Writers’ Shut-It-Down Strategy Has Been Effective, Executives Privately Concede

Writers' shutdown strategy proves effective, according to reports.

The current sleepless nights of Warren Leight, renowned showrunner of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Writers Guild strike's captain, ensure that a particular TV program never sees the light of day. He is a crucial figure in his union's recent shift towards a targeted picketing strategy to shut down productions.

In a discussion on The Hollywood Reporter's TV's Top 5 podcast on May 24, Leight described the guild's transition from large-scale protests at corporate headquarters to more disruptive actions designed to impact revenue and reshape power dynamics. Although the change in strategy originated from the rank-and-file members, Leight reveals that guild leaders now understand its significant potential.

Leveraging his extensive experience as a TV writer and showrunner and his influential presence on social media, Leight, alongside an increasing number of WGA counterparts, has successfully organized a series of labor actions. These actions involve small groups quickly assembling, with their protest lines often being respected and even joined by sympathetic allies such as Teamsters and IATSE members. The result is the shutdown of production pipelines. Leight's goal is to empty the content pipeline.

Production shutdowns have occurred across the United States, from Loot and Good Trouble in Los Angeles to The Chi in Chicago and Evil in New York. In early May, writers picketed the on-location shoot of Aziz Ansari's Lionsgate film Good Fortune in Los Angeles for approximately two and a half days, leading to the indefinite suspension of production on May 19. According to picketer Kyra Jones (Woke, Queens), these actions hit employers harder financially than any other measure, pushing them to get the writers back on track and working again. Lauren Conn (The Lost Symbol), who also joined the Good Fortune picket line, emphasizes the need to halt all writing activities across the board.

This focus on shutdowns, which relies on the cooperation of other workplace unions, represents a remarkable shift for the Writers Guild. During their previous strike in 2007-08, the guild was isolated and at odds with other labor allies, needing a similar strategy. The guild now benefits from unity, aligning with other unions' fractious Hollywood worker caucus. Each block has overlapping grievances and is eager to create a favorable environment for its contract negotiations. However, the WGA has declined to provide specific details about the shutdown strategy.

On average, each day of lost production costs companies between $200,000 and $300,000, and insurance policies do not cover shutdowns caused by strikes. Allianz, a leading industry underwriter, states that it is too early to speculate on any impact on future insurance premiums.

Similar to the recent impact of the pandemic on studio schedules, some productions interrupted during the strike may not resume once it concludes. Factors to consider include the number of episodes in a season, cast availability, and the show's significance to its platform.

Several high-level executives, speaking anonymously, privately acknowledge the effectiveness of the guerrilla-style activities. This acknowledgment has led to an ongoing cat-and-mouse game, with rapid-response units of WGA members mobilizing to picket studio gates and location shoot sites based on tip-offs. Although some actionable information, especially last-minute intelligence, originates from sympathetic members of other unions, L.A. location permits, neighborhood filming notices, and post-production activity releases provide public records.

Some productions have circulated call sheets with incorrect call times to counter these efforts. In the case of Billions, crew members have been bused to the set, potentially allowing them to bypass picket lines and maintain anonymity.

Jones recalls showing up to one picketed production at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood only to find no production activity. She speculates that the shoot may have been rescheduled or relocated, or they received inaccurate information.

Lindsay Dougherty, the leader of the Hollywood Teamsters whose drivers have been avoiding picket lines, expresses no surprise at the WGA's decision to shut down productions. She states that her organization would do the same if they were on strike.

Wade Cordts, a key grip and stunt rigger, administers a Facebook group as a channel for crew members to provide product information to WGA picketers. He believes that the widespread anger in the industry has fostered a unique moment of solidarity. Cordts, a member of SAG-AFTRA and IATSE, observes that everyone below the line is affected, and it is the megacorporations attempting to weaken labor.

Critics point out that the shutdowns harm crewmembers who have already been paid for their project work. They question whom the strategy hurts. A top production executive explains that the studios focus on expenses and taxes, but the financial advantages are short-term. Another experienced studio player points out that studios exist to be in production, and the potential revenue loss from halted shows is substantial.

Nevertheless, labor experts note that the shutdowns serve a broader purpose for the writers and their guild. The actions demonstrate their strength, determination, and solidarity while boosting morale. Michael Kazin, a professor at Georgetown University who studies union power, explains that the shutdowns not only halt production but also advertise the guild's strength and determination. Erik Loomis, author of A History of America in Ten Strikes and a professor at the University of Rhode Island, emphasizes the importance of maintaining morale and preventing people from seeking alternative work or crossing picket lines. Joshua B. Freeman, a professor at the City University of New York specializing in factory work, agrees that collective actions maintain solidarity and show employers that they are taking on a united workforce.

Regarding the implicit and explicit support for the writers' shutdown strategy, Dougherty states that everyone sacrifices to end the strike as soon as possible. The belief is that the productions will return more shortly since they are undoubtedly crucial to the employers.

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