148 days after the WGA walked out on strike, they have come to an agreement with the AMPTP. The landmark deal ends months of speculation and comes just in time for networks to get back on their feet for the fall television season.
But what new rules does the deal contain? How will they change production? And what details do producers need to be aware of as the industry barrels forward into a brave new world? Read on to find out.
Full disclaimer: The writer of this article is an active WGA member.
In case you’ve been living under a rock (or took a very long vacation in May), it’s important to turn back the clock and review how we got here.
On May 1, 2023, dealmaking between the WGA (Writers Guild of America) and the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) broke down over the shape of the MBA that would govern the next three years of business between the two organizations.
This “Minimum Bargaining Agreement” sets forth basic minimums in wages as well as health care and pension contributions. These are the minimums that must be met in order for a film or television show to utilize union talent. While negotiations are usually contentious, this round was particularly difficult due to changes in the entertainment landscape.
The rise of streaming services brought on shorter seasons, smaller episode orders, a decrease in writer’s residuals, and “mini rooms” that saw fewer writers doing more work for less pay.
Those issues, plus the new and immediate concern of AI’s impact on writer’s bottom lines, set the stage for a stand-off that would last the entire summer.
After five months of deadlocked discussions, progress was finally made and a tentative deal was reached on Sunday, September 24. On September 26, the WGA’s negotiating committee voted unanimously to send the deal to membership for ratification.
Voting will take place from October 2 to October 9, and the guild is likely to agree to ratify. If they do, the deal will go into effect, backdated from September 25, 2023.
What will that mean for your projects moving forward?
Here’s a rundown of the deal’s key points:
One of the most basic functions of the new MBA is to increase minimums in writer pay and healthcare contributions to keep up with inflation. While standard, it’s important for producers to be aware of these increases since they represent the most fundamental impact on film and television budgets.
To that end, most MBA minimums will increase by 5% on ratification of the contract, 4% on 5/2/2024 and 3.5% on 5/2/2025. Some minimums and rates increase less, mostly by 3% each year, while a few rates increase only once or do not increase over the contract.
These exceptions are the result of patterns established in the industry and mainly affect daytime television and comedy/variety.
Meanwhile, the Health Fund contribution on reportable earnings will increase 0.5% in the second year of the agreement, from 11.5% to 12%.
The Guild also has the right to divert an additional 0.5% in each of the second and third years of the contract from various minimum increases to either the Health Fund or Pension Plan.
One of the most contentious items in the contract surrounded minimum staffing issues.
In the early days of TV writing, the constant churn of a weekly schedule dictated a necessary number of writers per show just to keep the endeavor afloat. Streaming has changed that.
Episode orders are shrinking. Streaming shows no longer adhere to broadcast schedules.
But the work of creating, writing, and running a television show doesn’t get easier.
The WGA sought protections to make sure that writers’ rooms are still able to employ enough writers to share the creative burden of making a show.
The agreement calls for at least three writer-producers (room members who are more senior) to be hired on all series. That number can include the showrunner.
The number of members at the staff writer (or junior) level will rise on a sliding scale depending on the number of episodes ordered.
A six-episode series calls for at least three writer-level hires. Series that run 7-12 episodes per season have to hire five writers and series that run 13 episodes or more must hire six writers.
In cases such as these, the writer’s initial deal with the studio, network, or streamer must call for the writer to work as a solo act from the start.
The difference between writing an episode of TV and running a show is the difference between cooking a great steak and running a restaurant.
Just because someone is a talented cook doesn’t mean they’re ready to step up and take over the business until they understand balance sheets, purchasing, hiring, customer service, advertising, and everything else that goes into keeping the doors open.
The Guild fought for rules to ensure writers (especially young ones) are granted the chance to stay on shows long enough to learn the process from beginning to end. These rules also help make sure that writers are employed on shows for long enough to earn necessary contributions to qualify for healthcare.
These rules include:
Another contentious deal point between the WGA and the AMPTP concerned success-based residual formulations in an era where streamers don’t share viewership numbers. This makes it almost impossible to know how to financially reward the creators of a show in the long term.
The new deal offers a formula that pays writers in success while still protecting the studio’s viewership data.
