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How the Writers Deal Got Done: Inside the Room

On Saturday, Sept. 23, Disney CEO Bob Iger was in Beverly Hills, seemingly living his best life. He was at dinner with Paul McCartney and Eagles alum Joe Walsh at La Dolce Vita, an Old World Italian restaurant with long white tablecloths and dark red leather booths. Some people were discreetly snapping photos, as was to be expected with a Beatle in the house.

But not everyone was focused only on McCartney. By the time the dinner was over, blurry images of Iger at the table with McCartney had been posted in the WhatsApp group chat that includes nearly 500 showrunners. Then someone posted an image of a “Writers’ Tears” whiskey bottle (yes, a real brand), suggesting that it should be sent to Iger’s table. No one did that, but the table did receive a round of shots with a note reading, “Expectantly, from the showrunners of Hollywood.”

For days, there had been reports that the Writers Guild and the studios were tantalizingly close to an agreement that could end a strike that had dragged on for nearly five debilitating months. But as Iger was enjoying his Saturday dinner, there still was no deal. 

That finally changed the following evening, when an anxious town was informed of a tentative agreement that guild leadership described as “exceptional,” with “meaningful gains and protections for writers.” Though details were not released by press time, jubilant guild members packed the barrel-shaped Idle Hour bar in North Hollywood to celebrate. 

The deal was the fruit of several long days of negotiating between the guild and four studio chiefs: Iger, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, NBCUniversal chief content officer Donna Langley and Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos. Just weeks earlier, on Aug. 22, guild representatives met with those executives only to end up blasting them in a late night message to members. Instead of finally getting a chance to negotiate with the executives, the guild negotiating committee said, “We were met with a lecture about how good their single and only counteroffer was.”  

What followed was a standoff over who owed whom a counteroffer. By late August, with talks stalled amid mutual recriminations, several showrunners — including Kenya Barris (Black-ish), Noah Hawley (Fargo) and Courtney Kemp (Power) — began to query guild leadership. “Clearly people like Kenya wanted information. There was no coup,” says one showrunner. “We were just asking the questions that were on everybody’s minds. The thing with showrunners is, they’re CEOs in their own right, running massive corporations with huge deals at studios. Noah Hawley, for example, has two shows and employs a thousand people. We were all doing our part to get people away from the brink of bankruptcy and back to work.” Adds another: “The WGA dug their heels in and felt [the AMPTP] had to call us. Then Chris Keyser, [co-chair of the WGA’s negotiating committee], started to hear from Teamsters, as well, to do something. It wasn’t anger about the strike or being asked to fold; it was anger about the lack of attempt to restart things.”  

The deep freeze between the studios and the guild finally began to thaw on the evening of Sept. 10, when Keyser called Iger and engaged in a conversation that, according to knowledgeable sources, lasted more than an hour and was “very honest and direct.” That night he also spoke with Zaslav, Sarandos and Langley. They agreed that there was no point in arguing about which side owed the other a counteroffer; the objective was to put the industry back to work, ending the misery that had spread well beyond the guild membership and preventing what some executives feared would be permanent damage to the business. Iger committed to staying in the room as long as necessary to achieve the goal, as did the other three executives on the team. All of them cleared their calendars.

Once negotiations resumed Sept. 20, it was clear that Iger was the elder statesman and the only leader who had been through the last writers strike. Zaslav, with the least amount of experience in the scripted world, was still a seasoned negotiator of many tough deals. Langley brought a level head and the most hands-on creative experience, as well as strong relationships with talent. One source described her as “the diplomat” in the room. Sources say Sarandos, in the run-up to the final marathon negotiation, had spent more time communicating with SAG-AFTRA than with the WGA but ultimately aligned with the other three.  

The executives’ pledge to stay in the room until a deal was done was challenged on the afternoon of Sept. 21, when the CEOs believed they were inches away from an agreement. After a lot of slow-going in the early part of the negotiation, the studio group had presented a package that they believed addressed the guild’s key concerns — minimum staffing for writers rooms, AI protections and success-based residuals for streaming. According to sources, the guild came in with what the studio side saw as a late ask, seeking a deal point that would protect members if they declined to cross other unions’ picket lines, though the WGA had been signaling for weeks that it would seek such a provision. Iger angrily left the room, as did the other executives. According to sources, Zaslav said to the other side, “What are you guys doing? We’re on the 10-yard line … we’ve given you virtually everything you said you wanted.” Iger briefly returned to admonish the guild negotiators that this was a serious moment requiring them to think carefully. Sources say ultimately, Keyser reached out to Iger and the talks resumed.

WGA spokesperson Bob Hopkinson disputed the above account but declined to elaborate. The studio chiefs declined to comment.

While the deal still needs to be approved by the guild membership, the hope is that the studios can then reach an agreement with SAG-AFTRA relatively quickly and get the town back to work. Yet even with a negotiated peace potentially in sight, there are those in the guild who feel that the challenges facing their profession will persist. They fear the industry will contract, squeezing out young and diverse writers as the content bubble shrinks from its high of nearly 600 U.S. scripted originals. In other words, a golden era for writers may be over, at least for the foreseeable future.

“Everybody will call it before the strike and after the strike,” says a well-known showrunner, “but it’s really kind of before peak TV and after peak TV.”

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