Writers helping writers. That has been the theme of this staffing season, the first without agents representing writers, as showrunners have stepped in to take on some of the responsibilities normally carried on by literary agents. That includes putting together lists of writer recommendations for colleagues who are assembling writers rooms, some of them reading specs of up-and-coming writers to help talented newcomers get their foot in the door, and most of all fielding a lot of calls, emails and texts from fellow writers looking for jobs.
Writers’ efforts to staff and get staffed have been augmented by social media, which has become a makeshift hiring tool with the threads #WGAStaffingBoost and #WGASolidarityChallenge. A digital age classifieds section, the threads have been connecting writers as they try to navigate Hollywood without an agent. You can see below some of the messages from showrunners seeking writer submissions, and a writer who announced they landed a meeting as a direct result from #WGAStaffingBoost. (The efforts also have led to the creation of several writer databases including the WGA’s Committee of Black Writers’ The Black Book; The Rainbow Pages, an Independent Database of LGBTQ+ Writers; and a Google doc with information on diverse @WGAEast writers as well as a roster of Native American writers.)
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However, several showrunners I spoke with say that, as much as they want to help, they have no time to read spec scripts and must rely on relationships and recommendations from other showrunners and the studio for which they work. “It doesn’t work that way,” one showrunner lamented about the setup this year, noting that new writers, especially those with underrepresented voices, are most vulnerable.
A showrunner of such background recalled how they could not land a staffing job when starting out because their spec scripts were branded too weird. It wasn’t until their agent pulled a favor to get them a meeting on a show that they got that first job, putting them on their path to success.
In anticipation of a possible mass firing of agents by writers, the WGA on April 1 launched a Staffing Submission System, designed to help guild members find jobs. Per the guild, in the 26 days the site has been operating, there have been 2,135 submissions by 1,048 writers to 92 shows. “Writers are getting meetings through the system,” the WGA says, something I have also heard from showrunners who have told me they had set up meeting with writers for staff positions through the system. There are no records of actual hirings, but it is early in the process. The system will be expanded to associate and post-current members on May 6. (You can read the WGA’s full statement below.)
UPDATE: After our story ran, veteran comedy showrunner Mike Royce, who has a pilot at CBS, shared his positive experience with the site, the staffing hashtags and the WGA mixers, which have led to meetings with prospective writers.
Still, the system also has raised legal concerns because, as part of the submission process, writers are prompted to provide information on their race and gender (see images and watch the WGA video tutorial about how to use the site below.) The writers can decline to list either, but that identification prompt has raised an alarm at the TV studios. I hear their legal departments are concerned because race and gender should not factor into a hiring decision, with such provisions considered a potential liability that could lead to discrimination lawsuits.
A labor and employment law expert I spoke with said it “seems unwise for the WGA to actively solicit and presumably communicate to prospective employers the ethnicity, gender and other protected characteristics of the writers who provide staffing submissions on the website. The law is clear that prospective employers may not ask for or consider such information in making hiring decisions. By soliciting the information and providing it to prospective employers the WGA might be functioning as an ’employment agency,’ which (like any employer) is prohibited from discriminating under the California Fair Employment & Housing Act.”
Since the studios themselves cannot use the submission system — it is only accessible to WGA members — I hear a number of studios have advised showrunners to be careful and mindful of potential consequences when using the site to recruit writers.
Another potential legal pitfall legal experts are worried about: In the hopes of landing jobs, writers upload scripts that anyone can read, which opens the door to potential copyright/idea theft cases down the road if a writer feels a show is too similar to a spec they had submitted as a sample during staffing 2019.
That concern is not limited to the WGA submission site, as script sharing is occurring on social media too as part of writers’ efforts to get noticed and get a meeting.
“Scripts are passed around with no legal safeguards,” one showrunner lamented, noting that agents used to provide that protection. “Someone can read it and move ahead with their own take on the material. There is potential for misunderstanding at best and abuse at worst.”
Here is WGA’s full statement on the Staffing Submission System, some #WGAStaffingBoost and #WGASolidarityChallenge postings, and the WGA’s instructional video.
The Staffing Submission System is the result of a lot of hard work by board members who want to be sure there is an alternative for writers without agents to connect with potential employers. Writers are getting meetings through the system, but it’s too early yet to confirm hiring results.
In the 26 days it has been operating since its launch on April 1st, there have been 2,135 submissions by 1,048 writers to 92 shows. We expect the number of submissions to rise as more shows are registered as staffing season progresses. And, as of May 6 the submission limit will be re-set and associate and post-current members will become eligible to submit.
Writers are using the Staffing Submission System in various ways: some are submitting through it, and others are using it to find out about opportunities and then submitting through their manager or directly to a producer. Shows express their specific hiring needs, in terms of levels of experience, areas of expertise, and diversity of voices. Agencies have long provided studios, showrunners, and networks with lists of writers to fulfill the studios’ and networks’ expressed inclusion goals.
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