Ted Sarandos with Jennifer Aniston at the Los Angeles Premiere of Murder Mystery 2. Photo: Getty
David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery may not have been expecting the massive backlash it generated when it gave its commencement address on May 21 and received an honorary degree from Boston University. The whistling and chanting that rumbled through his entire 20 minutes in the pulpit was relentless: “Pay! your writers”, “We don’t need you here”, and especially cruel “Shut up, Zaslav”.
But he must have expected some kind of reaction. A Hollywood studio executive in the midst of a writers' strike tells students that he is committed to “a passion for documenting and sharing human history on a global scale” and also recalls a period in his career when he was “making good money, I felt really good”… Maybe he was looking for hate.
If not, he should have torn a leaf out of Ted Sarandos's book. Despite Zaslav paying himself $250 million a year compared to Sarandos' $50 million, the head of Netflix is so unnerved by the confrontation that on May 10, the company canceled a showcase for advertisers in New York City, part of U.S. TV's advances where agencies receive upfront View upcoming programs from TV channels and streamers funded by ads.
Hours earlier, Sarandos announced he was pulling out of the PEN America Literary Gala at the Natural History Museum on May 18, a huge event for the literary world that will see Salman Rushdie make his first public appearance since he was attacked at a reading. Sarandos was to receive the Business Visionary award along with Lorne Michaels, who created and still hosts Saturday Night Live. He left, he explained, to avoid the demonstrations that would inevitably attract his appearance.
Why? Because in many parts of Hollywood, the writers' strike is known as the Netflix strike. At a large Writers Guild of America meeting the day after the strike was called, a journalist asked Ellen Stutzman, the WGA's chief negotiator, and David Goodman, the chairman of the writers' negotiating committee, which studio was the worst. “Netflix,” they answered in unison.
Zaslav was hit with the Pay Your Writers chant in Boston. This is very good. pic.twitter.com/00pL4ahAqZ
— Mike Scollins (@mikescollins) May 21, 2023
On May 9, Abbott Elementary writer Brittany Nichols tweeted an appeal to her fellow WGA strikers: “Stop dragging your lewd asses to Netflix and go to a studio that needs more picketers.” The next day, journalist Madeleine Karpaw wrote that the Netflix queue outside the company's headquarters on Sunset Boulevard turned into an “amazing party.”
In Manhattan, the Netflix picket line greeted Cynthia Nixon and the stars of Saturday Night Live, and among the many funny signs of the strike, there's a joke where writers give away their families' Netflix passwords: “My mom's Netflix password is 'Elvis1965'.” . The WGA's #CancelNetflix Twitter campaign has prompted JP Morgan analysts to speculate that the strike could prevent Netflix from rolling out its crackdown on password sharing.
“Netflix is the big bad wolf in terms of the WGA, in part because it was the first and most successful streamer and its business model was created when it was something of a startup,” explains a Hollywood industry journalist who runs a blog. like an entertainment strategy guy. “Studios have told the WGA negotiating committee that streaming is a terrible and very bad business, so they can't afford to give writers a raise. But all studios, especially Netflix, brag to Wall Street about their streaming profits.”
American strikers march past Netflix's offices in Hollywood. Photo: AFP
Some of Netflix's problems are structural. “With network TV, you would sell the show to NBC and then they or you would sell it around the world again,” explains one writer-turned-producer. “That meant you got royalties when the show came out in America, extra money when the show was sold, and extra royalties when the show aired. Netflix – and other streamers, but they were the first – are global streamers and buy all the rights. You get one deal and one set of royalties. If those fees were about the same as they were in the old days, fine, but Netflix still has a cheap deal left over from its heavily debt-laden launch days. Now those days are over and he doesn't want to pay.”
The company has also adopted shorter HBO television seasons with fewer episodes, which, because the writers are paid per episode, cut their earnings and the show doesn't end until the global dub is completed, which can take up to three months. Netflix is also investing heavily in overseas programming from countries like Korea, where local writers don't have much chance of working in Hollywood, so they don't run the risk of a closed WGA store in the future.
Along with general corporate anger, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos has become a particular target of the wrath of writers, who have spent the last 10 years presenting himself and the streaming service as a creative's best friend. He threw millions to people like Martin Scorsese, Noah Baumbach, David Fincher and, ahem, Harry and Meghan to basically do whatever they want. Netflix has long been considered a welcoming home for many writers' projects. But no more.
