WGA Awards Doubles as Labor Rally: It Feels Like Theres a Groundswell Towards a Strike

Accepting the Writers Guild of America award for original screenplay on Sunday night, Daniel Kwan skipped past the typical thank-yous to his agent and manager and instead shouted out his strike captain.

“Get involved,” he told the crowd. “If you don’t have a captain yet, go find one… Let’s go give ’em hell.”

It was a fitting capstone on the event, which at times felt more like a labor rally than an awards show. The WGA is set to begin negotiations with the major studios in just two weeks, and the possibility of a writers strike may be as high as it’s been since the last work stoppage in 2007-08.

“Hold out for what you deserve!” urged “The Goldbergs” star Wendi McLendon-Covey, presenting the award for drama series. “We cannot do it without you! Hold out until the last minute!”

In recent weeks, WGA officials have been tamping down the rhetoric, saying that it was premature to start talking about a strike before negotiations even begin. But in her speech, WGA West President Meredith Stiehm addressed the negotiations head-on, saying that writers need a “sea change in our compensation.”

“It’s possible it could get a little rough, a little rugged,” she said. “But we have been there before. We know how to stick together.”

Stiehm also singled out Netflix — the evening’s “Platinum Pen” sponsor — for shortchanging screenwriters out of $42 million.

“We’re not looking for a fight,” she said. “But we’re not going to get rolled either.”

Accepting the WGA’s Laurel Award for screenwriting achievement, Charlie Kaufman seemed like he was steeling the room to march into battle against “the people with money.”

“They have tricked us into thinking we can’t do it without them,” he said. “But the truth is they cannot do anything of value without us.”

The WGA is focused on improving residuals for streaming shows and combating the rising use of “mini rooms,” as well as basic matters like improving wage scales. The current contract expires on May 1. Union members have until tomorrow to vote to approve the “pattern of demands” that will guide the proposals in the upcoming talks.

Backstage, several writers took a more temperate tone, expressing hope that the issues could be resolved without a strike.

“Unfortunately, there feels like there is a groundswell toward the strike,” said Thomas Schnauz, who was awarded for an episode of “Better Call Saul.” “I’m hoping that doesn’t happen. I’m hoping things can be worked out.”

Stephen Schiff, who attended the New York ceremony, said he, too, hopes there will be more progress than the pessimists think.

“No one wants a strike — no writer, no producer, no studio head wants a strike,” he said. “But we have to change the way the industry is structured because that structure is age-old, doesn’t work anymore. Everyone knows it, including the people who are on the other side of the negotiating table.”

Justin Halpern, a WGA West board member who was nominated as part of the staff of “Abbott Elementary,” said he still believes strike talk is premature.

“I think anybody who says we’re going to strike or we’re not going to strike doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “A strike is when you walk away from a deal. And right now there is no deal that’s even on the table yet. We haven’t started negotiating. So I think that we’ll see how it goes and then we’ll probably have a better sense of how they feel and how we feel.”

A lot of the backstage discussion focused on “mini-rooms,” the use of short-term rooms of a handful of writers to develop a show. Some worry that writers who work in such rooms aren’t given a chance to see a show through to production, where they can build producing experience to advance their careers. A few solutions have been kicked around, including compensating mini-room writers for that lost opportunity.

Patrick Schumacker, also of “Abbott Elementary,” said he knows writers who spend their time hopping from job to job.

“A lot of writers that I know that are mid-level, they’re now struggling to put together a year,” he said. “And mini-rooms, I think, are a source of a lot of that. So I would love to see them go away. But if not, I would love to see the studios back up the Brinks truck.”

Michael Schneider, Cynthia Littleton and Jennifer Maas contributed to this story.

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