Guidelines from Hollywood unions on how to resume production amid the COVID-19 pandemic were released last week, but one group was noticeably left out: writers.
Many film and television writers have expressed their concerns in the past few days, as the 36-page report released June 12 titled “The Safe Way Forward” includes language that would seem to bar writers and showrunners from their own sets.
Page 15 of the report, which breaks down who is allowed on set, begins by saying, “Absolutely NO VISITORS. All crew must adhere to the Zone System. Limits will apply to producers, writers, studio or network executives and location contacts. Important parties should participate virtually.”
It goes on to say that any transmission of sound or video from the set to remote monitors would be made available at the director’s discretion.
“Intentionally or not, the guidelines seem to create a situation on set where it would be easy to keep the writer or the showrunner marginalized and center on the director in a way that, at least in my experience, is not normal in TV,” TV writer Tony Tost tells Variety.
The Writers Guild of America did not participate in the crafting of the guidelines, possibly because the guild is stretched thin due to its ongoing dispute with the major talent agencies over packaging fees and other issues.
Reps for the WGA West did not respond to Variety’s requests for comment. The Directors Guild of America, IATSE, and SAG-AFTRA — all of whom did participate in crafting them — likewise did not respond.
Beau Willimon and Lowell Peterson of the Writers Guild East put out a statement for their membership on Tuesday, seeking to dispel the notion that writers would be excluded.
“New York protocols are still being developed,” the statement reads. “We are in close communication with Governor Cuomo’s office and will update you when those protocols have been finalized. Among our goals is to make sure that creator, showrunner and writer/producer access to set is protected.”
Tost, who previously created and served as showrunner on the USA Network drama “Damnation,” says that he likes to be “boots on the ground as much as possible” during production.
“It is is invaluable for me to not only be there but be there in a leadership role for the different departments,” he says. “That carries through to the actual filming too. I’ll often revise a scene on set just if it doesn’t seem to be working. I like to collaborate a lot with directors. There’s a healthy dialogue there back and forth to make sure we’re really capturing the intention of the scene. I’m afraid all of that will be lost if the writer is reduced to a virtual presence and the director is the only one there on the ground.”
Writers who spoke with Variety also point out that showrunners are often the ones who hire directors on series as well as handling casting and hiring the crew. To bar them from set would “dislodge the creative structure,” Tost says.
Michael D. Fuller, who previously co-created the Cinemax series “Quarry,” has similar fears.
“It’s a matter of the overall quality of the storytelling and filmmaking process,” he says. “That’s not to say that directors are not capable of handling all that, but in terms of what’s ultimately going to be the best product it’s about writers being involved. Writers are with it every step of the way, from showrunners and creators at initial inception to writer-producers who were in the writers’ room every day.”
One WGA member who spoke with Variety said that the report as it currently exists is “incomplete.”
“Writers are mentioned exactly once, and it’s on page 15 when they say ‘Limits will apply,’” the member says. “There are many vital members of a production that are ignored by this document. There is no version of production where producers are not on set. It does not happen.”
Those who spoke with Variety say they reached out to WGA West leadership through several different channels upon reading the report but have yet to hear back officially. Sources say that the WGA West is planning to issue its response as soon as Wednesday, but have not done so at the time of this publishing.
“It’s about protecting a writer’s position of authority within television, because otherwise we could very easily see ourselves in a feature dynamic where the writer writes the script and that’s it for them,” Fuller says.
— Dave McNary contributed to this report.
STATEMENT TO WGAE MEMBERS:
The Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO, recognizes the need for production of series and films to resume so the many thousands of people who work in the industry can get back on the job, earning paychecks and qualifying for benefits. The entertainment industry is an essential part of the economies of New York, Los Angeles, and many other communities across the country. At the same time, TV and film production presents unique risks to the people working on set, on location, and in pre- and post-production. We know from public health experts that gathering large numbers of people in one place, especially indoors, can accelerate the spread of the coronavirus and jeopardize the health of entire communities. The protocols submitted by the industry task force and the guidelines drafted by our sister unions and by other stakeholders attempt to harmonize these conflicting imperatives – getting the entertainment industry back to work vs. ensuring the safety of the people doing the work and of their communities.
The WGAE has participated in this process by convening meetings of our showrunner members to discuss draft proposals, listening to members’ concerns, and submitting ideas to our sister unions and to government, particularly in New York. Our members who work as showrunners and executive and co-executive producers play a unique role in the production of series for television and for SVOD platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+. They both craft and produce the series, and both of these functions have a real impact on the safety of the cast and crew. We recognize that the hard work of getting the work done safely will require careful analysis, conversation, and negotiation on a series-by-series basis. These conversations with our own members, sister unions, studios, networks, and local/state government are ongoing. We will continue to play an important role in protecting and advocating for our members as protocols are developed, implemented and evolved.
There have been some rumors going around that the protocols aim to exclude creators, showrunners and writer/producers from set. This is not the case. While early drafts of the task force white paper delineated who should be on set in a way that was limiting, our input led to revised recommendations, and the actual LA County protocols are not exclusionary. According to the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health Order of the Health Officer that was issued on June 11th, the exact language referring to on-set protocol is as follows in Appendix J (Reopening Protocol for Music, Television and Film Production):
With regard to Physical Distancing:
“Only essential cast and crew should be on or near set at any time.”
With regard to On Location Filming:
“Only essential cast and crew should be on or near set at any time and physical distancing must be maintained.”
Certainly creators, showrunners and writer/producers are essential, so these protocols do not prohibit their participation on set. In practice, networks and studios must consult with creators, showrunners and writer/producers in developing show-specific protocols because the successful implementation of those protocols (and successful production of the series) will require their input and leadership.
New York protocols are still being developed. We are in close communication with Governor Cuomo’s office and will update you when those protocols have been finalized. Among our goals is to make sure that creator, showrunner and writer/producer access to set is protected.
To a large extent, networks, production companies, sound stages, and unions must rely on information generated by public agencies – including current infection and hospitalization rates, trends, and projections. All decisions must, of course, be founded in data and science, and must be the product of real dialogue among the stakeholders, including the unions. As a practical matter, this will involve an evaluation of the risks not only at the time production commences but throughout the anticipated duration of production. Because community health trends will not remain static, this risk analysis must continue throughout production.
We agree with our sister unions that adequate, ongoing testing is an essential element of safe production. We also think it is imperative that experts, including the COVID-19 safety officer or the Health Safety Supervisor, have the actual authority to intervene, up to and including suspension of a production, to protect the safety and health of everyone working on the production. We think that unions must be directly involved in that process, as well.
While breaking stories and crafting scripts, writers can do much work remotely. But to be clear on the role of writers with respect to production, it is important to reinforce during this evolving process that writers also function as producers in all television/SVOD series. Showrunners have enormous responsibility for every aspect of their series, including pre- and post-production and, of particular relevance here, production itself. In addition to the showrunner, at least one other writer must work on set during production, typically but not always the writer who wrote the episode. The safety of these writer-producers is imperative – as is their direct involvement in the conversations and decisions about safety and health on the production. Each production will present unique challenges and our members will be part of the decision-making process from conception to development to pre-production to production to post-production.
We look forward to working with our sister unions to ensure that the safety of everyone involved in all of these phases is paramount. WGAE leadership is always available to answer members’ questions and listen to input. And if you or any of your colleagues have any safety concerns as your show resumes production, please let us know immediately. Our foremost duty as a union is to ensure the safety of our members.
Beau Willimon, WGAE President
Lowell Peterson, WGAE Executive Director