Why Writers Guild West Shuttered Programs for Emerging Writers

·9 min read

Michael J. Dougherty was new to Los Angeles in 2010, fresh from completing a master’s in screenwriting in Ireland, when he learned about the Writers Guild of America West’s Caucus program.

While attending open meetings of the guild’s Disabled Writers Committee, Dougherty, who has spina bifida, heard about a program welcoming qualified non-WGA members that would provide some guild resources and networking opportunities, including the ability to attend WGA West committee meetings, for a modest annual fee. He applied to the Independent Writers Caucus, open to emerging and established screenwriters, and was accepted. “From the moment I got my card to this year, I have built I think 95 percent of my entire life both professionally and personally out of that organization,” Dougherty says.

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But last December, in a decision that wasn’t widely reported at the time, the WGA West abruptly told members that three of its four caucus programs — the Independent Writers Caucus, the Nonfiction Writers Caucus and the Videogame Writers Caucus — would be disbanded, impacting hundreds of estimated participants. The caucuses ended on Dec. 31, 2021, and former participants can take part in WGA West member programs through the close of 2022. (The WGA West’s Animation Writers Caucus is still in effect; the WGA West did not respond to The Hollywood Reporter’s question asking why. The Writers Guild of America East also operates aucuses in the indie film, new media, documentary and animation spaces and is “not making any changes to our caucus program,” says a spokesperson.) In an email that some caucus members received in 2021, the explanation given was that these programs, which largely promoted the interests of writers in fields that were not widely unionized by the guild, had “not proven to be an effective vehicle for organizing.”

That sudden decision has left caucus members several of whom tell THR that it was clear that their caucuses were intended to help organize their respective fields, while others say that wasn’t communicated confused, with some forming their own writers’ groups to preserve the community once hosted at the WGA West. As an early-career screenwriter, Dougherty says, “You have to fight and keep going, but what was always reassuring was that I had a place [in the caucus] that was safe to go back to, where I could regroup and talk to people and get advice if I needed to. Now they’re taking that away.”

In a statement to THR, the guild said, “Understandably, there are writers who are disappointed they will soon no longer be able to participate on guild-member committees, but board members and staff have communicated with everyone who has reached out to make sure they are aware the guild will assist writers who are ready and willing to organize their workplaces or projects.”

Since they were founded in the 1990s, the WGA West caucuses have offered up-and-coming and established writers — many of whom work outside the union’s core coverage areas — networking opportunities and industry resources. On the guild’s end, the hope was that “organizing in work areas not traditionally covered by the guild MBA would be promoted through non-union writers gathering with guild members, and accessing member-only programs and communication,” the guild said in its statement. The guild adds that ultimately this structure didn’t work, saying that “over the decades only a very few caucus writers became eligible for guild membership.” The guild continues, “The end of the caucuses allows space for more dynamic and time-honored approaches to organizing.”

For $100 a year, caucus participants had access to WGA West committee meetings, screenings, the guild’s script registration service at a discount, and headquarters in Los Angeles. The Animation Writers Caucus grants an annual award for writers in the field. The qualification requirements varied by group, but as of 2021, the guild’s website stated that the caucuses for video game writers, animation writers and nonfiction writers required certain writing credits or writing employment of members, while an eligible Independent Writers Caucus candidate might also have had a film they wrote premiere at a “film industry recognized” U.S. film festival, had their screenplay nominated for a prestigious screenwriting award or written a screenplay within a major screenwriting educational program.

For some participants, the caucus program acted as a crucial pipeline to professional opportunities and even guild membership. Dougherty, who describes himself as a still-unestablished writer, co-founded the L.A. chapter of the ReelAbilities Film Festival after a conversation at a Disabled Writers Committee meeting and says he pitched for two different TV series based on connections he made via the caucus. David Radcliff (Waffles + Mochi), a former Independent Writers Caucus member who is now a WGA West member and the co-chair of its Disabled Writers Committee, recalls being invited to put together a panel for the committee while he was a caucus member: “Some of the confidence that that then gave me and some of the connections that I made through events like that led to me applying to and then being accepted for the Disney writing program the following year.” Radcliff says that program then resulted in him obtaining his first staff job, on ABC’s The Rookie. Another former caucus member who became a WGA member and asked to remain anonymous also attributes connections they made through the caucus with getting staffed on their first show.

