Chris Keyser, the co-chair of the Writers Guild of America’s negotiating committee, doesn’t see the 100-day marker of the ongoing strike as a moment to celebrate. In fact, Keyser has a few choice words for the Hollywood studios and streamers who comprise the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, calling the anniversary of the work stoppage “shameful” and “a day of infamy.”
In an interview posting Friday as part of The Hollywood Reporter’s TV’s Top 5 podcast, Keyser talks about the stalled state of negotiations with the AMPTP, why companies boasting about cash savings during the work stoppage is a “smokescreen” and his thoughts on what it will take to get both sides back to the negotiating table.
Below is an edited and condensed version of the TV’s Top 5 interview with hosts Lesley Goldberg and Daniel Fienberg. You can listen to the full conversation when episode 226 posts on Friday morning. (Subscribe here.)
Walk us through what happened with the Aug. 4 talks where both sides reunited to see if there was a path forward to resume negotiations.
Keyser: It didn’t go perfectly well, obviously. The conversation turned on Carol [Lombardini, president of the AMPTP] saying, “We’re going to talk about some things” and Ellen [Stutzman, chief negotiator of the WGA] saying, “You’re going to need to talk about everything.” And Carol saying, “I need to get back to you and talk to my member companies.” We’re waiting to hear. So, a stutter step but not really worth worrying too much about in the long run. [After the meeting THR reached out to the AMPTP, which did not comment.]
How was the temperature of the room when you walked in versus when you walked out?
Keyser: Things are cordial with the AMPTP. People are not yelling at each other. Everything is very professional; coldly professional, probably. The coldness is metaphorical. But no one needs to worry about that. The WGA is not particularly interested in playing games. Talking is the only way forward. There’s a sense somehow that you label something 100 days like it’s some kind of celebration. It’s an anniversary of shame for the AMPTP, let’s be clear about that. There was that early comment in the press about trying to starve us, and then they walked that back. But of course they are. We can make a TV show in 100 days; they can’t seem to get back into the negotiating room and have one substantive conversation. It’s a day of infamy for the AMPTP. It’s shameful. Either they cannot get it together or they intentionally are not getting it together. Or the AMPTP is doing precisely what they claimed they wouldn’t do, which was to try to create a situation in which people who are hungry and desperate no longer have the will to fight for their own survival. That’s not going to work.
Do you have an idea of when talks are going to resume?
Keyser: I don’t know. It’s impossible to get inside their heads. They could be negotiating among themselves about what they’re willing to offer. They could be delaying for the sake of delaying. At some point, I almost don’t believe that anymore. There’s a difference between the companies and the AMPTP itself. There were reports that said Carol didn’t want to meet last Friday. I don’t know if that’s true or not. You can never quite tell behind that curtain. All the chatter you’ve been hearing from the companies — all of the reports of outreach — that’s because the companies have come to understand that this is no longer a tenable strategy and Wall Street’s repeating it: “We don’t understand what the companies are doing.” “This no longer makes sense.” “They can’t work without product.” It’s an inevitability that companies that make TV and film have to go back to making TV and film — with an asterisk that who knows what Amazon and Apple are up to because they could never make another program and it wouldn’t affect their bottom line. That’s part of the problem with the industry: it has players in it for whom the thing that we all love and value is an asterisk for them.
One of the things that you’ve been talking about is the possibility that the individual members of the AMPTP do not necessarily have the same agenda and that at some point they could splinter. As we are at 100 days, from your perspective, does that seem more or less likely?
Keyser: It’s hard not to look at the situation and see the differing interests of the companies and the ways in which this strike affects them differentially means that at some point, they may need to assert their own interests rather than the interest of the group. I’m not surprised that no one has broken off yet because the AMPTP process has been highly effective for them in putting downward pressure on labor. So, in some sense, I think it needs another step for that to happen. I can easily imagine that Carol would say, “You have to give me a chance to go back in and negotiate.” She’s going to have her chance. It does not entirely make sense for Warner [Bros. Discovery] to tie its future to Apple’s point of view about the industry if Apple is intransigent. Apple [for example] would be fine, and Warner would disappear.
