Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery this week sent out a letter to showrunners employed by the companies’ various studios reminding striking writer-producers that they are still expected to perform their contractually obligated non-writing services.
The letter from the legal department of ABC Signature, owned by Disney, reads: “We want specifically to reiterate to you as a showrunner or other writer-producer that you are not excused from performing your duties as a showrunner and/or producer on your series as a result of the WGA strike. Your personal services agreement with [the] Studio requires that you perform your showrunner and/or producing duties even if the WGA attempts to fine you for performing such services during the strike,” wrote Bob McPhail, the assistant chief counsel for the Disney-owned ABC Signature, in the letter sent to showrunners and obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. “Your duties as a showrunner and/or producer are not excused, suspended or terminated until and unless you are so notified in writing by the Studio.”
The letter is dated May 3, which was the second day of the Writers Guild of America’s strike against members of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents studios and streamers. Writers have hit the picket lines in front of major studios and streamers in Los Angeles and New York this week as they seek increased wage floors, viewership transparency from streamers and protections against mini-rooms and the use of artificial intelligence.
A similar letter sent by Max (formerly HBO Max) on May 2 said to WGA members who also serve in producer capacities, “HBO/HBO Max respects your membership in the WGA, and will not do anything to place you in jeopardy of violating WGA rules. However, we believe certain services, such as participating in the casting process and/or contributing to non-writing production and post-production work are clear examples of non-WGA required services that should continue to be rendered during this time.”
The memo added, “the WGA cannot prohibit you from rendering producing services pursuant to your personal services agreement as long as you are providing non-writing services.”
The Disney letter (read it in full, below) features a Q&A informing showrunners that they are “required” to perform duties that may include responsibilities that may not be in line with the guidance provided by the WGA to its around 11,500 striking members.
The memo specifically states that in showrunner and/or writer-producer roles, “you may, along with other non-writing services, be required to perform services commonly referred to as ‘a. thorough h.’ services as a producer,” such as cutting for time, small changes to dialogue or narration made before or during production and “changes in technical or stage directions.” These are duties that, according to the WGA’s contract, non-writers can perform on covered projects.
However, the WGA strike rules explicitly prohibit union members from performing these activities during the 2023 work stoppage. “The Rules prohibit hyphenates (members who are employed in dual capacities) from performing any writing services, including the ‘(a) through (h)’ functions,” the rules state, which puts showrunners and writer-producers in a difficult position, caught between the dictates of their employers and their own union.
“A lot of it sounds … wrong? A-H duties are specifically outlined by the guild as things you cannot do,” said one longtime showrunner of the Disney memo. This person did not receive that memo, as they do not have a deal with Disney. “But legally I’m sure there’s a lot of tussling over this stuff. Long story short, this doc is fooling no writer. It’s just odd because it’s written almost as though we were trying to organize a company that wasn’t already unionized. Like, we’re all already in the union, man.”
The Max letter, in specifying that the company believes “certain services” during casting, production and postproduction are “non-WGA required services,” also potentially opens showrunners up to being caught between their guild’s mandated ban on “(a) through (h)” functions and the company’s expectations.
The Max letter further argues that showrunners should come to work, despite the guild’s insistence that “no members should cross a WGA picket line or enter the premises of a struck company for any purpose.” The Max communication calls this dictate “misleading,” as the WGA cannot discipline writer-producers for performing non-writing services only: “HBO/HBO Max expects you to continue to come to work to perform non-writing duties under your contract during a WGA Strike unless and until those services are formally suspended or terminated,” it states.
May 5, 2:41 p.m. Updated to include contents of Max letter.