How did the 2007 writers’ strike change Hollywood?

With the possibility of another strike looming, it's a good time to look back at the causes and impact of the notorious 2007-08 WGA revolt.


Louis Rabinowitz

From the outside, it can be easy to assume that all the important decisions in Hollywood are made by the same small collection of powerful men in suits. Recently, new Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav has been flexing his muscles by implementing massive policy changes that have fundamentally reshaped the studio’s strategy, with show cancellations and tax write-offs that have cost thousands of jobs and seen projects shelved despite being almost completed. It’s the apparent law of the land: decisions cascade from the top down.

However, as recent history informs us, that’s not always the case. Fifteen years ago, Tinseltown underwent a two-month period of turmoil that brought the engines of film and television to a halt. While the executives were certainly involved, these events were the direct result of action from Hollywood’s rank and file: the Writer’s Guild of America, an industry collective made up of two unions (the WGA East and WGA West) which comprises over 20,000 film and television writers from across the United States.

The Guild’s decision to strike from November 2007 to February 2008 was the consequence of a media landscape that has been in constant flux throughout the 21st century. With crucial labour negotiations offering the potential for a reprise in 2023, it’s an illuminating example of why, and how, tensions can come to a boil in the land where stories are made.

As with most labour disputes, the issues behind the WGA strike were simmering long before action began. In 1985, the Guild had held a strike over frustration regarding royalties from the burgeoning home video market, which added a new revenue stream of which studios could take plentiful advantage. The strike lasted just two weeks and culminated in a deal with the AMPTP (the trade association of producers who handle bargaining with Hollywood unions) which was seen by plenty in the guild as significantly disadvantageous to the writers. As home video developed and transitioned from cassette to DVD, the market only became more lucrative, and resentments over the sparse royalties allotted to writers continued to build.

By 2007, which happened to be a designated renegotiation year between the WGA and AMPTP, Hollywood was amidst another period of transition. The DVD market was still strong, but it had been complimented by the growth of a new market: electronic sales. A few years before the streaming boom would change everything again, video on demand, generally in the form of online marketplaces like iTunes or Amazon Video, was providing a brand-new outlet for consumers to purchase film and TV.

Viewed in conjunction with the home video dispute of the 80s, it’s easy to see a pattern emerging. Every form of new media, whether physical or online, provides a way for parties to reshape the distribution of money in the business. Just about every time the initial deal happens to favour studio executives. It’s easy to see, then, why strike action is a consistent spectre in Hollywood, which always seems to be preparing for, amidst, or recovering from a period of flux. In a world where entire blockbuster movies can be deleted from existence for tax purposes, it’s one of the few instances of leverage Hollywood’s workers have.

If anyone was underestimating Hollywood’s reliance on its writers, the 2007-8 WGA strike would have given them ample evidence to change their mind. The most obvious impacts were on television, where – with the pipeline jammed up – American network TV effectively shut down production for two months. With cinema, the impact is less immediately easy to quantify. Film production didn’t shut down during the strike, in part because studios and writers alike (anticipating the strike) accelerated their work in the months prior, to produce completed scripts before the deadline. There is, after all, far less writing required for a film script than a season of television.

However, that doesn’t quite tell the full story. Films can shoot without writers’ intervention but it’s pretty inconvenient. Especially (but not exclusively) on the biggest blockbusters, it’s common Hollywood practice to issue small new rewrites during filming to take account of new circumstances, whether that’s information garnered from actors’ performances or logistical challenges that have cropped up during production. There are plenty of examples of big films, including the recent – and acclaimed – Mission: Impossible films, that have started filming without a completed script at all. Others, like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, have brought in new writers to reshape the story entirely during filming.

Without Guild writers on set, film production suffered, and the results can be seen in a spate of blockbusters which were filmed or in pre-production during the strike. Major 2008/2009 releases, such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, were reviled by critics, and in the years since, members of the production have spoken up about rushed scripts with incomplete dialogue that couldn’t be fixed during filming. It’s as good an explanation as any as to why Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool was unable to talk.

The most famous example of a strike-compromised production, perhaps, is the 23rd James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. Rushed into production after the smash success of reboot Casino Royale, a new draft by Paul Haggis was rushed out just before the deadline. By all accounts, this script was barely sufficient for filming. Daniel Craig, notoriously outspoken about his issues with his Bond films, revealed years later he had to participate in necessary on-set rewrites with director Marc Forster.

To quote him, “a writer I am not”. The result was a follow-up that is widely perceived as a significant step down from Casino. Forster later explained the film’s jittery, near-incoherent style, claiming there were “lots of cuts to hide that there’s a lot of action and a little less story”. As Craig wrapped up his run as Bond last year, the otherwise nostalgic retrospectives had few kind things to say about Quantum.

History serves as the best teacher, though the lesson of the previous writer’s strike is a complicated one. Like many Hollywood strikes before it, the 2007-8 strike was dogged by pressure within the industry for writers to give in and accept the AMPTP’s terms, and the outcome – while voted through by an overwhelming majority of the guild membership – didn’t address all of the issues expressed during negotiations, such as DVD residuals. Following events indicate that the fundamental tensions between workers and studios haven’t abated. In 2017, the WGA came within hours of striking over unequal profit sharing with the studios, while other unions have followed their example – attention turned to the technical and craft workers of Hollywood last year as their guild, IATSE, came close to their own walkout over poor workplace standards.

It’s a reflection of yet another transitional moment for Hollywood with evident parallels to 2007. Recent disputes have focused on the game-changing effects of streaming on the industry, as television seasons become shorter and rarer with mega-budget shows such as House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power produced on two-year cycles. Over on the film side, a shift towards streaming has only been accelerated by COVID, with traditional distribution models and their established profit distribution upended.

In studio boardrooms, leadership is shuffling rapidly to reflect new priorities, and the abrupt cancellations of WB’s completed films including Batgirl and the Scoob! sequel indicate just how significant the after-effects of such changes will be. In this febrile moment, chatter has already begun about the possibility of a strike in the spring of 2023 as the WGA gears up for a sure-to-be tempestuous round of negotiations with the AMPTP.

Strikes are an inherently contentious issue, but what can’t be doubted is the leverage writers have over the industry: some of the biggest stars of the moment, from Ben Stiller to Robin Williams to Jack Black, joined the picket lines in solidarity with the striking writers. If issues flare up again next year to the point of another walkout, only one thing is for certain: everyone is going to know about it.

Published 13 Dec 2022

Tags: 2007–08 Writers Guild of America strike

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