There was a sense of optimism, going into Friday’s meeting, from guild membership that seems to now have evaporated. How important is it for both sides to be at the table talking?
Keyser: There’s always optimism because you can’t be in a struggle for 100 days and not say, “There’s a tiny light at the end of the tunnel.” I just don’t know how long the tunnel is. We put out an email to the membership the Thursday before reminding them that of the AMPTP “playbook.” I use that term meaningfully because they do tend to go back to the same strategy over and over again — not to come right back in and say, “OK, what do you need? Let’s make a really good deal” — but to see how little they can give us. In 2007-08, they did it and talks led to breaking off. Even if we get back into a room, I don’t put it past them to continue to say, “We’ll give you a little bit.”
The AMPTP’s line is the DGA pattern and then a few other things. That’s the same way they negotiated a non-conflict negotiation. That’s what they did in 2020, during covid. But they’ve got two guilds — 170,000 people — out on strike. You can’t just use the same line over and over again and expect it to apply to every single situation. At some point, that becomes useless obstinacy. We’re going to talk at some point because the companies can’t afford not to.
When you hear concretely that the DGA deal is going to be what they’re offering, how do you respond?
Keyser: The DGA deal was never going to be a meaningful pattern for us. There are pieces of this — like success-based residuals — that the DGA felt like it didn’t need and we feel that we do. The DGA doesn’t get to make our deal. The DGA made the deal that it needed to make. But the companies can’t use that deal as our settlement because 170,000 people are on strike telling them that that’s not going to be sufficient and it doesn’t allow us to survive in this industry.
Companies are caught between a Wall Street regime that requires certain things of them that are hard in the middle of transition — free cash flow and growth — and the ability to deal with the fact that practices that they have adopted over the last decade have driven their workforce closer to being unable to survive. They have to figure out a way to compensate their workforce fairly, even as they have that sound in their ears saying, “Wall Street wants profitability,” “Wall Street doesn’t want to spend money.” They’re going to have to get through that because not having us working only hurts them in the long run. It only diminishes their power in the business. It’s disruptive. They don’t even have to listen to me; they can listen to all of these Wall Street analysts.
The 2007-08 strike lasted 100 days, with negotiations resuming after 21 days. What is your expectation for how long the writers’ strike will go on?
Keyser: There’s no way for me to know that. Once they get into a room and they’re open to having real conversations, you do go very fast. Real negotiations don’t take very long. It’s really a question of how long it’s going to take the companies to say, “We understand that we have no choice but to sit down and have a real conversation.” I can’t determine that. When the broadcast season begins to evaporate, when Sony moves all of its movies from 2023 to 2024, when you look ahead to next year and you say,
“What is Warner going to program on HBO once they get through this?” How do they manage that, month after month after month? They’re going to make a deal with us. That deal is going to be some version of what we’re looking for. If they keep us longer, that price doesn’t go down. All that’s going on now is they’re compounding their losses.
Taylor Sheridan is one of the most successful working TV writers in this moment. He told THR in a cover story this summer that he didn’t support the minimum room size, which is one of the WGA’s core issues. Others have echoed those sentiments, including John Ridley. What do you make of their comments?
Keyser: I’m not going to emphasize any one of our areas of negotiation because we had five or so broadly speaking areas that we need to make progress on and to make sure that writing is sustainable. One of them is the dismantling of the writers room process, and part of the solution to that is to make sure that writers are hired. We’re committed to that. We have 11,500 members. I don’t worry if somebody disagrees. Taylor Sheridan makes a lot of TV shows, and he’s good at doing that. But he’s still just one voice. And John Ridley can do the same. That’s fine. I think they’re wrong. I don’t negotiate with Taylor Sheridan. He doesn’t determine our bargaining. Whatever he wants to say, he can say.
What concessions might the WGA make in order to get back to the table?