Under the new MBA, writers will receive a bonus for original TV shows and movies that are broad-based hits for subscription-based platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Max, Hulu, and other streamers.
Starting January 1, 2024, writers of made-for-streaming titles will receive a bonus if their work is viewed by 20% or more of the service’s domestic subscribers in the first 90 days of release, or the first 90 days of any subsequent year that the title is on the platform.
The bonus amount will range from $9,000 to $16,400 for a TV episode, and $40,500 for a feature film with a budget over $30 million.
The bonus is equal to 50% of the fixed domestic and foreign residual, even though the viewership threshold is only based on U.S. subscribers. Focusing on engagement across a service’s subscriber base allows for a fair comparison between smaller platforms like Apple TV+ and larger platforms like Netflix.
Again, these terms only apply to shows made for streaming. Old hits finding a new life on a streamer (like Suits on Netflix) aren’t eligible for these bonuses.
Similar to the terms baked into the Directors Guild of America’s contract that was set in May, the WGA will also receive a big hike in foreign streaming residuals.
The new calculation is expected to net a 76% increase in foreign residual payments over three years for the largest streaming platforms.
As an example, this adjustment will see Netflix’s foreign residual payments for an hour-long episode of TV rise from $18,684 to $32,830.
While TV writers make up roughly 64% of the WGA’s membership, they weren’t the only writers to feel the streaming squeeze. Screenwriters in the feature film world were just as disappointed in their dealings with the studios, and the Guild fought to make sure their needs were addressed.
One of the crown jewels of the new deal is that it guarantees that the vast majority of screenwriters will get a “second step” in their deal; meaning they will be paid to do at least one rewrite of a first draft screenplay.
Under the new terms, per the guild,
“A second step is required whenever a writer is hired for a first draft screenplay for 200% of minimum or less, including original and non-original screenplays.”
This language also applies to spec scripts that are purchased outside of the usual development process.
Screenwriters have long been paid late for their work, so the WGA sought improvements in that area as well.
According to the 2023 contract, screenwriters who earn 200% of the WGA minimum or less must be paid half of that fee at the start of the deal. If a draft isn’t delivered within nine weeks, you must pay the writer another 25% of the fee, with the remaining 25% to be paid after delivery of a draft.
Screenwriters working on made-for-streaming films are also getting an 18% gain on minimum compensation for story and teleplay, which can equal up to $100,000 for movies with a budget of $30 million or more.
Combined with the foreign residual streaming increases, this new math will yield a residual of $216,000 over three years for titles airing on the largest services.
Strides were also made in protections for writers against the encroaching threat of AI. While likely far from the last protections the WGA will ever need to put in place in this arena, the deal points represent a strong start.
Per the guild:
That last point is key. A number of class action suits filed by authors and artists are percolating through the courts, alleging their work has been stolen to train AIs.
The WGA wants to keep its options open should they someday choose to follow suit.
Finally, writing teams. The 2023 deal sees movement on one big-ticket item that teams have been asking about for years: healthcare.
Since writers who work in teams of two or more are paid as one writer, they have to split their fees. This means that individual members of a team each have a harder time earning the minimum amount necessary to qualify for WGA healthcare.
Essentially, teams had to make twice as much as a solo writer to qualify for healthcare.
Now, for the purposes of calculating health and pension benefits, each writer will be credited with earning the full fee, even though it is still split across the team.
Per the guild,
“Each writer on a writing team employed for a script will receive pension and health contributions up to the relevant cap as though they were a single writer, rather than splitting the applicable cap. In addition, when a writing team is employed on a series, the contribution for each writer on the team will be made on the full weekly minimum instead of one-half of the weekly minimum.”
While teams still have a number of concerts they hope to see addressed some day (such as a pay bump that makes compensation more equitable), progress on their healthcare is still seen as a major win for the WGA.
The new WGA deal represents a huge leap forward in compensation and protections for the writers who create the films and television shows beloved the world over.
While the WGA strike is over, the SAG strike is still ongoing. Negotiations between SAG and the AMPTP have resumed. With the WGA deal and DGA deal already in place, the industry is holding its breath for a quick resolution.
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