Old typewriter_A_Credit AdobeStock

Source: Adobe Stock

A US writers’ strike is looming.

The international independent sector is moving ahead with preparations for the Cannes market next month despite the very real possibility a US writers strike could proceed this summer and will “work around it” in the eventuality of industrial action.

Online ballots open today (April 11) for a week, closing on April 17, and Writers Guild of America (WGA) members are deciding whether to authorise industrial action. Should the guild’s negotiators and their counterparts at Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) fail to agree terms before the guild’s basic agreement with AMPTP expires on May 1, a strike could happen any time after that.

It has been 15 years since the guild last went on strike. It lasted more than 100 days and resulted in a widespread cancellations and delays. While the official line is “business as usual”, nobody is taking any chances. As the studios, streamers and TV networks have been doing, independent executives are stockpiling screenplays, pushing through the development process to ensure writers deliver completed scripts that are ready to shoot.

“We’re going into Cannes doing what we do because we don’t want to future-trip,” says one prominent sales agent who spoke to Screen under condition of anonymity. “We keep packaging things. If there’s a strike, there’s a strike and we’ll work around it.”

While the writers’ demands for greater compensation centre on issues that impact TV more profoundly – residuals in the age of streaming and writers “mini rooms” – there is no doubt a strike would impact feature production planning and schedules.

No guild writer would be anywhere near a set once a strike were called, rendering rewrites impossible. In their absence directors and producers probably would be able to make tiny amendments to a word or line, but nobody could make substantial adjustments to a script except the writer.

As one sales agent-producer-financier notes, “I don’t know what a director is going to be willing to do in solidarity with the WGA, so we have to make sure the scripts are strong.”

Were a strike to be called, the general consensus is it would not last as long as the 2007/08 action. In terms of Cannes packages, that means there could be start dates towards the end of the year, early 2024, or no start date at all until there is greater clarity.

Summer shoots could be pushed

Independent producers who have lined up a summer shoot may have no option but to push the start date, in which case they face the prospect of losing cast, crew and locations. Screen has heard of at least one independent project which went to Berlin but has since fallen apart because the producer bet there would be a strike and didn’t want to take any chances.

“If we have a project that’s out to start production in July, I’m pushing that writer to finish the script as soon as possible,” notes one sales agent. The person added that if they can’t accomplish this in time they might push a start of production to a later date and launch sales at Toronto, raising the possibility of a more active market in Toronto this year.

Independent producers can try to find non-guild writers, something that has happened more frequently since the strike of 2007/08. “To say that the only talent we can use comes from the US is myopic,” says one independent figure. “There are plenty of amazing writers who are not part of the guild; a good story is a good story regardless of who writes it.”

Another critical consideration is that independent producers of lower-budget projects need completion bonds, unlike larger companies that can afford to buy insurance policies or studios and streamers which can insure production themselves. In the current climate bonding companies have said they will not bond anything that has not wrapped production by June 30.

Actors and directors could follow

While there are workarounds should a writers’ strike proceed, of far greater concern to the independent community and Hollywood at large is the prospect of actors and directors downing tools.

Current Directors Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA contracts with AMPTP expire on June 30. These groups will hold their own negotiations with the producers’ representative and many believe they are likely to follow suit and go on strike should the writers call for industrial action first.

“What happens to productions after an actors strike, when nobody’s working?,” asks one independent executive.

Very little production in the US, for starters. It’s very hard to finance a film of any reasonable size without at least one recognisable name actor, and they all belong to SAG-AFTRA. Were actors to strike, sources anticipate an increase in the number of productions set up outside the US where producers can work with, say, European writers, directors and actors who don’t belong to bodies affiliated to the Hollywood guilds.

One financier who works on a range of independent budgets notes a shift in this direction and says their business is taking on more projects which shoot outside the US.

It is partly a deliberate effort to mitigate for an eventual strike, and partly something unrelated to the strike conversation: a desire to benefit from enhanced capabilities and infrastructure around the world created, the financier says, by the global greenlight frenzy of early-era Netflix.

Whichever way the WGA, DGA and SAG-AFTRA membership decide to go, this being the independent space calm and creative minds will prevail.

“The last time we were in this situation,” notes one source, “a lot of documentaries got made, and there were a lot of European co-productions.”