WGA’s Keyser: There Isn’t Enough Interesting Work for Writers

“While we are encouraged by the strength of our employment in television, we are simultaneously more concerned about the movement in the other direction in features”

Last Updated: October 20, 2011 @ 10:46 AM

Veteran Hollywood writer ("Party of Five") Christopher Keyser’s election last month to the presidency of the Writers Guild of America West might be seen as a case of "be careful what you wish for."

He takes over in an era where employment for writers — despite some upticks on the TV side — continues its decline.

Also read: Hollywood & the Job Crisis: Just How Bad Is It?

Overall earnings for writers decreased 2.9 percent to $928 million — and for the 1,615 writers reporting feature writing income, the earnings were down nearly 10 percent.

As Keyser said in his campaign statement: “Erosion in our industry is real, and it’s getting worse. Fewer writers are working. Too few are working consistently. And the gap between the majority of our members and our most successful few is growing.”

Keyser spoke to TheWrap about the fate of Hollywood writers going forward.  

You don’t seem to take much joy in the small uptick in TV writing payments, even as the number of  TV writers employed slips slightly — and basic cable rates for writers are a particular peeve.
We have an ongoing, complex employment situation that’s affected by changes in the economy and changes in the industry — and one of those changes is the rise of cable and implications of that.

But, true, while we are encouraged by the strength of our employment in television, we are simultaneously more concerned about the movement in the other direction in features.

There is clearly less production and there’s less independent production, and there are fewer jobs for writers.
Yes, but it’s not just a question of the number of jobs but also the kind of jobs. I think if you talk to our membership, they’d say in addition to the difficulty of finding employment compared to a few years back, it’s also what is being done.

You have too few independent producers, too little interesting dramatic works being done, based on too many tentpoles. So writers are not thinking just about whether they work but what that work consists of.

Even the elite writers are being asked for more free rewrites?
That’s clearly true. It’s become the norm — the “one step” deals [under which revisions are loosely negotiated] that lead to additional rewrites without additional compensation. All of that puts pressure on writers. 

Let's go back to basic cable. You’ve stated that a key plank in the 2014 contract negotiation with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers will be setting basic cable fees to writers, with the companies already trying to cut them down.
Although the revenues generated by the cable companies are on a par with or exceed the revenues generated by network programming — and budgets are also often commensurate with the [overall] salaries paid — compensation to writers lags behind in cable. So, again, we look to employment in television as not just a question of the total number of writers working, but the conditions under which they work.

What about new media? Do you feel the rate of platforms changing — and what that means for jobs — is hard to keep track of?
It’s very difficult to see what that the world is going to be like two or three years from now and where, say, streaming fits into that.

One of the big jobs is to get people together to think two steps ahead — but no one is liable to feel they have their arms around the future given how quickly it seems to be changing in front of us. It holds not just challenges but potentially — in the medium and long term — new opportunities for more employment.

Not to be too downbeat, those prospects seem even more iffy for the traditionally disadvantaged minorities among your 8,000 members. 
We do have challenges on diversity, to make sure those communities of writers who have found it increasingly difficult to be employed — older writers, women writers, writers of color. That’s work we all need to do.

Look, I worry about all of those things, we all do, all the time; there’s no question whenever those numbers tick down we are concerned about it.