurman said. “The new contract also prevents the use of writers to ‘train AI,’ which forces writers to undermine their own role.”
Here’s how the WGA sums it up:
AI can’t write or rewrite literary material, and AI-generated material will not be considered source material under the MBA, meaning that AI-generated material can’t be used to undermine a writer’s credit or separated rights.
A writer can choose to use AI when performing writing services, if the company consents and provided that the writer follows applicable company policies, but the company can’t require the writer to use AI software (e.g., ChatGPT) when performing writing services.
The Company must disclose to the writer if any materials given to the writer have been generated by AI or incorporate AI-generated material.
The WGA reserves the right to assert that exploitation of writers’ material to train AI is prohibited by MBA or other law.
The official memorandum of agreement, which is the detailed contract, provides two examples that demonstrate the contract in practice. For instance, a studio could give a writer a script generated by AI and tell them to rewrite it, but the studio still has to pay the writer for writing the script, and credit them as such, rather than paying the rate for a rewrite. If another writer gets assigned to rewrite the first writer’s script, they’ll get paid and credited for a rewrite.
If the company provided the writer with some AI-generated written material for the writer to make into a story and script, the AI-generated material won’t be considered the original source — the writer’s work will.
Streamer transparency and residuals
Schurman, who helped mediate the SAG-AFTRA merger in 2012, said compensation for streaming platforms was the union’s most important issue in many ways — at least, until AI cropped up. “Writers have not benefited from streaming productions in the past due to the fact that, unlike regular television and movie production, the streamers (e.g. Netflix, Disney+, etc.) [have] not been required to reveal viewership data,” she said.
That lack of transparency makes it hard for writers and producers to judge the success of their own shows, and reduces the leverage writers have to demand fair compensation. While the new rules don’t require the streamers, like Netflix, to disclose numbers to the public, they will provide “the total number of hours streamed” domestically and internationally for “self-produced high budget streaming programs,” according to the WGA’s summary. With that transparency comes viewership-based residuals: “[P]rojects written under the new MBA on the largest streaming services would receive a bonus of $9,031 for a half-hour episode, $16,415 for a one-hour episode, or $40,500 for a streaming feature over $30 million in budget,” the WGA wrote. The new residual structure will kick in for projects released on or after Jan. 1, 2024.
Foreign streaming residuals were also bumped up: “Netflix’s 3-year foreign residual will increase from the current $18,684 for a one-hour episode to $32,830.”
“This changes with the new contract and will mean that the WGA has real data on viewership of streaming shows, increasing writers’ ability to demand both compensation from writing but also residuals,” Schurman added.
Writers room minimum
Writers rooms have been getting smaller, writers said earlier this year, as shows transitioned to “mini-rooms,” which are basically scaled-down writers rooms. Whereas a traditional writers room would have around eight writers, a mini-room has two or three writers that assist a showrunner in writing scripts at lower rates. This keeps costs down, but it is a major disadvantage to the writers — fewer jobs and worse pay. The new MBA requires writers room minimums and minimum contract lengths.
The breakdowns differ between development rooms and post-greenlight rooms. (Development rooms are where writers develop shows before they head into the next phase, “post-greenlight rooms,” which are for after the show is approved for production.) Development rooms are important in, well, developing shows, but can mean that writers are only employed briefly; under the MBA, writers hired for development rooms are guaranteed a minimum of 10 consecutive weeks of employment. For post-greenlight rooms, shows with 13 or more episodes need to employ a minimum of six writers, with at least three writer-producers, too. These staff members need a guaranteed 20 weeks “or the entire duration of the post-greenlight room, whichever is shorter,” of pay. On top of that, if the show had a development room, two writer-producers from the development room must be hired for the post-greenlight writers room.
These terms will be a boon for early-career writers, as they’ll be kept on production for that minimum time period — the experience of which is essential for career advancement.
The WGA and AMPTP contract ups yearly minimum pay by 5% in 2023, 4% in 2024, and 3.5% in 2025. Rates differ based on roles, which are outlined in the MBA overview. Staff writers will see this increase immediately, while story editors and executive story editors will see pay increased after ratification.
It’s not wildly off from WGA’s proposal from May, where it asked the AMPTP for 6%-5%-5%. AMPTP offered 4%-3%-2% at that time.
Impact on other industries
There’s research that shows successful strikes can be “contagious,” Jake Rosenfeld, union expert and Washington University sociology professor, said in a Washington University news release from September. He posited that the United Auto Workers strike could influence labor action in other industries. “But the strikes have to be successful,” he added at the time. “We have ongoing strikes out west in Los Angeles with writers, screen actors and hotel workers that unions are also watching closely. If these strikes fail, that could dampen enthusiasm for further action just as quickly as a successful strike could increase enthusiasm.”
WGA’s successful strike could impact other industries’ union efforts, showing a path forward where labor actions are worth the effort and sacrifice. SAG-AFTRA actors on strike and the union’s voice actors in negotiations will certainly look to WGA’s win for inspiration.
Schurman said the WGA win will “probably” impact other union movements: “Many of the issues in SAG-AFTRA’s bargaining are the same or similar to the WGA’s.” WGA’s contract could help set a minimum standard for several issues that are relevant to different creative industries.
TV release schedule and upcoming movies
Though not as important as fair treatment of the people who create shows and movies, the TV and movie release schedule will likely be impacted by the new contract. Writers are able to return to work, but actors are still on strike, meaning that Hollywood production is still disrupted. Lots of shows were paused indefinitely, like The Last of Us, American Horror Story, Billions, Abbott Elementary, Stranger Things, and Yellowjackets. Writers can start new scripts, but there won’t be actors to film.
Weekly TV shows will likely pick up more quickly, as will late-night talk shows like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Because of the SAG-AFTRA strike, however, actors won’t show up as guests.
A whole bunch of movies were delayed during the WGA strike, like Captain America: Brave New World, Dune: Part Two, and Fantastic Four. Again, writers can get back to work in creating scripts for these films, but without actors, production is still delayed.