Though multiple supporters of the program say not all caucus members self-identify in larger guild gatherings, they believe a significant number of them participate in the WGA West committees focused on marginalized groups. (The WGA West did not respond to THR’s question asking if the organization had caucus demographic information.) After caucus members leave by the close of the year, Radcliff estimates that 17 percent of the Disabled Writers Committee will be gone. Rob Forman, a WGA West member and co-chair of the guild’s LGBTQ+ Writers Committee, notes that he doesn’t have specific numbers, but “plenty” of the committee’s members who are regular attendees are caucus members: “Losing them is a blow, for sure,” he says, adding that when he joined the committee, its vice chair was a caucus member.

In recent years, organizing activities within the caucuses were mixed, members say. Former Videogame Writers Caucus vice chairman Steven-Elliot Altman (Terminator: Dark Fate) writes in a statement that the caucus helped create the WGA West’s Interactive Program Contract (IPC),a one-off contract that secures employer-paid guild health and pension contributions on a single project and gives video game writers a means to join the guild. (Several other Videogame Writers Caucus members recall being encouraged to ask their employers to sign the IPC, but add that it was a difficult task because writers individually had little leverage and largely nonunion games companies were resistant to signing a guild contract.) Altman also writes that the caucus sponsored some industry events like GDC San Francisco, “where we acted as ambassadors from the WGA to the game publishers, explaining the benefits of employing professional writers on their games, soothing their fears about unions and hosting some hella good parties.”

Meanwhile, Independent Writers Caucus members say they didn’t know the WGA West even wanted them to organize: “Had I known that I could even flip a show, I’ve had many opportunities where I could have made that attempt,” says former Independent Writers Caucus member Glenn Gaylord (Leave It on the Floor).

The Videogame Writers Caucus met irregularly in recent years, but many members believe it’s short-sighted for the WGA West to pull the plug on the group now. “Video games will only have more game writers going forward as more and more studios make games that keep making more and more money, so it’s frustrating and strange,” says former caucus member and writer Nick Folkman (Massive Chalice, Neo Cab). Pointing to titles like Netflix’s 2018 interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, filmmaker and writer Graham Reznick (Until Dawn), contends that the boundaries between video game and film/TV writing are “wasting away.” During his time in the caucus, Reznick says, “It became clear that if the WGA doesn’t make some headway into figuring out how to set some precedents in video game writing, very likely in the next few years, that’s not going to just be a video game problem, that’s going to be an industry-wide problem.”

Meanwhile, as the Writers Guild ends this program, another union — the Communications Workers of America — is beginning to make headway in organizing video game writers. The CWA’s newly minted union at indie studio Vodeo Games (Beast Breaker) includes writer members; workers at game and art studio Tender Claws (Virtual Virtual Reality) have filed for a National Labor Relations Board election to unionize with the CWA with a bargaining unit also including writers. According to one source familiar with the Videogame Writers Caucus, “We asked a million times for the Writers Guild to go in in concert with the CWA” — where the WGA West would represent writers, and the CWA would represent other roles — “the guild was never very enthusiastic about that approach. So now they’ve been bypassed.” (THR reached out to CWA for comment. The WGA West did not respond to a request for comment on this assertion.)

As the end of 2022 — and their caucus privileges — approaches, several former participants say they hope the board will reconsider. In the meantime, some are forming new communities outside the guild: A group of more than 100 holds monthly meetings on Zoom and recently hosted an in-person mixer; the group has also arranged meetings with industry executives. Some former Videogame Caucus members have also gathered and are attempting to connect with additional game writers. One initial idea was to present a new proposal to the guild that could be mutually beneficial to the WGA West and video game writers.

With the WGA West gearing up to renegotiate its film and TV basic agreement, expiring in 2023, with studios and streamers, and with the latest WGA West board election ending in September, it’s unclear whether any efforts to persuade the guild to reappraise will pan out. Still, says Radcliff, “Writing can be such an isolating experience that the more opportunities we have in these guild spaces to build community and conversation and especially to pay closer attention to underrepresented and marginalized groups, that can only be a benefit to the industry at large.”

Adds Moira McMahon (Teen Wolf), a former Independent Writers Caucus member and now a WGA West member, “If the board members were closer to how someone feels in Los Angeles working away on their screenplays, hoping to get the attention on their work they’re striving for, I really wonder if they would have considered doing this. The caucus is very meaningful at that point in your life. I should say, it was very meaningful for me at that point in my life.”

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