Tuesday, February 16, 2010

WGA News - Jan/Feb 2010

by Ray Morton

In December 2009, the writers of iLarious became the first writers of content for an iPhone app to be represented by a labor union, the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE). Under this agreement, writers for apps such as This Just In (which delivers 10-15 jokes a day to the iPhone) will get to count their jokes written for the app towards WGAE health insurance and other benefits. Comedy writers covered by this new agreement hail from The Daily Show, The Onion, Human Giant and Saturday Night Live among other famous comedy programs.

iLarious went union because company founder and comedy writer Fred Graver is himself a member of the WGAE and knows how important union representation is to writers. “iLarious was founded to be the leading entertainment and comedy brand on mobile, by a group of writers, producers and performers - many of whom are members of the WGA, ” said Graver. “In a couple of years, mobile will be one of the dominant forces in our industry. It's important to the founders of iLarious that we bring the best talent to the table, and that we put a stake in the ground in this newly developing territory. The new means of producing content allows us to be owners and creators at the same time - and in the future, we look forward to being able to picket ourselves every few years.”

“Whatever the technology, writers will always benefit from membership in a creative community which is organized to advance their interests,” said WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson. “The job standards enjoyed by writers in film and broadcast TV were built over the years by creative people working together. Signing on with the WGAE is a very important step for creators of digital media to gain the standing and strength they deserve.”

In the past six months, the WGAE has signed 20 new companies creating content for digital media. These digital media companies who are covered by Writers Guild agreements have produced more than twenty-five web series currently available online and have additional series in development. Writers at these companies will become WGAE members. These writers were organized as part of the WGAE’s Writers Guild 2.0 initiative and demonstrate that writers working in digital media are interested in union membership.

Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO (WGAE) added twenty-two digital media companies as signatories in 2009. Thirty writers have become guild members as a result of digital media work covered by guild contracts this year. The exponential increase in digital media projects covered by the WGAE is the result of the union’s focus on new organizing.

"The business models, distribution structures, and creative opportunities in digital media are still being developed. The fundamental goal of the Writers Guild 2.0 initiative is to ensure that creators are at the table as decisions are made about these basic issues,” said WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson. “The enormous potential of digital media won't mean much if writers and other creators can't make a living, or if they must cede creative control."

Rapid growth in signatories shows that digital media creators feel a strong need for guild representation. Digital media producers say they seek the same benefits in guild membership as any other writer, such as healthcare, credit for their work and a community willing to fight for their rights. New WGAE signatories announced in the last quarter of 2009 include: the original animated web series 9am Meeting, Confirmed Bachelors, Undead New York, and The Bear, the Cloud and God; the live action series The Battery’s Down, Downsized, Duder, Gavin Lance, and Alex Bloom and Ben Zelevansky; and production companies AGBK, Guy and Cut Films, Jamtown Films, and Respect Films.

