WGA’s Minimum Staffing Demands Were A Key Sticking Point In Failed Contract Talks, But It Wouldn’t Be The First Guild To Require Them

EXCLUSIVE: The AMPTP has called the Writers Guild’s minimum staffing demands for episodic TV shows “a hiring quota that is incompatible with the creative nature of our industry.” But if the WGA prevails in its ongoing strike, it wouldn’t be the first guild to require minimum staffing in its contract.

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The Directors Guild of America doesn’t call it “minimum staffing” or a “hiring quota,” but its current film and TV contract, which is up for renegotiation beginning Wednesday contains mandatory staffing provisions for various below-the-line members of the director’s team, including unit production managers, assistant directors and associate directors.

The AMPTP declined comment, but producers see staffing mandates for directors’ teams and staffing minimums for writers rooms as apples and oranges. Unit production managers, assistant directors and associate directors all have defined sets of duties and responsibilities, while writing sometimes is done by a single individual, other times by a small group and other times by a very large group of writers.

Chris Keyser, who co-chairs the WGA’s negotiating committee, told Deadline that the DGA’s staffing mandates and the WGA’s proposed minimum staffing levels “are similar in some ways, and slightly different in others. The provisions of the Directors Guild’s contract are about the process by which a program is directed. Ours is about the process by which an episode or series is written. They are not precisely the same, but the philosophy is the same.”

According to the DGA’s contract “a UPM and a First Assistant Director will be assigned to each multi-camera sitcom,” and “a First Assistant and Second Assistant Director shall be employed on each motion picture and television motion picture.” And in contract language, when it says “shall,” it means “must.”

“When a second accredited Director is assigned to a second unit, a First Assistant Director must be assigned to such second unit,” the contract says. “If a First Assistant Director or anyone other than the accredited Director is assigned to direct the second unit, then a Second Assistant Director (or, at the option of the Employer, a First Assistant Director) must be assigned at the rate of pay of a First Assistant Director.”

The DGA contract also requires that “a First Assistant Director and a Second Assistant Director must be assigned to all second units on which twenty (20) or more persons are employed to be photographed.”

Still another provision says that, except under certain conditions, “A UPM shall be assigned to each feature motion picture and each television program or series.” The contract notes, however, that “Employer may request from the Guild a waiver regarding the staffing of a UPM in any other instance when such staffing does not appear warranted.”

All of which adds up to mandated jobs for members of a director’s team without being “incompatible with the creative nature of our industry.”

See the DGA’s 2020 film and TV contract here.

Before the WGA launched its strike a week ago, it had proposed minimum staffing for episodic TV writers rooms. For pre-greenlight rooms, it proposed “minimum staff of six writers, including four Writer-Producers.” For post-greenlight rooms, it proposed “one writer per episode up to six episodes, then one additional writer required for each two episodes after six, up to a maximum of 12 writers. Example: eight episodes requires seven writers including four Writer-Producers; 10 episodes requires eight writers including five Writer-Producers.”

See the WGA’s proposals here.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers can argue that that’s too many writers and try to negotiate lower numbers, exceptions and waivers, but it can’t argue that minimum staffing levels are unheard of in the film and television industry.

When contract talks broke off last Monday night, the AMPTP said: “The WGA’s set of demands includes proposals regarding mandatory staffing and guarantees of employment. These proposals require studios to staff a show with a certain number of writers who will be hired for a specified period of time that may not align with the creative process. If writing needs to be done, writers are hired, but these proposals require the employment of writers whether they’re needed for the creative process or not. While the WGA has argued that the proposal is necessary to ‘preserve the writers’ room,’ it is in reality a hiring quota that is incompatible with the creative nature of our industry. We don’t agree with applying a one-size-fits-all solution to shows that are unique and different in their approach to creative staffing. Some writers are the sole voice of a show and others work with only a small team. The WGA’s proposals would preclude that.”

According to Keyser:

“It’s a standard provision in a labor contract to specify certain numbers of people, for a certain number of weeks, to do the job that needs to be done. That’s what we’re doing. The only creative decision they defend is a showrunner’s decision to hire no one. That’s what they stand for, and if they are expecting that we are more afraid of shows having to hire one additional writer than 500 shows having no writers, they have misjudged the guild and its membership.

“The AMPTP’s scare tactics of calling it ‘quotas’ and claiming that they are the defenders of what they would call creative freedom is the height of Orwellian double speak. With artificial intelligence and the systematic dismantling of weekly employment for writers, they have put at risk the system by which television has been made for over 50 years, and on 99.9% of shows.

“Our attempt to save the profession of writing, rescue the system that’s made them rich, defend our ability to do the work that only we can do and cannot be subcontract to machines, is the implementation of rules that codify the way writing has taken place, and the size and duration that writing has taken place on every show from the beginning of this system until now.

“You can’t do our work and not hire us to do it. You can’t replace us with machines and cram our work into the fewest number of weeks at the lowest rate available. You can’t dump all of the work on a single showrunner. You can’t undermine the entire profession of writing; undermine our health and pension plan; make sure that writing is not a profession that writers can continue in for the next 30 years; undermine the system that has made them rich, and not expect us to defend it. And their defense that they are the defender of creative freedom is quite simply a lie, and no writer believes it.”

Asked if there’s room for compromise on the staffing minimums the guild has proposed, Keyser said: “We have said always, and the companies know this, that our opening proposals are opening proposals. We negotiate where they want to negotiate, but when they refuse to negotiate, we don’t negotiate with ourselves. If they’d like to see where we’ll end up, they can come to the table and talk to us.”

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