It’s deja vu all over again for Patric Verrone, the former WGA West president who led the guild during the 2007-08 writers strike.
Verrone, who spoke to Variety while picketing outside Fox Studios in West Los Angeles, sees a number of parallels to the dynamic that led to the work stoppage in November 2007 but also a number of important differences. He is a member of the negotiating committee that has been wrangling this latest three-year contract with executives at the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
“I would say the chief similarity is that in 2007, and in 2023, the management didn’t believe us, when we said we were going to strike and that our demands were genuine, and that we had the full support of our membership,” Verrone said. “There was skepticism on the part of the companies that this would actually happen.”
The biggest difference from the past strike is a welcome one for Verrone, who said the cutthroat business environment has led to studios squeezing costs for creatives and crew members at all levels.
“The amount of support from the rest of the labor movement in Hollywood and internationally has been astonishing,” he said. “Part of that is attributable to the fact that the companies have been doing this to everybody.”
Not surprisingly, Verrone also believes there’s an echo from 2007 in the thorny issues that the WGA is dealing with in this round of bargaining. Back then, the guild’s overarching goal was to ensure it had full jurisdiction and compensation formulas for writers when their work was distributed via online platforms. The consequences of the streaming boom and massive ramp-up in content production have been significant, and the onus has fallen on the most vulnerable members of the guild, namely younger and less-experienced scribes.
“In 2007, I believe we were striking for the future, which turned out to be the present,” he said. “Whereas now, partially because there wasn’t really a negotiation in 2020 because of COVID, there’s been six years of buildup. And so what we’re on strike for now, as always, is the future, but it has a good dollop of the recent past on top of it. That has made it all the more intensive and our cause righteous.”
Marjorie David, another veteran of the 2007 strike, is among the many guild members disturbed by the spread of AI and the threat it poses to writers and copyrighted works. David was dismayed to learn, after the WGA disclosed details about its proposals after calling the strike late on May 1, that AMPTP negotiators did not engage with the guild on its proposal to regulate the use of AI in the creative process.
“One interesting similarity from 2007 is that one of the things they absolutely did not want to discuss at all then was streaming,” David said. ” ‘We don’t know what streaming is, we don’t know what streaming will be, we can’t talk about it. Let’s meet every year and talk about it.’ Well, that’s pretty much the line on AI now. So if you ever need a hint that something’s important to them, (AI) is important to them.”
David also asserted the perception that writing for TV and film is becoming a “gig economy” job for WGA members. She noted that writers feel they are losing the perks and protections afforded them in the past, such as profit participation points (for those with clout) and the ability for creators to have a hand in future iterations of content that they create.
“Everybody in this town is beginning to feel like a gig worker,” David said. “There’s more solidarity behind this than ever before. Our whole economy in this place rests on the entertainment business. And even the people who are feeling pain now understand that there won’t be anything to do in the future unless we get fair pay.”
The guild’s focus in this contract negotiation was honed by the results of a working-conditions survey sent out last year that received more than 7,000 responses, Verrone said. Guild leaders were surprised at how much agita that lower-rung writers were facing around the rising prevelance of mini rooms and the shifting sands that have made series that run 6-10 episodes per season the norm rather than the exception. That is what the WGA meant in its May 1 message to members that declared “the business is broken,” Verrone explained while holding a picket sign that offered a play on the famous line from 1967’s “Cool Hand Luke”: “What we have here is a failure to negotiate.”
“The sense that the business is broken, and the writing in the business is broken, came from the overwhelming response that we got from 7,000 members who filled out a survey that simply told their own stories of how they had been hired, how they had worked over the past few years, and how their their contracts and the work environment had changed,” Verrone said. “And it changed in a way that was broken and that was simply unlike the old system. There’s the old adage in Hollywood: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Well, this time it is broke. So many members have seen it happen that now as a whole we have to get the industry to fix it.”
(Pictured: Marjorie David and Patric Verrone picket outside Fox Studios)