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Hollywood writers prepare to strike

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Writers in Hollywood are preparing to go on strike against the major studios. The two sides - the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers - have until midnight on Monday to agree on a new three-year contract. Joining us now to talk about this is NPR's culture correspondent Mandalit del Barco, who's in Los Angeles. Hi, Mandalit.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Hi, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So tell us what the writers want this time.

DEL BARCO: Well, the WGA says their members are at a breaking point. The writers want to get paid more for writing films, TV shows and now streaming series. They say half of their members are only getting the minimum wage negotiated in their last contract. And importantly, they would like to get higher residual checks for work that ends up on streaming platforms. You know, the last time the writers went on strike, it was 2007, and back then, they were asking for better compensation for movies and shows that were sold on DVDs or internet downloads. And now that DVDs are practically extinct and streamers like Netflix and Amazon Prime are king, so the money for streaming is a really big deal.

MCCAMMON: I know. I had to watch a DVD the other day, and I couldn't honestly even figure out how to use my DVD player. What are the living conditions for these writers right now?

DEL BARCO: Well, you know, writers in Hollywood are basically gig workers with a union, and they have to constantly look for their next job. And for some TV writers especially, it's become really, really difficult. The streaming studios are asking for series to last eight to 10 episodes a season rather than the traditional 22-episode seasons on network TV. And that means less work and less money for the writers. But even network writers are not immune to this. I spoke to Brittani Nichols, who writes for the ABC show "Abbott Elementary," and she told me that between seasons, she used to be able to live off residuals she got when ABC re-aired an episode that she wrote. She got half her original writing fee each time. But when her episodes are sold to the streamers, she gets just 5.5% of her writing fee.

BRITTANI NICHOLS: There's no reason for them to replay it on television, where I would get that network residual. They're only going to put it on these streamers where I'm going to be making at best $700. You know, you're getting checks for $3, $7, $10. It's not enough to put together any sort of consistent lifestyle.

DEL BARCO: And, you know, Sarah, I've talked to other writers, even those on hit shows, who say they're not living some kind of lavish Hollywood dream lifestyle. They're basically broke in between gigs.

MCCAMMON: So what are the studios saying about all this?

DEL BARCO: Well, right now, there's a media blackout by negotiators on both sides until the contract ends on Monday night. The CEO of Netflix, Ted Sarandos, told investors during a recent earnings call that the studios are hoping there's not a strike, and that the last time the writers went on strike, it was devastating for everyone, including viewers. He said Netflix has a large base of upcoming shows and films from around the world, and there are a lot of reports that studio executives have been stockpiling scripts for months in anticipation of a strike. And they also reportedly are preparing more reality shows that don't need scriptwriters.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Mandalit del Barco, NPR's culture correspondent in Los Angeles. Thanks so much, Mandalit.

DEL BARCO: Thanks, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.