Hollywood’s Apocalypse Next

Sometimes it’s not a question of how many apocalypses (apocalyii?) you want, it’s how many apocalyii you can carry.

As if we don’t have enough disruption, turmoil and threats to the very fundaments of our business to keep us busy, get ready to take a wrecking ball to this hellscape.

Remember back in 2017, when to back away from the strike precipice, the WGA signed a short-term contract kicking the can down the road on the major issues for just a few years? Well, welcome to down the road, and as often happens when we plan to meet here, the problems are now more intractable then we left them, and the positions of the various parties are harder, tougher, and more insecure than they were two years ago.

Which makes this a good moment to kick off ANKLER STRIKEWATCH 2020!™

You thought the WGA/ATA stuff was kerfuffle enough for one union to take on this year. Well au contraire. The issues in that still, totally unresolved, maybe never-to-be-resolved dispute are a mere appetizer, an amuse-bouche even, to the actual, life-and-death, future of the profession fight they’ve got to tackle. Starting as it turns out, right about now, ATA fracas or no ATA fracas.

This couldn’t be more deadly serious for the writers. Forget packaging fees: This is about writing as a viable career that supports a broad swath of practitioners in this industry. The central issue comes down, more or less, to the shorter seasons commissioned by the streamers; the six, eight episodes that replace what were once 24-episode seasons on the olde time networks; even the glory days of 12-episode HBO seasons seem bathed in a halcyon glow.

How does a writer support him/herself off six-episode seasons, with the jumping from show to show required; with the same holds in place; with the same need to . . . invent a world for a new show. And to make your living solely from that measly six-episode fee—no backend, no residuals. Just take your fee and hit the bricks.

Then the trick is to make that by-order-of-magnitude smaller check support human life in the greater Los Angeles are, which you may have noticed has become so fantastically expensive that you’ve basically got to be Aaron Spelling to afford a pastrami on rye at Langer’s.

All those giant, nine-figure showrunner deals you’ve been reading about the past couple years? Do you think that more money for the writers at the top means more money for writers across the board? Then you’ve been sleeping through the entire drift of the tech industry for the past two decades. Think of those dollar figures as having siphoned money right out of the pool that would’ve found its way (some of it anyway) to the writers room in the past.

As with everywhere the tech industry touches down, the results are: massive amounts of money for the very very few at the very very top; subsistence wages for everyone else, mostly in what used to be middle-class career sectors (in the case of TV writers, a lower upper-class career sector).

So that’s what the writers are facing, and that’s what this round has got to figure out if it’s ever going to be figured out.

Does the head of “Workers of the World Unite” bluster that the WGA has built up under itself help or hurt them coming to the table this time?

Hard to say, but it’s important to consider whom they are squaring off against this time. This round it’s not going to be a matter of staring down good ol’ Jim Gianopulos. Even Bob Iger is going to look like the teddy bear across the table as the real powers on this matter will be Reed Hastings, Jeff Bezos, and Tim Cook (or their stand-ins.)

The WGA comes into this still riled up, mired in ATA mud, and ready to storm the ramparts and in no mood to compromise on anything. But across the table, from what I understand, the mood on the part of the tech giants who will hold the keys to this negotiation is not so much “Oh no! Not a strike!” as “Hehe! A strike!”

For these over-capitalized outsiders, when they look at a strike, they see a chance to “disrupt” all the old arrangements, force majeure their way out of all sorts of stuff, shatter many of the basic working relationships and remedy their eternal frustration with the cozy, clubby, old-time industrial way of doing things in Hollywood. And while they’re at it, maybe to run an under-funded studio or two out of business and bust a troublesome union, possibly forever.

What’s not to like?

How does this turn out? Two years ago, at the dawn of The Ankler, I stood alone (TOLDITTOYOU™) predicting there would be no strike, even as the negotiations dragged on past the 11th hour. It was my thinking then that not only was it in no one’s immediate interests at that moment to force a strike, more important: Neither side saw it in their interest to shut the industry down, and both had a great deal to lose from a stoppage at that moment.

This time around, you’ve got an inflamed, intransigent, possibly utopian WGA Board (staring into the face of a not-make-believe mortal threat) while on the other side of the table you have the Four Horsemen of Disruption giggling over a chance to knock over the entire Hollywood chessboard.

On the flip side, for the writers is it’s now an open question how much stomach the membership will have for this, given the ATA stand-off.  The members have been impressively lockstep the past couple years, but this agency thing clearly isn’t going the way anyone thought it would. What about of membership fire has been burned off on this is to be seen.  My guess: these issues are so consequential, the members will have little choice but to stay united here.

Ultimately, the writers need to work to eat, and even streamers need new content . . . but ultimately is a long way away and neither side has much to gain by stopping before we get there.

Ultimately, we’ll see who is still alive when we do.