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Chris Keyser on the WGA’s “10,000-Front War” With Studios: “They’re Hiding the Money. We’ve Got to Find It”

Welcome to the 213th episode of TV’s Top 5, The Hollywood Reporter’s TV podcast.

Every week, hosts Lesley Goldberg (West Coast TV editor) and Daniel Fienberg (chief TV critic) break down the latest TV news with context from the business and critical sides, welcome showrunners, executives and other guests, and provide a critical guide of what to watch (or skip, as the case may be).

Joining us this week is Chris Keyser, the co-chair of the Writers Guild of America’s negotiating committee. The veteran showrunner, whose credits include both the original and the reboot of Party of Five, Netflix’s covid-canceled The Society and HBO Max’s Julia, previously served as president of the WGA West from 2011 through 2015. Keyser joins TV’s Top 5 this week to discuss the latest on the writers strike and the guild’s standoff with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers over such issues as the use of artificial intelligence, mini-rooms and more. Keyser also addresses the gray areas of what writers who are also directors and producers can and can’t do during the strike, the narrative that the studios and streamers wanted the work stoppage to balance books after sizable COVID losses and how this strike is different from the one in 2007-08.

Other topics during this week’s TV’s Top 5 include headlines of the week (featuring Yellowstone, Jeopardy and other strike-related fallout), how Disney plans to integrate Hulu into Disney+, the latest on the broadcast upfronts and where things stand at each network, plus a Critic’s Corner in which Dan reviews Muppets Mayhem, The Great, City on Fire and more.

But first, read on for a condensed portion of our interview with Keyser.

Rumors are flying about how long a WGA strike could last, with many estimating it could end in the fall. What are your projections about duration at this point?

We don’t really have projections; we don’t have a crystal ball. We ended negotiations because the companies said they had nothing more to say about our list of proposals that were absolutely necessary to protect writers’ futures. We are ready to go back and talk again as soon as they are ready to have serious conversations. But they’re going to have to decide their own timeframe. We will wait. The pressure on them exists now. And it will build. It’s different for each of the companies in the AMPTP. But I cannot say how long it will last. I don’t think we’re telling any members to expect that this is going to be over super quickly. But I don’t want to get people feeling like they’re waiting for an end that isn’t near or give them a pessimistic assessment of something that could turn around and in less time than that. That’s the question everyone has and the question I have; I’d like it to be over. I don’t want to be doing this. I want to be writing.

You mentioned that the different entities within the AMPTP all have different levels of pressures on them. And obviously having the AMPTP as a body to negotiate with/against is a plus. But what are the challenges of figuring out what the different pressures are on different entities, what the different needs and responsibilities are, etc.?

It’s up to the companies to decide at which point clinging together as if they have a single business plan and if a single agenda is worth it or if it becomes disruptive. Legacy companies have broadcast schedules to adhere to with shows in the fall that they are going to try to sell advertising for in the coming weeks [at upfronts]. They have a big risk that the writers’ rooms will not begin when they were supposed to. But every company has pressures; our product is what everyone sells and not having that product sooner or later becomes a big problem.

The Directors Guild and SAG-AFTRA’s contracts are both up June 30. When are you expecting talks with the AMPTP to resume with the WGA? Have you had any conversations about a return to the table?

It really is in the studio’s court. They know full well that the writers are not staying out a day longer than they need to. As soon as they’re willing to come in and have a serious conversation, we’ll be there to do that. Obviously the DGA negotiations mean that that will be delayed and that’s too bad. I don’t know if the companies would have been available to talk to us anyway. I imagine that part of the companies’ plan is to negotiate with the DGA while we’re on strike in the hopes that a deal with the DGA will somehow divide our membership and that’s not going to work. The biggest reason why it won’t work is because the DGA is not negotiating a series of demands that can solve our problems. There’s some overlap, but most of the things that we’re talking about are specific to writers. What happens with SAG-AFTRA is less clear right now because it’s further away.

How is the union’s activism and organization around this strike different from 2007? Twitter seems to be playing a role in terms of communicating the locations of productions and other grassroots organizing… 

Technology like that actually has changed the game. There’s so many things that have changed, obviously, that the companies that we faced are not exactly the same as the companies we faced during the 2007 strike. That was enormously effective. It got us jurisdiction over the internet that we wanted. In those three months, the guild needed to be extraordinarily aligned to have that happen. Amazingly, we are even more aligned today than we were then. … We are unfortunately fueled by business practices on the part of all the companies and led by the new entrants into the field that make writers’ lives so difficult across the board at every level. It’s the pain they inflict that causes our solidarity. Let’s be clear. When corporations treat workers as if they are not meaningful, when they diminish us and devalue us, at some point, we stand together and fight back.

What have you learned in the past two weeks about the power of social media in terms of unifying the messaging that you guys are seeing on social media and wanting to see on social media?

