Writers scrambling to finish scripts. Rival late-night-show hosts and producers convening group calls to discuss contingency plans. Union officials and screenwriters gathering in conference rooms to design picket signs with slogans like “The Future of Writing Is at Stake!”
With a Hollywood strike looming, there has been a frantic sprint throughout the entertainment world before 11,500 TV and movie writers potentially walk out as soon as next week.
The possibility of a television and movie writers’ strike — will they, won’t they, how could they? — has been the top conversation topic in the industry for weeks. And in recent days, there has been a notable shift: People have stopped asking one another whether a strike would take place and started to talk about duration. How long was the last one? (100 days in 2007-8.) How long was the longest one? (153 days in 1988.)
“It’s the first topic that comes up in every meeting, every phone call, and everyone claims to have their own inside source about how long a strike will go on and whether the directors and actors will also go out, which would truly be a disaster,” said Laura Lewis, the founder of Rebelle Media, a production and financing company behind shows like “Tell Me Lies” on Hulu and independent movies like “Mr. Malcolm’s List.”
Unions representing screenwriters have been negotiating with Hollywood’s biggest studios for a new contract to replace the one that expires on Monday. The contracts for directors and actors expire on June 30.
“I support the writers,” Ms. Lewis said. “It’s challenging, though. Just as we are starting to recover from the pandemic, we could be going into a strike.”
In recent weeks, television writers have been racing to meet deadlines that studios moved up. Worried about the possibility of having no income for months, some TV writers have been trying to push through new projects — to get “commenced,” Hollywood slang for a signed writing contract, which typically brings an upfront payment.
One prominent talent agent, who like some others in this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said there was a “mad rush” to complete deals before next week. Some writers began removing their personal possessions from studio offices in anticipation of a walkout.
Likewise, studio executives began calling producers last week to tell them to act as if a strike were certain, and to make sure all last-minute tweaks were incorporated into scripts, so production on some series could continue even in the absence of writers on set. Executives have delayed production for other series until the fall in cases where they determined scripts were not entirely ready.
The president of one production company said this week that she was “freaking out” over a TV project in danger of falling apart because the star was available only for a limited period and the script was not ready.
The writers room for the hit ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary” is supposed to convene on Monday — the day the contract expires.
“I’m making plans to go back to work when we’re supposed to go back to work,” said Brittani Nichols, a producer and writer on the show. “And if that doesn’t happen, I’ll be at work on the picket line.”
If there is a strike, which could begin as early as Tuesday, late-night shows, including ones hosted by Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, are likely to go dark. Late-night hosts and their top producers have convened conference calls to discuss a coordinated response in the event of a strike, much as they did during the pandemic.
During the 2007 walkout, late-night shows went dark for two months before they began gradually returning in early 2008, even with writers still on picket lines. Jimmy Kimmel paid his staff out of his own pocket during the strike, and later explained that he had to return to the air because his savings were nearly wiped out.
Mr. Kimmel and other hosts, like Conan O’Brien, gamely tried to put together shows without their writers or their standard monologues. Jay Leno, on the other hand, wrote his own “Tonight Show” monologues, infuriating the writers’ unions in the process.
Though there’s plenty of uncertainty in TV circles, there are also segments of Hollywood where it has been business as usual.
Executives at streaming services seemed to exhibit what one senior William Morris Endeavor agent called a “frightening, freakish sense of calm,” perhaps because they were betting that any strike would be short. Most streaming services have been under pressure to cut costs — even deep-pocketed Amazon Studios laid off 100 people on Thursday — and a strike is one quick way to do that: Spending would plummet as production slowed.
“It could lead to notably better-than-expected streaming profitability,” Rich Greenfield, a founder of the LightShed Partners research firm, wrote to investors this month.
At several movie studios, there is little sense of alarm, partly because a strike would have almost no impact on the release schedule until next spring. (The movie business works nearly a year in advance.) One movie agent said everyone in her orbit was preparing for the Cannes Film Festival, which begins on May 16 and will include premieres for films like “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” and “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the latest from Martin Scorsese. Many movie executives were also preoccupied with CinemaCon this week, a convention for theater operators in Las Vegas.
“The writers’ process is like 18 months to two years away from movies’ hitting our cinemas, generally, so you wouldn’t see an impact for quite a while,” said John Fithian, the departing chief executive of the National Association of Theater Owners. “There is a whole lot of writing already in the can — or the computer — for projects the studios are putting into production.”
At the Walt Disney Company, the largest supplier of union-covered TV dramas and comedies (890 episodes for the 2021-22 season), more immediate worries have been the focus. Disney began to hand out thousands of pink slips on Monday as part of an unrelated plan to eliminate 7,000 jobs worldwide by the end of June. The company made news again on Wednesday when it sued Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
During previous union walkouts, television networks ordered more reality programming, which does not fall under the writers’ unions jurisdiction. The long-running “Cops” was ordered during the 1988 strike, while the 2007-8 strike helped supercharge shows like “The Celebrity Apprentice” and “The Biggest Loser.”
Paul Neinstein, co-chief executive of the Project X production company, which made the most recent “Scream” movie and Netflix’s “The Night Agent,” said there had been a huge increase in reality TV pitches over the last month, even though his production company was not known for making unscripted television.
“All of a sudden everybody’s got a reality show,” he said. “And that to me feels very strike-related.”