Keyser: It’s a valid question but it’s not a question you could possibly expect a negotiator to have with you. We have said to the companies that the solutions to these problems that we face can be negotiable. If they have an idea of what formula they want to apply to success-based residuals, they should feel free to suggest one. What we want to negotiate is the existence of the problems themselves. We’re not going to walk out of this negotiation with a company say, “There are like five different ways for you to die, you can be saved three of those ways and then we’ll kill you the other two.” That’s not going to happen. All of [the issues] have to be dealt with; they can be dealt with in other ways that we have proposed or there may be variations inside that, although I don’t want to promise that every one of them is infinitely flexible. For example, we’ve got to be really careful about the language on AI to make sure that AI does not have the power to replace writers.
Has the WGA considered asking fans — or even members — to boycott streamers?
Keyser: We’re not in the business of running nationwide boycotts. But if fans feel like doing that, fans should take that on. I think the fans, without coordination, will begin to do that. All of these companies know that churn is a big problem and as their original offerings become sparser and sparser, people are going to say, “Why am I spending all this money?”
SAG-AFTRA has drawn the ire from both performers and writers for its willingness to grant waivers during its strike. I’m hearing that the WGA would oppose waivers. But if someone came to the WGA and agreed to such things as room minimums, health insurance for any length of a mini-room, and as well as acceptable AI language, would the WGA grant that network or studio or streamer a waiver?
Keyser: We’re not granting waivers. We will if a meaningful player comes and wants to make a full deal with us. That changes the complexion of this negotiation. We’re open to making that deal. But we’re not granting waivers. We did that in 2007-08 and it wasn’t advantageous; it led to complications. That is not a commentary on SAG and I’m not going to comment on their official policy.
Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount revealed in earnings reports that they’re saving money by being media companies that aren’t actually producing media right now. Why do you think that’s a message that they’re putting out?
Keyser: It’s a smokescreen; it has nothing to do with the way things are going to work going forward. I think we really need to be concerned as a country about when Amazon and Apple have their quarterly earnings calls and not even mention entertainment because the results don’t matter. So, if the argument is we can take control over and decimate the entertainment business because it’s irrelevant to us, that’s a real problem for writers, actors and directors, but also a problem for the public. Having said that, Warner, Disney, Sony, Comcast, Paramount and Netflix need to create product. And a pile of money on their shelves without anything for people to watch next year is only going to come back to haunt them. And they know. But I don’t think any Wall Street analyst is fooled by the short-term vision that says, “Look at us, we didn’t spend anything, we didn’t make anything. We’re rich.”
We’ve heard of back-channeling going on and there’s been a lot written about who could be the white knight — the Lew Wasserman of this era — with suggestions ranging from everyone from Peter Chernin to Ari Emanuel to Nancy Tellem and Mark Pedowitz as well as political folks like Gavin Newsom or Karen Bass. Who has the potential to do so and who do you trust?
Keyser: We don’t need a mediator. That’s an old wives’ tale that you need somebody to come in and have a conversation. We’re perfectly OK. Talking about whether the companies need a mediator internally is an entirely different question. I appreciate everyone who wants to help. But what’s necessary here is for the companies to get it together and be ready to talk about the issues on the table. They know where to reach us.
What is your message on day 100 of the strike to the AMPTP and to writers?
Keyser: My message to the companies is we are your allies. We are your asset, we are the way in which you create value. And we are here and ready to have a conversation about how that’s going to happen where we share enough of that value that’s fair and allows us to survive in the business as we have over the past half century. It’s good for you, and it’s good for us. So, we need to get past the rhetoric, and we need to get into a room and talk.
As writers, the real job now is to fight through the fear and the uncertainty and the tendency to think, “How can we end this without getting exactly what we need?” Hold firm and remember why we got here in the first place. With SAG by our side, we’re more powerful than ever. There will be no path forward for writers or for actors who do not say, “Enough.” There is no mercy here; there is only a revolution that comes out of our power. And that’s what we intend to achieve.
For much more from Keyser on the state the WGA strike, listen to the full TV’s Top 5 interview, on Friday. Be sure to subscribe to TV’s Top 5 to never miss an episode. (Reviews welcome!) You can also email us with any topics or Mailbag questions you’d like addressed in future episodes at [email protected].