David A. Goodman has been president of the WGA West since 2017, and will term out in September, bringing to an end one of the guild’s most consequential presidencies. In this interview, he reflects on what it was like to be president during the most challenging year in the history of the film and television industry, and on the WGA’s historic campaign to reshape the talent agency business – and what may lie ahead if members decide to take on the business practices of personal managers, as well. He also spoke about how the film industry lags far behind television in terms of diversity and inclusion, and about what David Young, the guild’s longtime executive director, is really like.
Goodman, a writer and executive producer on Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, was relaxed and in good spirits when he spoke with Deadline on Thursday, the same day he got his first Covid-19 vaccination shot, and ahead of Sunday’s virtual WGA Awards show.
DEADLINE: First question, how are you and the guild holding up during the pandemic?
GOODMAN: It’s been a stressful year certainly for our members. We’ve been fortunate that many writers were able to continue working during this last year I think, however, there have been obviously some writers who haven’t, but we’re fortunate in that the studios that we work for wanted to keep writers working so that when the difficulties of the pandemic came to an end, they would have something to make. So we’ve been fortunate that way, but it’s been stressful, with the writers working in Zoom rooms, and obviously, the pain of the pandemic itself, the tragedy of it. I know many writers who lost people during this year. I myself knew people who died from this. It’s very upsetting and we’re relieved, at least, that we as country see a light at the end of the tunnel.
DEADLINE: So, there hasn’t been a significant decline in members’ earnings this last year?
GOODMAN: Not really; not a significant one. I don’t know the numbers, but the contributions to our health plan continued and that meant that people were getting hired and getting paid. I don’t want to diminish the difficulties that writers have faced, because there have been difficulties, but also a lot of writers worked last year, too.
DEADLINE: Are writing rooms smaller now because of the pandemic?
GOODMAN: There’s been a trend in writers’ rooms being smaller that’s been going on for years. I don’t know that that’s a result of the pandemic, although it may have been exacerbated by it, but that trend of smaller rooms, because there have been shorter orders, has been a trend that’s been going on for a long time. It may have been finally exacerbated by the pandemic. I don’t know that we know that, but I think rooms have been getting smaller over time and it’s been something we’ve obviously been concerned about.
On the flip side you have 500 television shows, which in 2019 employed more writers than at any time in the history of the Guild. We had more writers actually working during that year because there were so many shows, so many jobs, and because also the streaming platforms were also getting into making features, and you know, there’s been an increase. There was an increase that year especially, but it’s been obviously hurt by the pandemic somewhat.
DEADLINE: When do you expect the WGA Theater to reopen?
GOODMAN (laughs): Well, I don’t think we would make a plan on that until we knew it was absolutely safe for our members to congregate in the theater, so there are no immediate plans for that, but certainly it’s something we think a lot about.
DEADLINE: In the early days of the pandemic the guild said that it was closing its offices to nonessential people and events. Were staff furloughed?
GOODMAN: Well, staff worked from home. They continued to work, they just worked from home.
DEADLINE: No furloughs?
GOODMAN: No furloughs. We still needed our staff because writers were still working and we needed processing of contracts, processing residuals, pension and health – just any issues that members were having, workplace issues. The staff has done an amazing job during this difficulty and there have been no furloughs, just no one coming to the office.
DEADLINE: What’s your big takeaway from the agency campaign? (Last month, with the signing of WME to its franchise agreement, the WGA won its two-year battle with the major agencies to rid them of conflicts of interest and return them to a 10% commissioning model not seen in decades.)
GOODMAN: I have a few takeaways. One, I’m always so impressed with the intelligence and solidarity of our membership. Presented with this issue, they hung together longer than any of us expected we would have to, and I’m also now feeling very good about working with our agencies again as partners. They are stepping up, they want to be our writers’ partners. As you know, they fought hard against this, but once they agreed to make deals with us, they have stepped up in great ways.
I’ve been just amazed that WME, the last to sign, has really just stepped up in a great way and provided us with information, and we’ve already seen immediate benefits from it. We’ve collected over $100,000 in late fees from the studios since we’ve been able to get invoices and contracts from our agency partners, and that’s money that’s come directly to writers, and that was just one feature of the agency campaign that’s already providing benefits to our members.
DEADLINE: Are any members complaining that their agents won’t take them back? (In April of 2019, more than 7,000 WGA members fired their agents who wouldn’t sign the guild’s Code of Conduct.)
