As the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) strike grinds on with no end in sight, the impact is being felt not just in the US where picketing has halted some productions. Given the global production of US studios, the strike has echoes in the UK, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. It is being watched particularly closely in Canada, known colloquially as “Hollywood North” owing to the large number of US productions filmed in Vancouver, Toronto and elsewhere.
US production, known in Canada as “Foreign Location Shooting” (FLS) is a multi-billion dollar industry. Last year, FLS production accounted for 57 percent of overall film and television production in Canada, which totalled $11.69 billion in 2022. When there is a strike amongst US writers, clearly there will be impact on these US-created-but-filmed-in-Canada-productions. It was reported in Toronto that there was an almost immediate slowdown in scouting for new US shows, although shows in production continued as scripts had already been created. Some in the industry, such as actors, have said that they were almost immediately put out of work, while others, such as a family member who works in VFX and post-production, has reported no change—yet. Canadian production (theatrical and television), which is unaffected by the strike, provides some buffer although this accounts for only about one-third of the industry. Canadian broadcasters’ in-house productions account for roughly another ten percent.
Members of the Writers Guild of Canada (WGC) can continue to work on new Canadian scripts (the WGC agreement with the Canadian Media Producers Association rules out any strike action until the termination of the present Production Agreement, currently December 31, 2023), but the WGC laid out some strict conditions for its members relating to “struck work”. This is particularly confusing because some WGC members are also members of the WGA. Some of them reside in Canada, others in the US. If a writer is a dual WGC/WGA member and resides in the US, WGA strike rules apply. A Canadian WGC writer who resides in the US and is also a member of the WGA cannot return to Canada to work. Dual members who reside in Canada can continue to work on Canadian productions and US co-productions but cannot “pitch” them. (i.e. seek new writing contracts). This was explained during an interview between Toronto-based screenwriter Anthony Q. Farrell and CBC host Elamin Abdulmahmood;
Farrell: Here’s the thing: I’m in a very weird, unique position where I’m a member of the Writers Guild of America and the Writers Guild of Canada. I can continue to work on Canadian productions, and Canadian productions that are in co-productions with American studios — but I can’t pitch them. And also, this is only because I live in Canada. If I lived in America, the WGC and WGA would be telling you, “All right, you live in America, you stay there. You’re part of the WGA strike. Don’t come back to Canada to try and find work.”
WGC members working on shows in Canada cannot accept “struck work”, which is anything that is normally a WGA show such as US-based productions and productions already under a WGA contract. While not striking (but also not strike-breaking), the WGC says that it stands in solidarity with the WGA, as have many scriptwriters’ associations around the globe.
Although the strike is already having a slowdown impact on FLS production, as with just about anything there are some potential limited upsides. For example, if the strike continues there is a possibility that US networks may pick up some Canadian shows to round out their schedules, as happened during the last WGA strike back in 2007.
Concerns of Canadian writers are similar to those put forward by the WGA members; a decline in revenue for writers as a result of shorter series, fewer writers in writing rooms and different forms of compensation (one-time payments as opposed to payment plus residuals). This has largely arisen from the growth of streaming productions as opposed to traditional network television series. Another issue is a concern that AI may eventually be used to take over some roles filled by union members, such as producing initial scripts leaving writers to polish rough drafts produced by AI generated content. The WGA wants assurance that AI will not be used to do the work performed by writers. The screenwriters are one of the first, if not the first, occupation to strike out of concern for AI created job displacement, but they won’t be the last. However, while the battle lines are just beginning to be drawn on setting conditions regarding how AI is used to create content, given the early stage of development we are currently in regarding the role of AI in the workplace it is very unlikely the film industry will agree to any provisions that would tie its hands. Instead, the employer group, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (which represents the studios and networks), has offered an annual meeting to discuss advancements in technology. This is keeping the door open to dialogue without making any commitments.
Resolution of the WGA’s grievances will not be easy. While the ultimate issue is about money and job security, the more specific issues relate to how streaming content is produced, and who gets to decide how productions are made. If fewer writers are required for shorter periods, is the solution to increase compensation for the work available or to featherbed by requiring a minimum number of writers no matter what the nature of the production? Logic dictates that it will be the former. If in the future shorter series requiring fewer writers will be the norm, how can this reality be accommodated to meet the needs of both sides? The WGA wants to protect writers’ jobs and incomes; the industry wants to stay competitive and be able to adapt and tailor its production processes to the needs of the content produced.
At the end of the day a solution will be found. Production cannot take place without writers, AI or no AI. Equally, if there are no productions there will be no work for writers. A compromise will have to be struck. What the nature of that compromise will be, and how long it will take, is the question. All parts of the industry–in Hollywood, Hollywood North (Canada), the UK, Australia and elsewhere around the globe where film production, especially US financed production, takes place–are watching and waiting to see how this ends.
© Hugh Stephens, 2023. All Rights Reserved.