Why I’m Running for the WGA Board

I’ve been a member of the Writers Guild for just over 20 years. In that time, I have served on a bunch of committees and helped out where I could, but have never run for the board until now.

Here’s why I’m running this year:

I’m convinced we’re overlooking some fundamental issues that could profoundly disrupt the profession of writing for film and TV.

I know that sounds vague and ominous, like a first-draft speech by a scientist in a movie about meteors or spontaneous evolution. But we all recognize that the industry is changing, and changing quickly. We have new buyers and new business models. We have more options and more uncertainty. We don’t know what our jobs are going to be like in 2027.

But it’s more than that. We don’t know what our jobs are like in 2017. At least not collectively. We’re all walking around thinking, “Maybe it’s just me.”

I can tell you with certainty: it’s not. It’s weird out there for everyone.

One benefit of hosting a podcast about screenwriting is that I get to talk with a lot of writers, from established veterans to new staff writers to aspirants in Oakland with a laptop and a dream. The common thread I hear in all of them is that the basic assumptions we have about How It’s Supposed to Work seem really outdated.

  • Veteran screenwriters find themselves running month-long development rooms to figure out how to squeeze three movies and a TV series out of a piece of IP. Several writers may be picked to write scripts, but who deserves credit for coming up with the story?
  • Staff writers cobble together a year’s work from several short-order series for streaming and cable. Forget about renewal; whole seasons may be written and discarded.
  • Meanwhile, that kid in Oakland gets hired to adapt a Stephen King novel for Oculus Rift. We’re used to the distinction between TV and features, but what kind of screen are we calling goggles?

These are the realities that writers are facing in 2017, but you won’t find them reflected in the WGA’s annual report. They’re hard to quantify, and don’t align well with the guild’s traditional areas of concern, such as minimums and residuals.

When I bring up concerns like feature rooms and VR to smart guild folks, I generally hear: “Yes, I know, but that’s not really part of the MBA.” The contract we negotiate every three years with the AMPTP is extremely important, but shouldn’t be the lens through which we see the world.

Anything that affects the viability of film and television writing as a career is worthy of the WGA’s attention. From technological changes (hybrid animation, VR) to structural shifts (short seasons, cross-boarding) to systemic issues (family leave, ageism, racial bias), we need to be constantly looking out for what’s changing, and how it’s impacting writers.

Will the WGA be able to fix every problem? Absolutely not. But we can’t ignore issues simply because we don’t have great solutions.

Here’s what I’m proposing.

Start talking with members systematically. Traditionally, we begin outreach sessions around twelve months before the next round of contract negotiations. The problem with that is we’re only focusing on issues that can be addressed in the MBA. We need to look more broadly.

I propose we do a regular sweep through the membership to find out what they’re encountering. We don’t need charts; we need anecdotes from which we can glean patterns. So gather groups and get them talking. Assemble ten TV story editors, then ten first-time feature writers, then ten recent graduates of studios’ diversity initiatives. How much money are they actually bringing in? How much time are they spending chasing jobs that vanish? How likely are they to quit the business?

My suspicion is we’ll find a lot of “I thought it was just me” answers. For example, the problem of short seasons and producing fees only came up during the late outreach meetings, yet I was hearing friends’ frustrations at least two years earlier. By doing steady, continual outreach, these issues could be on the guild’s radar much earlier. We can start investigating the causes and looking for solutions.

Have some hard conversations with agents and managers. The WGA represents nearly all film and television writers, but our individual contracts and day-to-day business are handled by our agents and managers. Roughly one-third of the stories I hear about writer mistreatment centers around our reps, which is crazy. They work for us individually, which means they work for us collectively.

Some of the most pernicious problems facing writers are at least partly the fault of our agents and managers. They send us in waves after open writing assignments, hoping one of their clients lands the job. They encourage us to stick it out for one more free rewrite — or in the case of manager-producers, they’re the ones asking for the work. In some cases, they may be serving their individual client’s interests to the disservice of writers overall.

So we need to sit down with the agencies and management companies, big and small, and look for solutions. We have a shared interest in seeing writers paid fairly and promptly. But it’s higher on our list than theirs.

Make sure writers are being paid for their work, not just their drafts. When I started as a screenwriter, it was clear I was being paid to deliver paper with words on it. I literally printed out scripts and put them in a manila envelope for a courier to pick up.

Later, I got paid weeklies to work on movies in production. Here I was being paid for my time as much as my words. It was stressful, but at least it was honest. I knew when I was on the clock and when I was off.

Today, much of a writer’s work can feel like an endless unpaid weekly. There’s all the urgency and panic, with notes coming in on partial drafts or even pitches. While I don’t believe the guild can make studios and producers behave better, it can at least make sure we’re paid.

As part of our outreach to members and representatives, we need to look for new ways to ensure writers aren’t held hostage to development.

Keep feature writing an actual profession. For the past three years, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as a mentor to five great screenwriters in the WGA’s New Member program. Their tales of spec work and phantom paychecks are familiar; I remember the hustle and grind of my 20s, trying to get movies set up.

But when I hear the same kinds of stories from established screenwriters with great produced credits, something is clearly broken. Unless we work on enforcing the existing contract and establishing better protections for screenwriters, I worry writers like the ones I’m mentoring will find there’s no such thing as a “career screenwriter.”

But Why Now?

I’m choosing to run for the WGA board this year because this is not a negotiation cycle. That makes it a good time to take stock of where we are, and where the industry seems to be headed.

I want to help the guild ask the right questions. I can’t promise I’ll have the right answers. Some of the issues we’re facing are intractable problems dating back thirty years. Others are just coming over the horizon. We need to be mindful of both.

The institutional knowledge of the WGA is incredibly important. We have people who know why obscure points in the MBA were written a certain way. Defending the ground we’ve won is essential.

At the same time, we can’t confuse the rulebook with reality. All of us are working in a world that barely resembles the various subsections of the MBA. That’s why I’ve been glad to see the guild tackling issues like options and exclusivity. These gains are hard to quantify but essential to writers’ real-world livelihoods.

If elected to the board, I’ll work to make sure that writing for film and television continues to be a viable career for me, you, and the next generation of people who tell stories on screens.

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