US streamer & studio execs’ pay blasted as ‘immense drain’ on Hollywood creativity

Ahmet Yalcinkaya – unsplash

Executive pay has taken centre stage as the US writers strike marks its first week, with SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator hitting out at the “immense drain” caused by pay scales at some companies.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief negotiator at US actors union SAG-AFTRA, admitted that some creatives require “a certain amount of compensation and have leverage to get it” but pointed to the “immense drain on the system that comes out of studio and streamer executives.”

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland

The union chief, who was talking here at SeriesFest in Denver, added: “If you take one of those companies, where the CEO’s compensation package last year was $250m, it dwarfs anything that anybody else is dealing with in terms of showrunners, actors, directors,” highlighting the pay package for Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav in 2022.

“We have to recognise that we have a whole equality conversation to have in this country but there’s nothing that these companies would like better than to focus the attention on the creative talent – who are getting well paid but well paid for doing something – and ignore the vast drain on resources at the executive level.”

The comments come as SAG-AFTRA gears up for negotiations with studios and streamers, with its contract ending 30 June.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) – representing parties including Netflix, Apple, Amazon and the major US studios – started striking last Tuesday, but there is little sign of a new agreement being close.

Shows including Stranger Things and Severance are among those to have stopped production as the strike intensifies, while a recent report from ratings agency Moody’s suggested a new WGA deal could cost the industry a further $600m annually.

Timing & turbulence

As writers continue to picket studio lots across Hollywood and offices in New York ahead of LA Screenings later this month, the major sticking points remain, namely around residual payments, the size of writers rooms and the potential impact of AI on the industry.

Propagate co-CEO Ben Silverman added that the timing of the negotiations has not helped both sides find common ground.

“Streamers are losing money, their stock prices are being killed. The decision to migrate into all things within your ecosystem doesn’t work when you’re in a downward moment. It’s great to be supplying yourself, buying from yourself and taking risk against your upward momentum and being rewarded by Wall Street.

“But when it goes the other way you start bleeding and we’ve seen so much blood on that side as people lose their jobs and face a real reckoning. You see it in companies like Paramount losing 30% of its stock price in one day. And you also see it in these companies making so much cash that made the shift are now not making much cash, so I get their perspective.

“But I see the other side too. The writers have been so squeezed, it is untenable. The ecosystem will drown and die, or shift overseas as it already has started to do, whether Canada, the UK, Colombia, Mexico or Spain – there is more and more content that can feed in that isn’t unionised now.”

Silverman added that the shift to franchises, “with CBS doing five Billions and 10 Yellowstones – was also a “suck on capital”, while BBC Studios’ president of scripted, Mark Linsey, added that he feared such moves would reverse improvements around new voices coming into the industry.

“The worry for me is buyers going back to established IP and losing any sense of risk-taking,” said Linsey, who relocated to LA earlier this year to expand BBCS’s Stateside business, a move that had initially offered “lots of opportunities”.

He added that writers and showrunners have also become “wiser now”, particularly when it comes to ensuring they pop in the US market.

“It’s not just about the production budget and the schedule anymore, they want to know about the marketing budget and support. Is the platform going to get behind the show, will they market it. It’s not the [showrunner’s] expertise but they know it needs a marketing budget or it won’t win in the market.”

Talitha Watkins, president & head of US-based ColorCreative Management, added that many of her company’s clients have felt unsupported by streamers.

“The frustration is great in that the streaming model for marketing is coming after success,” she explained. “There is no real commitment in marketing unless they see some success going in. That is why festivals like [SeriesFest] are so important to create some word of mouth.

“You have your back up against the platform, which hasn’t supported you even though your audience is speaking to you directly saying they want this project. It is a trust balance that needs to come back.”

Read Next