Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The other Hollywood writers

We’ve seen them for more than six weeks now, the famous and the relatively unknown, Hollywood writers and the celebrities they write for, walking the picket lines in Los Angeles, carrying the red-and-black signs announcing the Writers Guild of America’s strike against the major TV and motion picture studios.

The strike has snarled plans for the upcoming TV season, the Golden Globe awards and, possibly, the Oscars (a Hollywood institution that depends on writers like no other).

The last such strike, in 1988, lasted just shy of six months, and cost the U.S. entertainment industry about $500 million, according to Agence France-Presse.

But another storyline has gone pretty much undeveloped, and it’s one that speaks to many of the issues that the writers are striking about: Fairness. Equal treatment. Access to the ability to earn a living. It’s a compelling backstory, but it’s one about the Hollywood writers that we never hear much about.

Before the big walkout started on Nov. 5, the WGA was itself under fire for its treatment of women and minority writers. A May report commissioned by the WGA West found that, except for female TV writers, women and minority writers haven’t made much headway in gaining fair employment and earnings in Hollywood.

The report, subtitled “Whose Stories Are We Telling?” was written by Darnell Hunt, the director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, and a professor of sociology at UCLA. Hunt also wrote a report on the same issue for the WGA in 2005.

For minority writers, it’s the same old song: meager progress and slim hopes for advancement in their profession.

“While there have been some noteworthy advances made by women and minority writers on certain measures, in certain sectors, and at certain companies, there are few signs that the overarching industry dominance of white and male writers is easing to any significant degree,” Hunt wrote.

Hunt finds that minority representation in television employment has declined, while representation in feature film production has remained flat.

"More than 30% of the American population is nonwhite, yet writers of color continue to account for less than 10% of employed television writers," said Hunt, in the report executive summary. "These numbers will likely get worse before they get better because of the recent merger of UPN and the WB into the new CW network, which resulted in the cancellation of several minority-themed situation comedies that employed a disproportionate share of minority television writers.

"The situation is grimmer in film," he added, "where the minority share of employment has been stuck at 6% for years."

There’s less than welcome news for older writers as well. “{T]he employment share for the largest group of older writers has remained flat in recent years, and older writers are significantly underrepresented on television show staffs, particularly at the major networks,” Hunt writes in the report.

"This year's report has a familiar ring to it," WGA president Patric Verrone wrote in the introduction. "While there have been some advances made by women and minorities in some sectors, white male writers continue to be a disproportionately dominant portion of the writing work force."

“For minority writers, past trends showing gains have either slowed or stopped altogether,” Verrone wrote.

Meanwhile, there’s a good chance of things getting more confrontational between Hollywood creatives and the industry, on this and other employee issues, before they get better. Alex Nogales, CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, has asked the Writers Guild to make diversity progress a goal in its negotiations. The guild starts talks in July for a new film and TV contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) – this while the current strike against the studios continues with no end in sight.

As reported by the Hollywood Reporter, WGAW diversity director Kimberly Myers boiled it all down at a May 8 panel discussion at WGAW headquarters in Los Angeles announcing the report, expressing the situation that’s confronting Hollywood’s writers and American media in general, from newspapers to editorial Web sites, and everything in between: "The stories we tell are only as diverse as the writers who tell them."
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Image credit: Replysixty > released to public domain

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