How Warren Leight Is Leading WGAE’s Production Shutdown  

Welcome to the 215th episode of TV’s Top 5,  ’s TV podcast.

Every week, hosts Lesley Goldberg (West Coast TV editor) and Daniel Fienberg (chief TV critic) break down the latest TV news with context from the business and critical sides, welcome showrunners, executives and other guests, and provide a critical guide of what to watch (or skip, as the case may be).

This week, we’re joined by Warren Leight, the former Law & Order: SVU showrunner who joins us from his home state of New York, where he has been leading members of the Writers Guild of America in an effort to shut down studio-based productions. A guild member since 1984, Leight has been through multiple strikes and sees the current labor unrest as an “inflection point” for the industry. “To my surprise, somehow, the studios are so tone deaf — they’ve gotten people to sympathize with TV writers,” he says with a laugh. Dubbed by David Simon as the strike’s “Air Traffic Controller,” Leight opens up about his role as one of the East Coast’s strike captains and how the guild has realized the power of picketing filming locations and forcing production shutdowns in its ongoing battle with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers over residuals, artificial intelligence and mini-rooms.

Other topics discussed in this week’s TV’s Top 5 podcast include HBO Max’s transition to Max, Disney’s programming purge and reviews of Max’s Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, Apple comedy Platonic, Netflix’s FUBAR and American Born Chinese on Disney+.

But first, read on for a condensed portion of our interview with Leight, who previously joined TV’s Top 5 in June 2020 for an honest conversation about Hollywood and how it portrays law enforcement.

Of all the issues that are on the table for the guild right now, which is the most concerning for you?

Streaming residuals. The inability of writers to make a decent living under the current streaming model. The changes that have happened in the last 10 years have pulled the rug out from writers’ ability to earn a living or to get through the lean periods with residuals.

This is week four of the strike and you were among the speakers at the WGA’s rally at 30 Rock. How does the tone of this strike compare to the others that you’ve been involved with in the past?

Both of the previous strikes I was involved with had tension between the East Coast and the West Coast guilds, between showrunners and the hoi polloi, the staffers, all that stuff. I’ve never seen the degree of unity between the East and the West [branches of the WGA] and within other guilds. I’ve never seen the support we’re getting from SAG and IATSE [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees] and the Teamsters, which I don’t think anybody saw coming. That has changed the game in New York completely. It’s that level of union solidarity and the general sense of we have to draw the line here. This is it. What struck me Tuesday at the rally was how many signs there were from how many different guilds and how many people are marching with us, from the retail workers, to the building superintendent to these unions. It’s some sort of inflection point where people cannot stand the pay disparity. To my surprise, somehow, the studios are so tone deaf — they’ve gotten people to sympathize with TV writers (laughs). It’s shocking to me, but they made it so difficult for writers to make a living and to raise a family in New York and in L.A. That has caused a degree of unity I’ve never seen before and a sense of resolve to the point where Wednesday morning we had two dozen people at 2 a.m. out on the street, blocking Billions — which is metaphorically perfect — from shooting at multiple locations. We were able to funnel people in there until noon Wednesday. Getting writers to go out on a [picket] line at 2 a.m. because somebody told us we need to be there at 2 because the Teamsters get there at 3 and if they see us there, they won’t cross [the picket line].

I’ve spoken with a number of WGA members who have been picketing the studios here on the West Coast. And when the strike started, is that where you went? Because it does seem like the shift to location picketing is something that has developed in the weeks since the strike started.

First there was the standard, let’s go picket outside of a corporate headquarters. But things changed that Friday night after the strike was called when Severance was shooting. A group of people had been holding the line on Severance and we got worried that the line couldn’t hold and they’ll go back to work. But the Teamsters hadn’t crossed all day. That’s when we’re all texting each other and three more people showed up. The crew got word back that the producers don’t want to shut down because they don’t want to look like three or four guys picketing shut the show down. The Teamsters weren’t crossing. That’s a combination of leverage that never existed.

We started getting tips [about filming locations]. I got a little more public on Twitter saying we need peep and people started showing up. People on some of the shows started to let us know [about locations, etc.]. We don’t want to see shows canceled because of the pickets. We want to try and get people some of their salary. But we want to disrupt as much as we can. The guild realizes that this is a pretty powerful thing. If the whole point is to empty the [programming] pipeline, the AMPTP knows they have to come back to the [bargaining] table. The quickest way to empty the pipeline is not to wait until all the shows are shot but to stop the shows from shooting.

What was the reaction from productions when you first were shutting down these productions? How has that changed now that that they seem to see you coming to some degree?