GOODMAN: I have heard that some writers were not taken back by their agents; I’ve heard of some agents that didn’t get their clients back. I have definitely heard that, but I’ve also heard from many members that they feel that their relationship with their agent has changed for the better; that they feel they have a clear idea of who works for who and that the agents who are representing writers are really stepping up and want to prove their value.
DEADLINE: Are you giving any thought to franchising or regulating personal managers?
GOODMAN: Well, that’s a question that’s been raised by some members. I think that will again be up to the membership to decide whether that’s a necessity. What’s interesting about the agency campaign, which I think has sort of lost to history, is that it really came from members who felt that packaging fees and agencies becoming producers were a problem. That bubbled up from the membership, so if the difficulties of the conflicts that managers represent are enough to bubble up among the members, then the guild will take it on.
I’m only president for six more months, so I don’t think we’re going to do it in that time frame, but if the membership decides that this is an issue that we need to go with, then the guild will deal with it.
DEADLINE: So this is your last term as president.
GOODMAN: I say it every day to my wife. I’m termed out. I could only run in two consecutive terms as president, but the more important issue is I’ve been in leadership for 15 years. We now have what I think is an exceptional group of writers in our leadership. It is time for them to be front and center. They’ve been doing the work. We have enormously dedicated writers, and then there are writers out there who aren’t already in the leadership yet who will run this year and that’s how the guild stays vibrant, with a turnover in the leadership.
If the same person is in leadership, the guild can’t grow and learn from new members, and so I feel very good about leaving because the accomplishments of the guild while I’ve been president have not been my accomplishments alone; I’ve done them with a really dedicated group of people who will now take over and maybe get a little bit more of the credit they deserve.
DEADLINE: What’s the best and worst things about being president?
GOODMAN (laughs): That’s a good question. No one’s ever asked me that. You know, the worst thing about being president is you have a front-row seat for the enormous challenges faced by our union in terms of making sure writers are paid what they deserve; taking care of the issues individual writers face; the facing off against behemoth studios, and understanding how fragile a union can be that the things that we have, like our health care and pension and our residuals and our minimums; that these are things that without the union can go away tomorrow, that we’re in a constant battle to maintain what we have. So the worst thing about it is understanding just how much of the odds are against us.
The best thing about it is connected to that, which is I’m constantly amazed by how important the guild is to its members, how individual members are willing to step up, to put their own priorities aside and say, “Yeah, I am going to suffer because of this but the union matters to me.” I understand how important this is. And so that’s the best thing about it. Some people will say to me, “Oh, you must have gotten a lot of shit from members being president,” especially during the agency campaign. But I got a lot more support, a lot more gratitude from people who understood how important this fight was, and that’s what I’ve discovered in every fight the guild takes on. So, those are the best and worst things about being president.
DEADLINE: How time-consuming is it?
GOODMAN: Well, being president of the guild during the last year has been very time-consuming, no question about it. The agency campaign really was unlike anything we’ve attempted, and then on top of it, when Covid hit, there were so many issues about member safety and making sure that writers wouldn’t have to risk their health to go back to work, and all sorts of other things that put me in the center of a lot of decision-making. And so I probably was president during a very difficult period to be president. I don’t know if it was as time-consuming for previous presidents as it was for me, but it was very time-consuming. That’s another reason I’m leaving.
DEADLINE: Are we talking 20 hours a week or 40 or 60?
GOODMAN: (laughs) It just really depends. I also have a day job as a writer, so it was nights, it was weekends, it was lunch hours, and then you know, sometimes my boss, Seth MacFarlane, at certain points would cut me slack and say. “It’s OK, go deal with it.” And I’m fortunate that way in that I had an exceptional boss during this period.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about diversity. Last June the guild’s TV inclusion report said that writers could achieve parity in two years if current hiring trends continue. Were you surprised by that? Is it still on course?
GOODMAN: I don’t know the answer to the second question. I know how important the first question is, that whatever the guild can do to help our diverse members and then also help with the general trends of diversity and inclusion, it’s very important to leadership, and so I actually don’t know the answer to the question whether we’re still on course. Surprised or not, we can always do better.
DEADLINE: Is television ahead of film in the hiring of women and writers of color?
GOODMAN: Yeah, the numbers in film are dreadful, and we’re hoping to engage our employers on those issues because those numbers really are dreadful and shameful. The guild doesn’t control hiring but we can certainly do what we can to advocate with our studio partners to better their numbers.
