The last time this happened, Conan O’Brien spun his wedding ring on television.
In early January 2008, after ‘Late Night With Conan O’Brien’ went dark for two months because of the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike, the host returned to NBC bearded and armed with shenanigans. He said he grew his first-ever beard in solidarity with Hollywood writers fighting for fairer pay but brought the show back to support members of his crew who had been out of work.
After explaining this stance, Conan sat behind his desk and prepared to spin his wedding ring on its surface — a nervous habit, now showcased in the absence of any scripted material. “Are you ready to time this?” O’Brien asked his control room. He would try to beat his record of keeping the ring going for 41 seconds. When he failed to do so, his band’s trumpeter played a melancholic, brassy neigh.
“It’s hard enough without writers to lose a ring spin,” he said. “But then to have a horse laugh at me?”
Clips of O’Brien’s ring-spinning — which became a recurring bit — began circulating online before the WGA strike began Tuesday, the result of unsuccessful contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Nearly 98 per cent of the union’s more than 9,000 writers voted last month to authorise the walkout. They demand their compensation reflect how technology (i.e. streaming) has affected the creation and consumption of their work. In certain asks, such as safeguards related to the use of artificial intelligence, they look toward the future.
Some experts say the action is a natural sequel to the 2007-2008 strike, which lasted 100 days and won the WGA jurisdiction over writing for the internet, then called “new media.” The lingering question is whether widespread devastation will again precede labour gains; the last strike shut down productions and lost writers deals, costing the Los Angeles County economy an estimated $2.5 billion (Dh9.92 billion).
“The memory of 15 years ago is very current in people’s minds,” said Jonathan Handel, entertainment attorney, journalist and author of ‘Hollywood on Strike!: An Industry at War in the internet Age’.
The WGA and its fellow above-the-line unions, the Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild of America, negotiate their contracts with the AMPTP every three years. The first to negotiate tends to set the tone for the remainder of the cycle. The WGA, which kicked things off this year, has historically been the most willing to make bold moves; the last time it went first was in 2007.
Streaming a new concept
New media was a hazy concept back then. Netflix, which had only just started streaming content, hadn’t yet tightened its grip on the entertainment industry. Most writers had an inkling that online distribution would only grow in popularity but had little idea of quite how much. The WGA knew it had to act quickly and stake a claim in this new territory before it was too late.
After the WGA and AMPTP failed to negotiate a contract by the end of October 2007 — also because of major disagreement over how to calculate DVD residuals — the strike began in November. Some projects still shot scripts completed before the strike: Season 2 of ‘Friday Night Lights’. for instance, filmed two more episodes — the latter becoming an unplanned finale that failed to wrap up the season’s already bizarre storylines. Other productions, such as the late-night talk shows, shut down right away.
Writers picketed in New York and Los Angeles, outside Rockefeller Center and major studios. Michael Jamin, an Emmy-nominated writer who has worked on shows such as ‘King of the Hill’ and ‘Maron’, recalled standing outside an office in a crowd chanting and blowing airhorns. “I just have a memory of someone coming down from inside the building, saying: ‘Hey, could you keep it down? We’re trying to work.’ Hilarious,” Jamin said. His response? “Everybody’s trying to get you not to work!”
There were massive shows of solidarity from others in the industry. ‘The Office’ stars Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson called in sick the first day of the strike, allowing for only two new scenes to be shot without writers on set. It was later reported Carell cited a case of “enlarged balls”. Michael Schur, a writer-producer on the sitcom, told the Hollywood Reporter around the 10-year anniversary of the strike that “NBC lawyers and very high-powered suits pressured [Carell] like crazy” to return to work, “but he just calmly told them he wasn’t interested”.
As for film, the New York Times reported that a draft of the James Bond film ‘Quantum of Solace’ was delivered to its director two hours before the writers walked out. It wound up the most poorly received of Daniel Craig’s entries into the franchise. A few years after the strike, the famously candid actor told Time Out London the film’s production was “[expletive]” because “we had the bare bones of a script and then there was a writers’ strike and there was nothing we could do.”
