This year’s TV staffing season wasn’t quite like any before.
Described as a “free for all” by “Batwoman” creator and showrunner Caroline Dries and “like the Wild Wild West” by “Legacies” creator and showrunner Julie Plec, the WGA-ATA debacle has had deep-seated effects on the way showrunners staff their writers’ rooms and search for fresh new voices.
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The crux of the WGA-ATA feud is over the WGA’s effort to bar agents who represent guild members from receiving packaging fees on TV series from production entities and to stop the expansion of the big three agencies’ parent companies into the production-distribution domain. Talks between the two organizations broke down on multiple occasions and don’t look like they will be starting up again any time soon, given that the WGA recently re-filed its suit against WME, CAA, UTA and ICM in federal court.
Therefore, the days when a pile of scripts come from the big five talent agencies are gone, at least for now. In their place has grown a more egalitarian, supportive, if unwieldy, system. Recommendations from other showrunners has always been one of the main ways to vet a writer. However, the recent upheaval has made word-of-mouth endorsements more valuable than ever. Whether it was via social media, the WGA-created portal, or in organized brunch clubs, showrunners were receiving submissions left and right — often without time to read through all of them.
“It was a unique year in that we were getting materials from all corners of the earth,” says Dries. “I knew a ton of writers, my peer group, so I didn’t necessarily read Twitter and find writers through that, but I was following it. I just got word-of-mouth from other showrunners that I respect. It felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants, which made it awesome, too.”
When it came to staffing the freshman season of their upcoming ABC drama “Emergence,” veteran show creators and showrunners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas say it was refreshing to see writers “going out of their way” to help and recommend each other, stepping up to fill the agent-shaped hole.
“We had a lot of writers calling or emailing on other writers’ behalf saying, ‘This person’s really great’ or to ‘check out this writer,’” Fazekas says. “We made a lot of calls about people, as well. There was definitely a sense that people were supporting each other, which was a nice outcome from a weird situation.”
During an average staffing season, Butters and Fazekas say they receive around 140 submissions. This year, using the WGA portal, the duo got 800. The problem was almost twice as bad for “Mixed-ish” executive producer Peter Saji and showrunner Karin Gist, who report receiving a whopping 1,500 scripts through people they know.
“There was an onslaught of material, a lot of scripts, and no net,” Gist says. “Everyone was an agent this season.”
According to the WGA, writers have logged in to the guild’s staffing submission system more than 20,000 times to date and made over 9,000 submissions for staffing more than 100 open series. Many of the writers using the “WGA staffing boost” Twitter hashtag didn’t have any form of representation and weren’t members of the WGA.
“The problem with that is there’s no way for us to read all those scripts, so that’s when we did rely on someone recommending someone,” adds Butters.
Other than word-of-mouth and the WGA portal, the other main tool that showrunners used to find writers was Twitter. The “WGA staffing boost” hashtag helped bolster writers’ visibility, and even led to multiple hirings, as “Vida” creator and showrunner Tanya Saracho says.
At the time, Saracho didn’t yet know if she was going to get a third season of her Starz show, but felt the need to help out her fellow writers in a time of crisis, extending her services as a reader over social media after she saw other showrunners doing the same.
“That’s the thing I’m the proudest of because we found Taylor Orci, my best find, through the staffing boost hashtag,” she says.
For Saracho, who staffs an entire Latinx writers’ room on “Vida,” having the agents out of the picture wasn’t necessarily a disaster, given their tendencies to put their own interpretations on who qualifies as a Latinx writer.
“Sometimes the agents are not the best place to make that call because they interpret,” she says. “I get a lot of them saying, ‘This is a diverse writer,’ but first of all, that’s an erroneous term. You can have a diverse group [or] a diverse duo, but a diverse writer is shorthand so you don’t have to name the otherness, and that’s just laziness from the dominant culture.”
Saracho also says the situation led to a group called Untitled Latinx Project, a gathering of “Latina upper-level bosses” in Los Angeles who trade resources and help support incoming Latinx writers by introducing them to their network of contacts.
“It’s an amplifying and nurturing thing,” she says, although she also admits the staffing season was “chaotic.”
Similarly, Plec says the disruption caused by the WGA-ATA spat, particularly in the “genesis of putting a writers’ room together,” has strengthened the writing community and changed things for the better.
“I think that the biggest takeaway from this whole experience is that we all across the board — writers, agents, executives, representatives of all kinds — we’d all gotten very complacent and we’d developed an infrastructure that we thought was working for us, but it wasn’t,” she explains.
“It’s a good shakeup, regardless of the outcome of the whole thing, it’s got people talking, it’s got people being more open, networking, helping people. There are a lot of positives when all is said and done, which will hopefully be what people remember on the other side.”