DEADLINE: What accounts for that difference?
GOODMAN: You know, the history of the business is white men getting the work. That’s all businesses. So I think that there are entrenched practices that are hard to break, but we have to try our best to break them.
DEADLINE: That was so in television, too, but they seem to be more responsive to diversity issues.
GOODMAN: Yeah. Well, I think that with the explosion of television, there was at least a recognition by some studios that there were more audiences to reach that wanted to see diverse storylines, but there will still be issues in television because even though the numbers have gotten better in terms of writers – for instance, writers of color being hired at the lower levels – there are still enormous issues of them not having the opportunities to move up the ranks, to grow in their positions and so, you know, there’s still work to be done, big work to be done in that area.
I think that as more women writers and writers of color become showrunners, they then are doing the hiring, and so that helps as well, but again, there’s still a lot of work to be done in that area.
DEADLINE: It seems that the guild was not directly involved in developing a back-to-work protocols.
GOODMAN: What was interesting about the back-to-work protocols was that they were determined by a committee that deals with safety on sets, and generally speaking, the Writer’s Guild was never on that committee. However, although the guild wasn’t, our members were, because our members are showrunners, and showrunners play an active role on every show involving the back-to-work protocols. So, historically the guild is not part of that safety committee that usually deals with you know, hiring and set safety. That’s not the purview of the Writer’s Guild, but members who are showrunners were absolutely involved in the back-to-work protocols.
DEADLINE: OK, just a couple more questions. What’s David Young really like?
GOODMAN (laughs): You don’t know?
DEADLINE: I have an idea.
GOODMAN: David Young is one of the most gifted negotiators and greatest advocate for writers that the guild has ever known. I mean, it’s funny that he gets this reputation as a hothead. I lost my temper a lot more during the agency campaign than he did. You know, he is painted by the press as someone who doesn’t understand Hollywood; who is an outsider who just wants to blow up the business, and that’s an attempt by whoever we’re engaged with, whether it was the industries or whether it was the studios, to try to undermine members’ confidence in him. But the members have now seen this guy dedicate his career to helping us.
He’s negotiated more landmark deals for writers than any executive director that we’ve ever had. On a personal note, David is a very down-to-earth guy and a very straight shooter; very honest, very forthright. He has opinions, but he’s also incredibly collaborative. I consider myself so lucky to have gotten to work with him. I’ve been in leadership for 15 years, and he’s been executive director the whole time. For someone who doesn’t work in the business, he understands the business better than most people who do, and he certainly understands what writers need for their union.
DEADLINE: I want to ask you about the awards show. How much harder, or easier, is it to put on a virtual awards show?
GOODMAN: I think it’s different skills. I’m not actively involved in putting on the awards show; we have a really great producing team who are doing an exceptional job. I think that because we’ve been living in a virtual world for this last year, it probably helps in terms of expectations. If we had to put on a virtual awards show last year, it might have been more difficult. But I think it’ll be a good show from what I’ve seen of it. But it’s sad, though, because I think the Writer’s Guild Awards and the ceremony, it was always a chance for people to see each other in person, but I also recognize how important it is that we’re still going to be honoring the great work that our members did this year.
DEADLINE: I think it’s probably going to be less expensive to put it on virtually.
GOODMAN: I actually don’t know the answer to that, but probably. Probably, yeah. I mean, certainly we would spend less on tuxedo rentals (laughs).
DEADLINE: That’s a good one. I thought that Beyond Words was really good this year, really good. (Beyond Words, a panel discussion featuring the WGA Awards nominees for best original and adapted screenplays, was conducted virtually for the first time this year.)
GOODMAN: Yeah, it was. I saw that, too. You have such an articulate group of people talking about their work, and as a writer, you just eat it up; you just love watching these great writers talk about their work, talk to each other. One of my favorite parts of being a member of the guild is getting to hear writers talk about their work.
DEADLINE: Last question about Sunday’s awards show. Who’s going to win Best Original Screenplay?
GOODMAN (laughs): I never make predictions, Dave.
DEADLINE: You don’t know?
GOODMAN: No. It’s a tough field. I love all those movies, they were all exceptional. I’m not going to tell you who I voted for, but it was a very tough choice because I loved all those movies.
DEADLINE: Anything else that you’d like to say that I haven’t asked you about?
GOODMAN: I was certain you were going to ask about 2023 negotiations (laughs). But I have nothing to say about it.