There is an enormous advantage in having so many speakers with the large megaphone that social media provides. The risk is that as that message becomes diffused, you can muddy the message. The fact that we haven’t comes from the fact that we were all clear when we started exactly what we were fighting for, what was wrong in the business and what writers were experiencing. … The more people know, the more likely they are to be unified and the less uncertain they are, the less fear grows.

There has been some confusion and even controversy about how involved writers can be with their projects. Tony Gilroy ceased all producing work on Andor after he was called a “scab” by a fellow writer. Shonda Rhimes appeared on CBS News to promote Queen Charlotte. And Charlie Day showed up to his movie premiere but did not do press. What’s the etiquette?

There is leeway for writers to decide what they’re able to do. The strike rules are clear about certain things: you can’t write and you can do anything that puts any written work into the pipeline with development in any way. You can do a spec but you can’t do any work that requires a writer’s brain while you are doing what might be considered your writing-producing function. In other words, you can’t go to the set because you can’t listen to a line of dialogue and not have something to say about the script or the editing and say there isn’t writing involved with that. Those things are pretty clear.

There are jobs that writers — and I’m talking about hyphenates [as in writers who are also directors in the DGA] and writers as producers — do that are not covered by the strike rules. They are not, strictly speaking, writing. We are asking everyone who can to cease performing all of those services to do that, because in this moment, the studios are antagonists. They are not our collaborators and we need to treat them that way. We have to behave in a way that puts pressure on them. We’re making an argument that says that this process needs writers all the way through — and you have to pay us that way. We have to behave in a way that says that’s right. So, we’re withholding our services. That’s what we’re asking everyone to do. As part of that, we’re asking people not to do promotion as partners with the studios. We’re asking people, even if their shows are being promoted, to not be part of that.

Right, numerous showrunners have pulled out of doing press days and it’s unclear if, for example, Jesse Armstrong will do a postmortem interview for the series finale of Succession.

Tony Gilroy, [Stranger Things creators] the Duffer Brothers and everyone on Hacks have been amazing. We’re saying that when we all stand together, we are stronger.

If you’re advising Shonda Rhimes, does she do that CBS News interview?

I’m not going to judge Shonda; she’s really supportive and has given a lot of money to the fund to support everyone in the business. Everyone has got to make some decisions on the margins about this stuff. The more decisions that are made in one direction, the better off we are. The success or failure of this strike is not going to depend on the instance of somebody performing a small bit of services or showing up next to a sign with their network on it. But we shouldn’t be focusing on that to the exclusion of what our principal power is. And we do not encourage people to go out and vilify those who are trying to make an honest assessment of what their power and the situation merits. We are focused on trying to explain to as many people as we can why the fewest services they can provide the better. And if they can provide none, that’s perfect. It’s a 10,000-front war and it’s not all going to go perfectly but it is going incredibly well. If a director-writer said, “I can’t direct my own movie because I can’t not be a writer when I’m also a director,” great. But we are not saying they should not fulfill their obligations under their directing contract.

So what about the WGA members who are also DGA members?
You can’t write, can’t go to the set to direct and change a line in the script. We’re not saying you may not direct; that’s not our authority. And you have a contract to direct or you have a contract to act, you can go do that.

Week two of the strike has seen a lot of studios suspending first-look and overall deals. What have you heard from writers whose deals have been suspended?

I’m not on the frontlines of that; that’s the legal department. I’ve read through all of your reporting and heard from writers that those deals were suspended. I don’t think that was surprising to us. I’m not sure that we expect them always to pay us when we don’t work.

Is there wiggle room in terms of the most important issues that the WGA will fight for in this negotiation and have any of those items moved over the course of the negotiations/strike?

I can’t really answer that question. I’m not going to give the AMPTP clues as to what we care more or less about. What we’re protecting is against the end of weekly pay for writers, the end of the staff, the writing profession, really the heart of which is the way that television shows been written over the last 50 years, which is a reasonably sized writers room working for a certain number of weeks to create a certain number of episodes. So whether they try to replace some of us with a machine, which, by the way, the AI premise here is not that writers go away or that AI is created that can replace writers. But if you put a showrunner in a room with a machine who can churn out lots of pages over and over again, you might be able to eliminate a lot of writing positions. We won’t be OK with that. But they don’t need a machine to replace us right now all across the industry; they’re replacing us with no one. They’re putting a few writers into a room for a few weeks and making us work as fast as we can to give them as much as we possibly can, letting everyone go and then saying to the showrunner, “OK, now do all the rest of the work,” and people are effectively rewriting the freelance stuff without weekly pay. Either one of those things is devastating. It’s really the middle class, it’s the end of our pension and health plan.

There have been a few picket signs and writers who have suggested that development execs and business affairs folks could also be replaced by AI …

This technology is improving exponentially every day. What it will be able to do in three years when we’re back in the negotiating table? No one knows. It is right to be afraid. You don’t protect something that has no value to you [which is what the AMPTP appears to be doing]. We thought [the AMPTP] would be pretty open to it because of copyright issues, but you have to believe that they have a sense that somewhere in the future, this is going to be valuable. I’m not saying it’s going to write a great thing. I’m saying it’s going to write a second draft or a first draft of something that somebody can polish in a way that becomes more efficient than having a bunch of writers. AI may have some use in in the entire process, but not as literary material.

