After three months, the Writers Guild of America and the Hollywood companies finally sat down to talk about a deal on Friday. But don’t get too excited. The Screen Actors Guild is still on strike, studio moguls sound like Logan Roy, and the two-union shutdown could last for months.

Writers and artists want pay raises, residual payments from streaming services, and AI to be regulated in some way.

But CEOs of media companies, like Disney’s Bob Iger, are crying poverty. Iger recently said that “disruptive forces” like streaming, shrinking TV viewers, and an uncertain economy make this “the worst time in the world” for talent to demand their fair share. He also said that the people who make the material must “be realistic about the business.”

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In fact, the entertainment industry is doing well, as shown by strong earnings, sky-high executive pay, and summer hits like Barbie, Oppenheimer, and Mission Impossible. Also, studios are more diverse than they used to be. They now own streaming services, TV networks, theme parks, cable companies, and a wide range of domestic and international businesses.

The three Disney streaming services, Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN, bring in billions of dollars each year. This, along with 12 theme parks, 5 cruise ships, Pixar, Marvel, and other companies, made 2022 a good year for business.

Comcast/Universal/NBC is a $120 billion business that depends more on its cable TV monopoly than on movies. Sony is a global company that makes electronics, games, image sensors, and has its own movie studio, Columbia Pictures.

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Some studios are just parts of a Frankencorp, which is a company made up of parts that don’t go together. In 2022, the people who planned the $43 billion Warner/Discovery/CNN merger took out about $50 billion in loans, fired 1,000 people, and hurt the businesses of HBO, TCM, and CNN. There might be a catchy motto for the bird shows on Discovery and the food shows on Food Network (Polly Warner Cracker?). But Jack Warner’s once-lean studio is now the perfect example of a bloated conglomerate that squeezes workers and customers.

David Zaslav, who is the CEO of Warner, has become a symbol of greed in Hollywood. To be fair, he is under pressure to cut TV residuals, wages, and debt. But the Los Angeles Times did some math and found that his total pay from 2018 to 2022 would be almost $500 million. His salary is so high that in May, 40% of the people who own shares in the company voted against it.

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Most studio heads’ pay deals have gone up a lot. In the past five years, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos has made $192 million, and Brian Roberts, who runs Universal/Comcast, has made $170 million. Even when they’ve made mistakes, Apple, Paramount, and Fox bosses have done very well. (See Fox’s defamation claim for $787.5 million.)

At the same time, about 87% of SAG players don’t make at least $26,470 a year, which is the minimum amount needed to get health insurance through the group. In the last ten years, the average pay for a weekly writer-producer has gone down by 23%, and half of all TV writers are paid the WGA minimum. If you write a hit Netflix streamer, you can make up to 89 cents in residuals.

If the AMPTP agreed to the WGA’s plan to raise pay and base residuals by 6%, 5%, and 5% over three years, it would cost the studios about $500 million a year, or 0.5% of the $210 billion they made in 2022. That’s called a “rounding error” by people who do math.

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By not coming to an agreement, the AMPTP is also hurting the waiters, cooks, seamstresses, and other blue- and pink-collar workers who help written shows. These people have already been through Covid lockdowns and inflation, and now they are losing jobs not just in Los Angeles but also in other cities with a lot of film production, like Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, and New York.

Taxpayers help pay for movies that are made on their streets. California’s “refundable” tax credits have just been raised to $300 million, and New York’s tax credit cap has just been raised to $700 million. But when people see how their kindness is being returned, they might not give the film crew the same perks.

Worse is that for the first time in almost a century, class fighting is being talked about at the work table. In July, a studio source told Deadline that the AMPTP’s plan was to drag out negotiations until “union members start losing their apartments and houses.” Another anonymous studio source said that this approach was “cruel but necessary.”

It’s one thing for business leaders to try to make a strike into a double strike. But it’s a very different thing to try to make more people homeless in LA by giving up workers from your own company. Even though the AMPTP denied the statements, the casual cruelty came back to light a few days later when Universal cut down trees that picketers had used as shade during a heat wave.

The city gave Universal a fine of $250, and Sag and WGA sued for illegal labor tactics. A recent study showed that the public likes strikers more than executives, which makes sense.

So, the hot work summer keeps going. A carpenter who is out of work sees a story in a tabloid about Jeff Bezos taking a holiday on his $500 million super-yacht. A designer who is out of work talks about how Iger is making changes to his $33 million home in Brentwood and adding a two-story stable. A WGA member pickets the Apple store and then shakes her fist as she drives past Sarandos’ $34 million fake Italian home in Montecito.

It helps to think back to the last time both of these groups went on strike at the same time. In 1960, agent Lew Wasserman played the role of an unofficial peacemaker. When Spyros Skouras, the head of 20th Century Fox, complained that he couldn’t pay residuals, Wasserman told him, “Don’t be greedy.”

This saying should be a guide for studio heads today.

Kathleen Sharp wrote Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood (Blackstone) and was part of the team that made The Last Mogul (ThinkFilm).
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