How the last writers’ strike changed things onscreen

WRITERS STRIKE 2007 (Custom)
Members of the Writers Guild of America and supporters walk on the picket line on the third day of a nationwide strike outside Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, May 4, 2023. (File photo: NYTimes)
The 2007 writers’ strike could not have come at a worse time for screenwriter Zack Stentz. After three years of being unemployed, Stentz was happily ensconced in a new job as an executive story editor on Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”. He was working with a high-caliber group of writers on a show he described as “dark, thoughtful, and weird”.اضافة اعلان

Before the strike, the staff had successfully completed nine episodes of the show, which tracked the aftermath of events depicted in the blockbuster film “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” When the hourlong drama debuted in January 2008, it earned solid ratings and a loyal fan base. Still, Stentz, who has gone on to write for series like J.J. Abrams’ “Fringe” and Greg Berlanti’s “The Flash,” believes the 100-day strike ultimately sealed the show’s fate: a truncated two-season, 31-episode arc.

“It was heartbreaking because we felt like we were doing something really special,” said Stentz, who recalled the show’s budgets being slashed during the second season, after the extended break caused ratings to plunge. “The conventional wisdom on the show is that it was ahead of its time and if it would have come out in the 2010s, it probably would have been a much bigger success.”

“The Sarah Connor Chronicles” is just one of many television shows and movies whose fate was altered by the last writers’ strike, which cost the Los Angeles economy $2.1 billion in lost revenue. Movies like the James Bond film “Quantum of Solace,” “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” were among those rushed into production with unfinished scripts.

Things were so grim on “Quantum of Solace” that star Daniel Craig later admitted to rewriting scenes himself while on set. The film’s director, Marc Forster, who declined to comment for this article, told the website Collider in 2016 that he considered quitting what was then his biggest budget movie to date.

“At that time, I wanted to pull out,” he said. “But everybody said, ‘No, we need to make a movie, the strike will be over shortly so you can start shooting what we have and then we’ll finish everything else.’”

Not every project suffered because of the work stoppage. Take the series “Breaking Bad”. According to one of the show’s producers, Mark Johnson, the character of Jesse Pinkman, portrayed by Aaron Paul, was originally supposed to die in the final episode of the show’s first season.

The strike, however, forced “Breaking Bad” to halt production after just seven episodes. And, Johnson recalled in a recent interview, once the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, realized how well the character played against Bryan Cranston’s chemistry teacher-turned-drug dealer Walter White, he decided to let him live.

Jesse Pinkman lasted the entire 62-episode run, and Paul won three Emmys. “Because of the strike, we learned a lot about the show,” Johnson said. (Others have said the decision to keep Paul’s character was made before the strike, though other key plot elements of the show were adjusted.)

The entertainment industry of today is much different from what it was 15 years ago, of course, and all the lessons learned during the last strike may not be applicable. Broadcast networks have cut back on scripted programming. Streaming services are not obligated to assemble a fall schedule. The major film studios have said they have enough movies in production to keep releasing them at a steady pace through the middle of 2024.

“The dynamics are different now,” said Kevin Reilly, a veteran television executive. “Really, the only choke point is that at a certain point your development pipe gets a little bit dry. But I don’t think that’s even a speed bump in the streaming world. It would have to go on for at least six months for that to really start to feel the pressure. The same at the box office.”

Studios have been leaning heavily into this narrative over the past few weeks. Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-CEO, told investors during the company’s first-quarter earnings that because of its “large base of upcoming shows and films from around the world,” the streaming giant “can probably serve our members better than most.” Paramount Global CEO Bob Bakish also said the strike would have little impact on the company’s business in the short term.

“We do have many levers to pull and that will allow us to manage through the strike even if it’s an extended duration,” he said during the company’s post-earnings conference call.

But a prolonged strike could have unforeseen effects just the same. Just one week into the shutdown, television shows like Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” HBO Max’s “Hacks” and Apple TV+’s “Loot” have halted production.

It remains unclear how the studios will adjust should the strike be prolonged. As one writer, Joe McClean (“Resident Evil: Vendetta”), noted from the picket line last week, the 2007 strike led to a renewed boom in reality TV shows, which are relatively inexpensive to produce and do not need writers.

“There’s a pretty nice thread that can show that the last writers’ strike led to Donald Trump becoming president,” McClean said, referring to “Celebrity Apprentice,” which debuted in January 2008 and intensified Trump’s already significant television presence. “Because we had no writers and no good content on television, that was where all of the viewers were going, and it just elevated his star.”

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