They do [see us coming]. It’s a cat and mouse game now where they move call times up from 6 a.m. to 4 a.m. And we have to get there an hour and a half early. There are people whose job it is to avoid us and they’re good at their job. The first reaction was it’s a strange thing to stand in front of a truck and say we’re picketing here and asking you not to cross the line. The first time you do that and a guy turns and honks his horn, it’s empowering. Then people start to communicate best practices, get in touch with the shop stewards and the flow of information is evolving. God help the showrunners who treated their crews badly because karma is a bitch. There are people who have not endeared themselves to crew or neighbors where they shoot and that’s been working against them. Some very decent people have also been shut down. The people know what this keeps going.

Writers have already been paid for the scripts that these studios are trying to film right now. But below the line employees haven’t been paid yet. Is there a concern that some of these shows may never resume production? There are parallels here to what we saw with the pandemic when everything had to shut down but some shows were “un-renewed” and never came back.

There’s tremendous concern and empathy about how we do this. There was a shutdown on Sunday and we knew where they were going to be at 5 a.m. and that they had a location move. We let them go on the clock. I shot 250 episodes of TV in New York and never shot on a Sunday; that’s like the third rail of the costs — everybody’s on the meters running fast. We decided not to picket the first shoot so that everyone could clock in, and then picket where they were moving so that they were shut down. But everybody had been clocked in for the day with double overtime. Ultimately, everything’s going to shut down because they’re going to run out of material. So on some level, the sooner the shutdowns happen, the quicker they’re forced back [to the bargaining table].

I’ve seen a number of tweets from writers on the West Coast who claim that studios are trying to sabotage some of the guild’s picketing efforts, dubbing all gates as neutral gates or parking big trucks near picket lines. Have you found that to be the case on the East Coast? And are studios there really issuing fake call sheets to throw off your response?

They’re doing that. One of the worst things they did was on a couple of sets, they told their crew members that our picketers were getting paid to picket while they’re losing their checks. There are definitely fake call sheets and there are definitely multiple locations. I don’t think it seems to be working.

A shutdown costs studios in the $200,000 per day vicinity, depending on the show. But do these targeted location pickets do more for the WGA?

It lets other guilds know we’re serious. No one likes to be bullied and people respect that we’re punching back. It’s creating excitement within the union world. In New York, it’s creating a sense of accomplishment when people hold the line for 10 hours and the show shuts down. It’s been good for morale. It’s been good to send the message to the studios. Even shows that aren’t shutting down are spending a fortune. On Tuesday, there was a show at Silvercup Studios East that moved their call time up from 5 a.m. to 4 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. and they housed all the actors at hotels to get them there. It’s costing them a lot. I’ve run shows and every time there’s an overage, you’re on the phone with business affairs. A Sunday shoot that gets interrupted? That’s not $200,000. It’s working both in terms of morale, tactically and strategically.

How frequently do these so-called Rapid Response Teams take action?

We’re out every day and we’re hitting two or three shows a day. And we’re mixing them up. I’ve been stunned by the efficacy of social media, by people saying, “I can be here at 2 a.m. Can I get four people to be with me? Can I get seven people to join me at 6 a.m.?” It’s really grassroots.

We call it the Bat Signal. To my surprise, social media works. We had a picket in Jersey a couple nights ago and they were down to three people. I put something out and nine people got on the line and that show shut down. The guild is figuring this out and we’re getting more frequent emails advising us of what’s on tap.

Are there rules of engagement that WGA members are supposed to follow when picketing a location? We’ve heard that sometimes those can get hostile.

Yes, they’ve gotten hostile. We’ve talked about what can we do differently. Don’t go at it with the cops. That’s one of the rules that we have. Even if you de-escalate, nothing is worth alienating people that we need solidarity with. But every time I try and establish rules, the next day something crops up that we had never anticipated. It’s very fluid.

What kind of hours are you keeping?

I’m tired. I’m surprised at how much time it’s taken up. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. But people have been sprinting for four weeks. And more bodies are coming in now. I was at a meeting Tuesday that ended at 5 p.m. and some of those people were out there at 2 a.m. until noon today and there that was this sense of, “This is my line; I’m not leaving until they shut down.”

Would you say that location picketing is the biggest difference between this strike and even the last one in 2007, or even the others that you’ve been involved with?

The targeted picketing is the result of solidarity with the Teamsters and IATSE and that is one of the biggest differences. The solidarity with SAG joining us on the lines in huge numbers. You don’t have to educate people, they know they’re being screwed. This all bubbled up from the rank and file up to the leadership of the guilds. I don’t think people knew how pissed off everybody was until they started comparing notes. That’s what motivates this.

For much more from Leight about the Tony Awards as well as the differences between picketing on the East Coast vs. the West Coast, listen to the full interview in this week’s TV’s Top 5 podcast.

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