Hollywood is getting ever closer to a shutdown.
The unions representing thousands of television and movie writers said on Monday that they had overwhelming support for a strike, giving union leaders the right to call for a walkout when the writers’ contract with the major Hollywood studios expires on May 1.
The unions, which are affiliated East and West coast branches of the Writers Guild of America, said more than 9,000 writers had approved a strike authorization, with 98 percent of the vote.
W.G.A. leaders have said this is an “existential” moment for writers, contending that compensation has stagnated over the last decade despite the explosion of television series in the streaming era. In an email last week to writers, the lead negotiators said that “the survival of writing as a profession is at stake in this negotiation.”
With two weeks to go before the contract expires, there has been little sign of progress in the talks. In the email, the negotiating committee said the studios “have failed to offer meaningful responses on the core economic issues” and offered only small concessions in a few areas.
“In short, the studios have shown no sign that they intend to address the problems our members are determined to fix in this negotiation,” the email said.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of Hollywood production companies, said in a statement that a strike authorization “should come as no surprise to anyone.”
“A strike authorization vote has always been part of the W.G.A.’s plan, announced before the parties even exchanged proposals,” the statement said. “Our goal is, and continues to be, to reach a fair and reasonable agreement.” It added, “An agreement is only possible if the guild is committed to turning its focus to serious bargaining by engaging in full discussions of the issues with the companies and searching for reasonable compromises.”
In recent weeks, Hollywood executives have begun preparing for a strike, both by stockpiling scripts and by getting ready to produce a torrent of reality series, which do not need script writers. David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns the Warner Bros. film and TV studios as well as HBO, said at a news media event last week that he was hopeful a deal would be reached. He added that “a strike will be a challenge for the whole industry.”
Still, he said, the company was fully prepared if there was a walkout.
“We’re assuming the worst from a business perspective,” he said. “We’ve got ourselves ready. We’ve had a lot of content that’s been produced.”
A strike authorization does not guarantee writers will take to the picket lines in two weeks. In 2017, a last-minute deal was struck with the studios not long after 96 percent of the writers voted to authorize a strike. The last time the writers went on strike was in 2007. That stoppage dragged for 100 days, into early 2008, and cost the Los Angeles economy an estimated $2.1 billion.
If a strike begins in early May, late-night shows like “Saturday Night Live” and talk shows hosted by Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers will go dark immediately. It would take a strike of several months before viewers began to notice an effect on scripted television series and movies.
The streaming era has resulted in a significant rise in the number of scripted television series that are produced, but writers say working conditions have not kept pace.
“Writers are working more weeks for less money,” said Eric Haywood, a veteran writer and producer, and a member of the W.G.A. negotiating committee. “And in some cases, veteran writers are working for the same money or, in some cases, less money than they made just a few years ago.”
The timing of the talks has an added complexity given the current financial challenges for all media and entertainment companies.
Over the last year, share prices for those companies have nose-dived after Wall Street began questioning why many streaming services were losing billions of dollars a year. The studios are quickly trying to make those streaming services profitable, after years of focusing primarily on growth. The shift is coming at a cost.
Disney is in the midst of 7,000 job cuts. Warner Bros. Discovery, confronting a debt load of about $50 billion, shelved projects and laid off thousands of workers last year. Other media companies are taking similar cost-cutting measures.
The writers do not appear to be sympathetic.
“The current status quo is unsustainable,” Mr. Haywood said.
The writers have taken particular aim at so-called minirooms. There is no one definition of a miniroom, but they have proliferated in the streaming era.
In one example, the studios will convene a miniroom before a show has been picked up by a studio and scheduled to air. A small group of writers will develop a series and write several scripts over two or three months.
But because the studios have not ordered the series, they will use that as justification to pay writers less than if they were in a formal writers’ room, union leaders said. And given the relatively short duration of the position, those writers are then left scrambling to find another job if the show is not picked up.
One union leader likened minirooms to “labor camps” during the negotiations, according to two people familiar with the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
A W.G.A. spokesman said the reference was not literal and had come during a presentation lasting an hour and a half.
“Development work has always been paid at a premium because you’re coming up with the idea,” Ellen Stutzman, the chief negotiator for the W.G.A., said in an interview. “If you’re going to have these rooms before you pick up a show or a season, you should pay writers a premium.”
The writers have also said residuals — which Ms. Stutzman called “the profit participation of the middle-class writer” — have been affected in the streaming era. Before streaming, writers could receive residual payments whenever a show was licensed, whether that was for syndication, an international deal or DVD sales.
But in the streaming era, as global services like Netflix and Amazon have been reluctant to license their series, those distribution arms have been cut off and replaced with a fixed residual, Ms. Stutzman said.
“If an overwhelming majority of the content writers create is for the streaming platforms where they are completely cut out of global growth and success, that is a very big problem,” she said.