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'We wanted to disrupt as much as possible': How Warren Leight led WGA East's push to stop filming

Welcome to episode 250 of TV Top 5, The Hollywood Reporter’s TV podcast.

Weekly, host Lesley Goldberg (West Coast Television Editor) and Daniel Fienberg (Chief TV Critic) breaks down the latest TV news with business and critical context, welcomes showrunners, executives and other guests, and provides insight into what to watch Important guide (or skip, as the case may be).

This week, we join Warren Leight , former Law and ORDER: The SVU showrunner joins us from his native New York, where he has been leading the efforts of members of the Writers Guild of America to shut down studio-based productions. Leight has endured numerous strikes since becoming a member of the union 250 and sees the current labor unrest as an “inflection point” for the industry. “It’s amazing to me how, somehow, the studios are so deaf — they make people sympathize with TV writers,” he laughs. Wright, dubbed the strike’s “air traffic controller” by David Simon, opens up about his role as one of the East Coast strike captains and how the guild is aware of the power of filming location picketing and forcing production shutdowns amid the ongoing battle with the league Research on Residuals, Artificial Intelligence, and Mini-Rooms for Film and TV Producers.

Other topics discussed in this week’s TV’s Top 5 podcast include HBO Max’s transition to Max, Disney’s shows Clean up and comment on Max Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, Apple comedy Platonic, Netflix’s FUBAR and American Born Chinese on Disney+.

But first, read on for our condensed interview with Leight, who ) join TV’s Top 5 for honest conversations about Hollywood and how it portrays law enforcement .

Among all the problems the guild is facing now, what are you most concerned about?

Streaming residuals. Writers cannot make a decent living in the current streaming model. Changes that have occurred over the past 10 years have left writers earning a living or living through residual periods.

It’s the 4th week of the strike and you’re at the WGA at 000 Rally at the Rock. How did the tone of this attack compare to other attacks you have been involved in in the past?

The first two strikes I was a part of were between east coast and west coast guilds, entertainers and hoi polloi , staff, etc. are tense. I’ve never seen the level of solidarity between East and West [offices of the WGA] and within other guilds. I’ve never seen the support we’ve had from SAG and IATSE [International Federation of Theater and Stage Employees] and Teamsters, and I don’t think anyone will. This completely changed the rules of the game in New York. It’s the level of union solidarity and the general feeling that we have to draw a line here. This is it. What struck me at the rally on Tuesday was how many different guilds were showing how many signs, how many people marched with us, from retail workers to building managers to these unions. It’s kind of an inflection point where people can’t stand the pay gap. I’m amazed that somehow the studios are so deaf – they make people sympathize with TV writers (laughs). It shocks me, but they make it so hard for writers to make a living and raise a family in NYC and L.A. We had two dozen guys on the street at 2AM Wednesday morning, stopping Billions—which is metaphorically perfect—shooting in multiple locations. We weren’t able to get people there until noon on Wednesday. Let the writers go out [the picket line] at 2am because we were told we needed to be there at 2 because the Teamsters would be there at 3 and if they saw us there they wouldn’t cross the [picket line] .

I’ve spoken to some WGA members who have been picketing their West Coast studios. Where did you go when the strike started? Because in the weeks after the strike began, there did seem to be a shift to location picketing.

First of all, the standard, let’s picket outside the company headquarters. But that changed Friday night when Severance went on strike after the shooting. A bunch of people have been queuing on Severance and we’re worried the queue won’t wait long enough for them to get back to work. But the truckers didn’t get through all day. Just as we were texting each other, three more people showed up. The crew got word that the producers didn’t want to take it off the air because they didn’t want to look like three or four people on the picket. Teamsters don’t cross. This is a combination of leverage that never existed.

We started getting tips [about where it was filmed]. I opened up a bit on Twitter saying we needed peeps and people started showing up. Some of the people on the show started letting us know [about the location, etc.]. We don’t want to see shows canceled because of pickets. We want to try and get people some paychecks. But we want to do as much disruption as possible. The guild realizes that this is a pretty powerful thing. If the point is to empty the [programming] pipeline, AMPTP knows they have to go back to the [bargaining] table. The fastest way to empty the line is not to wait until all the shows are filmed, but to stop the filming of the show.

What was the reaction of the productions when you first closed them? Now they seem to see you reaching a certain level, what has changed?