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos and Ana de Armas at the 95th Annual Awards Oscar March 12, 2023. Photo: Getty
In April, Sarandos brushed off the strike, telling analysts that Netflix had a good chance of surviving the shutdown. “We have a large database of upcoming shows and films from around the world,” he said. “Probably we can serve our members better than most.” Oddly enough, his co-CEO Reed Hastings chose this particular week to buy a stake in the ski resort.
And Sarandos, who grew up as an electrician in a poor middle-class section of Phoenix, also adopted the lifestyle of a studio boss, buying a classic 15,000-square-foot Mediterranean Revival mansion on the edge of the genteel residential enclave of Hancock Park, which was designed in 1925 by Gordon Kaufmann. . It is truly a palace, with rooms centered around a courtyard bordered by elegant arched colonnades.
Sarandos and his second wife Nicole Avant, a filmmaker and former US ambassador to the Bahamas, bought the space from Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith in 2015 and adorned the walls with their collection of contemporary art. Having met at a fundraiser while serving as financial chair for the Obama campaign in Southern California, the couple used the large dining room to host liberal fundraising events.
At their dinner parties, guests are drawn from a friendship group of powerful couples such as Laura Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio and Obama, Chris Rock, Jane Fonda, Reese Witherspoon, Jerry Seinfeld, Rita Wilson, Adam Sandler, Dave Chappelle and Shonda Rhimes.
Martin Scorsese with Netflix's Ted Sarandos in 2020. Photo: Getty
“I think the WGA would almost prefer him to be a capitalist with red teeth and claws than a friend of Tom Hanks, who sits on the board of the Academy's Museum of the Moving Image and has friends like Dern saying that he and Avant are trying to help the world become a better place, ”the producer says with irony.
Instead, says the WGA, streamers have paved the way for a “giant economy within the union workforce,” with writers relying on project-to-project work, and the average weekly pay for writers has fallen 23% over the past 10 years. to the WGA poll. Estimated incremental WGA costs for Netflix are $68 million compared to annual gross revenue of $31.6 billion, for Disney $75 million compared to revenue of $82.7 billion, and for Apple $17 million compared to $393.4 billion in revenue.
“We can’t sustain life just yet,” says Gitika Lizardi, who worked on the unreleased third season of Bridgerton under Netflix showrunner Shonda Rhimes, whose current deal with the streamer is worth $300 million. “Getting one job is hard enough. And you need more than two or three to survive.”
Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things, which writers closed. Strike Photo: Netflix
Alex O'Keefe, a staff writer on the hit FX drama Bear, spent nine weeks working on the show via Zoom, living in a tiny, unheated Brooklyn apartment, and occasionally working at the public library. to keep warm. When the show won the WGA Award for Comedy Series, O'Keef had to borrow money for a bow tie and a trip, and he went to the ceremony worrying about his debts.
The biggest problem Netflix faced during this strike was not the screaming of the students at the opening speech, or even the congestion of the pickets. Filming for the fifth season of Stranger Things was scheduled to begin in May. The scripts are mostly complete—although rewrites always happen, as the lack of writers on the set of Quantum of Solace shows—but the show's creators, the Duffer Brothers, have closed in solidarity.
Stranger Things isn't ideal for a long outage. Former child stars don't get any younger, and twenties playing teenagers are always a disaster. Noah Schnapp, who plays Will Byers, is now in college and was planning on filming over the holidays. The last season of the show ended at the climax – how long to wait with viewers?
It's only one show, of course. But a 2019 poll by Cowen & Co. found that 51% of Netflix subscribers planned to watch Stranger Things 3, 5% of non-subscribers said they planned to subscribe just to watch it, and 13% of former subscribers planned to re-subscribe to do so. This money shows that the strike is over. And streamers' key showrunner Shonda Rhimes is also determined to support the strike.
With a Netflix Day of Families and Children picket complete with fancy dress costumes, it's not just Nichols who wants to de-emphasize Netflix. Last week, writer Merrill Barr tweeted in desperation: “Heard several times over the past week and over the weekend that the guild really needs people at Universal. I know everyone wants to throw a party at Netflix, but Universal is an ARRAY. It extends through several cities with several gates. Please consider going there this week.”
“Universal will have free pizza tomorrow,” added Joshua Brandon. Although on May 10, Vegas rockers Imagine Dragons showed up at the Netflix picket and played a free concert. Not even pizza can save Ted Sarandos.