“There was me trying to rewrite scenes — and a writer I am not,” Craig said.
Even the most impassioned of writers will tell you that nobody actually wants to strike. While the action is “the most powerful tool labour has,” according to entertainment attorney Handel, it is also “akin to holding the knife by the blade itself. It hurts those who strike and those who were struck.”
Tim Doyle, who has worked in the industry for over three decades, described the WGA as “the most feisty” of the above-the-line unions. Fifteen years ago, he was a writer and executive producer on the CW series ‘Aliens in America’. It hadn’t gotten to post-production when the strike began.
Doyle was also among the dozens of writer-producers to have expansive development deals terminated during the strike, with major studios citing the “force majeure” clause in contracts that freed them of their obligations because of disruptive events outside their control. The companies “used the strike as an excuse to cut away writers like me, who they described as deadwood — people they wanted to take off their books,” he said. Doyle estimated that CBS axing his deal lost him a couple million dollars.
Handel predicted studios represented by the AMPTP would act similarly this time around, holding out for “at least eight weeks” of the strike to once again invoke force majeure provisions.
There were some unintended winners of the 2007-2008 strike. According to Handel, it “furthered what the 1988 strike had brought to public notice, which was reality television.” During that record-breaking 153-day action, Fox picked up ‘Cops’, the still-running programme following the lives of law enforcement. It didn’t employ any union writers. Twenty years later, Handel said, the 2007-2008 strike “gave a boost” to established unscripted series such as NBC’s ‘The Apprentice’.
And where to turn for up-to-date news of the strike’s developments? Most would have named Nikki Finke. The Los Angeles-based reporter made it big with unflinching reports published on her blog Deadline Hollywood Daily (which later dropped the ‘Daily’). While her tenacious tactics could attract controversy, New York magazine praised her in November 2007 as “tireless.” The Guardian claimed she had “become required reading.” Speaking to the New York Times, even a studio executive — a frequent sort of target for Finke — admitted, “Like it or not, everyone in Hollywood reads her.”
In February 2008, she published the long-awaited: “STRIKE OVER: Hollywood Back to Work!”
How the strike ended
Over 92 per cent of WGA members voted to end the strike. While little changed with the DVD issue, the new contract granted the WGA the ability to negotiate over writers’ contributions to new media and outlined residuals for the reuse of their work. Meredith Stiehm, president of WGA West, recently told The Washington Post: “If we hadn’t won that — 50 per cent of our work right now is on streaming services and platforms. We wouldn’t have been covered for that.”
The AMPTP and WGA each acknowledged how the 2007-2008 strike affected Hollywood workers in statements announcing its end. The union noted its leadership was “profoundly aware of the economic loss” but said they were “confident” the provisions related to new media constituted “a significant achievement not only for ourselves but the entire creative community, now and in the future.”
To this day, writers remain mixed on how to consider the strike’s legacy. In a January instalment of the “From the Trenches” Substack, writer Eric Tipton said he felt it was less “a great victory for the Guild” than “a bitter but necessary sacrifice.” Others pointed out that the DGA — in January 2008 — was actually the first to settle on a tentative agreement with the AMPTP related to new media.
“Some say they wouldn’t have gotten that deal if we were not on strike, some say we could have gotten that deal with better strategy and no strike, some say we would have gotten that deal in the following contract negotiations without a strike,” writer Holly Sorensen stated in the Substack. “At this point the only fact is, the DGA got jurisdiction over New Media then, and we took [a similar] deal.”
Everything is a power play. While speaking to The Post this week, Victor Fresco, the Emmy-nominated creator of shows such as ‘Better Off Ted’ and ‘Santa Clarita Diet’, likened the 2007-2008 strike to a predator-prey dynamic. “Was it worth the 100 days?” he pondered. Well, writers had to prove they weren’t “an easy meal.”
“My takeaway from that was, it was necessary,” Fresco said. “Did we get everything? Of course not, we never would. It’s necessary because they’re moral arguments. They’re about power. They will keep coming after us, directors and writers, and get every penny they can until there’s pushback.”