They do [see our future]. Now it’s a game of cat and mouse, they moved the call time up from 6am to 4am and we had to get there an hour and a half early. Some people’s job is to avoid us, and they’re good at what they do. The first reaction is to stand in front of a truck and say we are here to picket and ask you not to cross the line, which is weird. When you do this for the first time and a person turns around and honks, it’s empowering. Then people started exchanging best practices, getting in touch with store associates, and the information flow grew. God bless the showrunners who abuse the crew because of karma. Some people don’t like the staff or neighbors they’re filming, and that’s not good for them. Some very decent ones got shut down too. People know what’s going on.

The writers have been paid for the scripts these studios are trying to shoot now. But offline workers have yet to get paid. Worried that some of these shows may never resume production? There are parallels to what we’ve seen in a pandemic, when everything had to shut down, but some shows “didn’t renew” and never came back.

There was a lot of concern and sympathy for how we did this. Down on Sunday, we know where they’re going at 5am and they’re moving. We keep them working 24/7. I filmed 250 episodes of TV in New York, never on a Sunday; it’s like a third track on cost – every Individuals are on the fast-running meter. We decided not to picket the first shoot so everyone could clock in, and then picket where they moved so they got shut down. But everyone is clocking in with double overtime. Eventually, everything will shut down because they will run out of material. So in a way, the sooner the shutdown happens, the sooner they’re forced to go back [to the negotiating table].

I see a lot of tweets from west coast writers claiming that the studio is trying to disrupt some guild pickets Work, call all gates neutral gates or park big trucks near the picket line. Have you found out what’s going on on the East Coast? Are studios out there actually posting fake phone bills to get rid of your responses?

They are doing it. One of the worst things they did was in several scenes where they told their crews that our picketers got paid to picket while losing their checks. There must be fake phone bills, and there must be multiple locations. I don’t think it seems to be working.

Closing cost studio at $200, Nearby every day, depending on the show. But are these targeted location pickets doing more for the WGA?

It lets other guilds know we mean business. No one likes being bullied, people respect us for fighting back. It caused a stir in the union world. In New York, it’s creating a sense of accomplishment when people wait in line for 10 hours and the show closes. It’s good for morale. Happy to send the message to the studio. Even shows that didn’t close were costing a fortune. Silvercup Studios East has a show on Tuesday that moved their airtime from 5am to 4am to 3am :10 By 3am, they put all the cast members in a hotel to get them there. It cost them a lot. I’ve had shows, and every time you’re overage, you’re on the phone to handle business. Filming interrupted on Sunday? That’s not $200,10. It plays a role in morale, tactics and strategy.

How often do these so-called rapid response teams take action?

We are out every day, two or three shows a day. We’re mixing them up. I’m shocked by the efficacy of social media, people saying, “Can I get here at 2am and can I get four people to join me? Can I get seven people to join me at 6am?” It’s true Very grassroots.

We call it the bat signal. To my surprise, social media works. We had a picket line in Jersey a few days ago and they only had three men left. I put something on, nine people answered, and that show was off. The guild is working on this, and we’re getting emails with increasing frequency about products we’re working on.

Are there WGA members expected to follow the rules of engagement when they picket locations? We’ve heard that sometimes these people can become hostile.

Yep, they’re getting hostile. We’ve discussed what we could have done differently. Do not go with the police. This is one of our rules. Even if you demote, there is nothing worth alienating those we need to unite. But every time I try to make a rule, something happens the next day that we never expected. It’s very smooth.

What kind of time do you keep?

I’m tired. I’m surprised how much time it took. This is a marathon, not a sprint. But people have been sprinting for four weeks. Now more and more bodies are coming in. I was in a meeting that ended at 5pm on a Tuesday and some of them were out from 2am until noon today and it was like, “Here’s my line; here’s my line; I’m not leaving until they close .”

Would you say picketing is the biggest difference between this strike and the last one?2007, or even others you’ve been involved with?

Targeted picketing was the result of solidarity with Teamsters and IATSE, and that is one of the biggest picket differences. Join us in solidarity with SAG. You don’t have to educate people, they know they’re screwed. All this rises from the grassroots employees to the leadership of the guild. I don’t think people know how angry everyone is until they start comparing notes. That’s its motivation.

For more on Wright on the Tony Awards and the differences between East Coast vs. West Coast pickets, listen to this week’s TV Full interview on the Top 5 podcast.




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