You’re also attempting to get streamers to share actual viewership data, which feels like you’re about to climb Mount Everest and that’s coming at a time when Netflix is literally crashing upfronts with a presentation to ad buyers who want to know that sort of data.

It is a really hard battle. When people won’t tell you how well you’re doing, you can bet they’re doing awfully well or awfully poorly. They’re hiding the money. And that’s what they do, they hide the money. We’ve got to find it.

How much have you been out on the picket lines talking to writers?

I’ve been out every day; [Wednesday] was the first time because I had meetings. Everyone involved with the guild is trying to visit as many [picket lines] as we can.

What’s the common refrain that you’re hearing?

We’ve got this. We cannot stop. We will stay at this until we they come back to the table and give us what we need. Because for us, we’re fighting for our professional lives.

And what about the refrain about the big issues that writers are unwilling to compromise on that you’re hearing from others as you’re out there?

We are united on all of those things. People do not pull me aside on the line and say, “Why are we fighting for this?” They say fight.

There have been rumors that Netflix in particular has been harder to negotiate with than the traditional studios this time around. Is that true? And if so, why?

No sense. They negotiate with us all together. And in the room, they don’t show any cracks. We have no idea. You can intuit whatever you want based on the behavior outside that room. But we don’t know.

Is there a possibility for the companies within the AMPTP to carve out their own deals with the WGA the way in which David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants did during the last strike?

I don’t want to say definitively about anything. I don’t think you’ll see us making deals with small, individual companies. There’s a big risk in going on strike and having some of your members working and some not. I don’t know that we came out of 2007-08 thinking that was a particularly good idea. It’s an entirely different question to ask what happens to a bunch of the major companies if they decided that they were no longer advantaged by negotiating altogether? Would we be open to that? We might be open to that. But that’s their game. And they will have to play. That’s a decision they have to make. All we’re doing is putting pressure on them every single day. And that pressure is ramping up, and they have to decide how they’re going to respond to it.

Can you see a world in which streamers break out of the AMPTP and form their own coalition?

It’s imaginable in which that happens, but it’s so entirely in their corner to make that decision and not mine. I might make that decision, I might think, “Well, these companies are not only going in a different direction from the point of view of their business model, but they would like to eat us up.” [Warner Bros. Discovery CEO] David Zaslav said, “I can weather this better than the rest of us.” But we are not without our leverage over the streamers as well; they have their pressure points. And I don’t think Apple’s model is the same as Netflix. I don’t know how much Wall Street is going to take. These companies are highly susceptible to changes in their stock prices. We’ll see what happens if this has implications there. There’s going to be a point in time in which [programming] is going to start to dry up. And they can see that coming.

There’s also the narrative that these companies do want this strike because they’re still struggling to come back from the years of losses and the expenses associated with covid. Is that a fair narrative?

I think that’s nonsense. If they need to bring down costs, they can do that entirely on their own. I am not saying that while we’re on strike, they may not punish us by using force majeure. But the idea that it is their business model to let loose onto the world the chaos of this strike on behalf of a consortium of companies, which then means they lose control of what’s going on and this stuff shuts down and they have no idea exactly what the total cost is going to be — and it’s going to be high to them — in exchange for trying to let go of what’s left of some number of outstanding overall deals that they find are marginally less productive, and they wish they would be? That didn’t make any sense at all. That is not a business plan. If they have so many overall deals that are worth so little to them that they need to call a strike in order to write them off, they should fire all the executives who made those deals, because that is one hell of a mound of terrible deals they made.

And it’s not like they’re going to dump the big deals — a Ryan Murphy, Shonda, Berlanti or Dick Wolf. They’ll be dumping lower and middle-class writers, which goes back to what you were saying about protecting those levels of scribes. And that would have to be a lot of deals to make a financial difference. 

Right. You don’t need to be among the mega rich to be doing great work. They don’t want to send those writers back off into the marketplace for somebody else to scoop them up. We may be their temporary antagonists across the table, but their principal antagonists are each other. Remember, this is a phony situation in which they link arms against us. They are in a much more intense war against each other. We’re going to face pain in all different kinds of ways even as we inflict it, and, and it’s one of the horrible parts of doing this and asking people to do this and being in a leadership of it. But there’s just no way around it, unfortunately. Because the alternative is the extinction of the profession. You can’t doubt the extent to which writers believe that. We’ve only struck once before in 35 years, we don’t do this lightly. We don’t get a 98 percent strike authorization vote and show up by the thousands. And you don’t hear this kind of unanimity. You don’t see every other guild in union standing shoulder to shoulder except because of the way that companies behaved. When there’s when there’s an effect, there’s a cause.

Editor’s Note: TV’s Top 5 has gone out to the AMPTP with an offer for equal time with a member of their negotiating committee but the group that represents the studios declined to participate, pointing us instead to their document released last week that responded to the guild’s proposals.



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