On January 5, 2009 the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) responded to a request from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for comments on net neutrality and an open Internet in response to its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Net Neutrality with the following comments:
  • The Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO, supports the proposed codification of the six principles described in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking adopted October 22, 2009. We think it is critical that the extraordinary potential of the Internet not be stifled by corporate conglomerates that restrict access for their own commercial gain.
  • The WGAE represents people who write, edit, produce, and create graphics for television, film, radio, and digital media. Our members write television drama, comedy, news, and public interest programs; they write movies for major studios and for independents; they create original content for web television, for mobile applications, and for other digital platforms. Our members know first-hand how an open Internet permits them to create more innovative, informative content and to distribute it directly to the public.
  • While we support all six principles, the first (forbidding providers from blocking users’ access to lawful content of their choice) and fifth (requiring providers to treat lawful content, applications, and services in a nondiscriminatory manner) most directly address the interest of creators in maintaining meaningful access to the public.
  • The Internet and other digital media offer an unprecedented opportunity for creators to reach consumers and for people to watch and read what they want, when they want. This is very different from traditional media in which major studios, distributors, and television networks control the flow of movies and programs. We believe people would benefit from an Internet that offers a greater variety of options than what is currently available on television, radio, and the movie theater. Digital technology presents a vast range of possibilities to content creators and consumers alike, and it would be a tragedy to squeeze all of that into a narrow commercial band. Unless the Commission codifies the six principles, a relatively small number of major institutions might also come to control access to content on the Internet – big studios, network providers, or application and service providers.
  • The importance of the non-discrimination principle is highlighted by the proposed merger of NBC Universal into Comcast. One of the central purposes of the merger is to give Comcast better access to and control over the production of content. At the same time, Comcast will continue to expand its digital distribution business. Comcast will have a powerful incentive to use pricing to favor its own content [1].
  • This is not the only type of discrimination that threatens a robust, diverse Internet. As a practical matter, major entities can easily outbid independent creators of digital content for preferred access to audiences. This would be addressed by the Commission’s understanding of the term “nondiscriminatory” to preclude service access providers from charging for enhanced or prioritized access. Otherwise it is almost certain that most of the content consumers view will be produced by a relative handful of major entities – just as it is now in television and film. The enormous creative potential of a distribution system without mega-gatekeepers will be squandered.
  • Of course, it is possible that the biggest, best-funded content producers (e.g., major studios) will attract the most viewers because of superior content. Nothing in the Internet principles would impede this. Instead, the fourth principle endorses competition of this nature. The Commission should, however, preclude providers from interposing their own limitations on what people can watch and read, or post. It is simply inappropriate to stifle the flow of content – whether for ideological or commercial reasons.
  • We recognize that some people believe an open Internet encourages digital piracy. The WGAE strongly opposes piracy; our members lose when their work is unlawfully copied and distributed. However, we do not think permitting major commercial entities to control the flow of data and to restrict access to certain programming is an appropriate or effective method of controlling piracy. Everyone opposes car theft but no one proposes that we restrict access to the highways. Fighting piracy is an important task for law enforcement agencies. It is not grounds for restricting content creators’ access to the Internet. For this reason we urge the Commission not to adopt a definition of “managed or specialized services” which ignores the very real possibility that many or most consumers will get their Internet access and their “television”, and perhaps telephone, services from a single provider.
The fifth edition of The Writers Guild of America, West’s annual Showrunner Training Program got underway in January 2010. The six-week industry training program, a partnership between the WGAW and television networks and studios, is designed for senior-level writer-producers to develop the essential skills necessary to become successful showrunners.

Each year’s program features high-profile speakers from various areas of the industry. This year’s 45 speakers include Steve Levitan, Shawn Ryan, Joss Whedon, Bill Lawrence, Phil Rosenthal, David Shore, Jason Katims, Paris Barclay, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Matt Nix, Yvette Lee Bowser, Glen Mazzara, Lifetime Television President JoAnn Alfano, and actor Blair Underwood. Additional sessions include other industry professionals such as actors, directors, and teamsters, as well as a visit to a post production facility with presentations from editors and Alicia Hirsch, Senior VP of Post Production at Fox Television Studios.

SRTP sessions are all-day seminars on four Saturdays, running through February 20. Employing lecture and interactive test-case scenarios, as well as large and small group discussions, the program gives participants an intimate setting to interact with some of Hollywood’s most successful and experienced showrunners. The innovative program’s core curriculum includes the following topics:
  • Session #1: From Writer to Manager (held January 9th)
  • Session #2: Managing Writers & the Script Process (held January 16th)
  • Session #3: Managing Production & Directors (held January 23rd)
  • Session #4: Managing Executives & Actors (to be held January 30th)
  • Session #5: Managing Post-Production (to be held February 6th)
  • Session #6: Managing Your Career (to be held February 20th)
The program also includes two half-day “break-out” sessions with WGA,West President and SRTP co-founder John Wells (ER, The West Wing) talking about “Budget & Scheduling,” and Stephen J. Cannell (The Rockford Files, Wiseguy) on “The Pilot Process.”

To select participants, writers on the Showrunner Training Program Committee considered more than 60 eligible applicants and accepted 21 writers and/or writing teams, all of whom were recommended by television showrunners and/or network and studio creative executives for the in-demand seminar slots covering both comedy and dramatic series. Participants in the WGAW’s 2010 Showrunner Training Program are: Jonathan Abrahams, Sally Bradford, Jill Cargerman, Chris Collins, Matt Corman, Adam Giaudrone, Jessica Goldstein, Peter Gould, Holly Henderson, Davey Holmes, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton, David Lampson, Andrew Leeds, Amanda Lasher, Scott Marder, George Mastras, Bryan Oh, Chris Ord, Christine Pietrosh, Ron Rappaport, Rob Rosell, Far Shariat, Ben Watkins, Sarah Watson, Don Whitehead, and Alexander Woo.

Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at ray@raymorton.com.

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