With the writers strike in its 21st week, the WGA is scheduled to resume negotiations with the AMPTP today. Also true, and perhaps not unrelated: In the last two weeks, every major Hollywood studio seemed to notice that it might be a good time to suspend a lot of very big production deals on its books.
Some suspensions began about a week into the writers guild strike. News broke September 18 that Lionsgate suspended non-writing overall deals with Paul Feig and Michael London, among others, but a source told IndieWire those suspensions happened a while back. The week prior, Disney (Greg Berlanti, Mindy Kaling) and Apple (Adam McKay, Natalie Portman) halted agreements with top television writer/producers, a trend already reflected in moves by NBCUniversal, CBS Studios, Warner Bros. TV, Amazon Studios, and more.
Overall deals are the often-massive arrangements that cover salaries, rent, and other overhead for major production companies. Unlike a first-look deal, overall deals mean that anything developed stays with the studio and cannot be re-shopped should it pass on production.
Writers saw their agreements paused shortly after the strike began, but non-writers still had some work to do with editing, VFX, and more. If you were working, you were being paid to work.
Writing EPs with suspended deals also include Donald Glover, J.J. Abrams, and Lisa Joy and Jonah Nolan; suspended non-writing producers include Billy Porter, Gina Rodriguez, Lorne Michaels, Dr. Phil, and Mandy Moore. Some term deals included a period of time that needed to pass before suspension was contractually possible. We’re there now for many.
We spoke with a former studio executive who speculated that the suspensions (and threat of termination) are the latest bargaining chip, putting added pressure on big-name writers to urge their guild to make a deal.
Writers (and their lawyers) anticipated this. Some top writers have safeguards in their contracts that a studio can’t terminate one deal without terminating all of its deals. That’s a poison pill few will swallow since it would means terminating key talent that someone else will grab when the strike ends.
Not everyone has been put on ice. Non-writing executives producers in the unscripted, alternative, and animation spaces are still working and being paid. There are those in the scripted space who are running out of tasks to justify their paychecks, but remain active. These include Jerry Bruckheimer, Warren Littlefield, Taylor Sheridan, The Duffer Brothers, Shonda Rhimes, and Matt Reeves.
Also still receiving regular checks for now are assistants and development executives tied to suspended term deals. Studios generally banded together on that feel-good front.
Once upon a time, prevailing industry wisdom pegged early September as the end of the strikes. Labor Day marked more than 100 days for the writers strike, which offered both a nice labor-relations story and nearly a full quarter of production savings. When that didn’t happen, it was time for cuts to begin anew. There is at least one other reason for the sheer nowness of it all: As one studio source told IndieWire for this story, no one wanted to be first to make these headlines for suspending deals.
In most cases, suspended producer deals will see the suspended period tacked on to the former end of the contracted period. But in this period of force majeure, studios could also use the situation to exit deals they don’t like. Overall deals are expensive and don’t always result in hits, or even shows. The 2007-08 writers strike saw a wave of deals move from suspended to terminated under force-majeure clauses.
IndieWire spoke with insiders at several studios and no one thought their studio would ultimately terminate suspended deals. We’ll see about that.