Lifting Each Other Up
If they took nothing else away from the event – beyond solidarity and plenty of good food – organizers of Wednesday’s Black Male Writers picket at Warner Bros. hoped that the attendees left with names and contact information of new connections.
After all, it’s through connections that the community of Black male writers – along with members of all underrepresented communities – will continue to grow and thrive.
“We wanted to make sure we brought everyone together,” WGAW member and co-organizer David Merritt told the crowd. “Black male writers, Black female writers, Asian writers, Native America writers, LGBTQ writers…all of us need to come together to have this community be stronger.”
Merritt, an executive story editor, and co-organizer Aaron Rahsaan Thomas wanted to create an event that highlighted the pathway for aspiring TV writers from non-membership to staff writing and ultimately to showrunning, and to show that such progression is still possible. According to Merritt, many writers need guidance after they complete their first job and are not sure about the next step.
“Aaron gave me some great advice, some insight into what a showrunner is looking for which was very helpful to me in securing a staffing opportunity,” Merritt said in an interview with Writers on the Line. “So we wanted to make sure that we had that for new writers, for writers who aren’t in the WGA yet, and for writers who have secured that job and are looking for their next opportunity.”
“The idea has always been to be a source of encouragement to fellow writers,” added Thomas, co-developer, showrunner, and EP of S.W.A.T. “This picket is for everyone, but in particular for Black male writers of all genres. For many years, Black males are definitely among the last-one-hired, first-one-fired category. Oftentimes, it’s not unusual to be the only one staff. So an event like this is a reminder – especially for those looking to become writers – that you’re not alone. This is a journey you can take as a group. You have support.”
WGAW member Lorna Osunsanmi, who donated one of the food trucks with her husband and fellow Guild member Olatunde Osunsanmi, was pleased to support the picket. Lorna is also part of a Black women writers’ group that pickets regularly.
“Black writers and people of color in general, haven’t had the same opportunities, and we’ve managed in the last 10 to 15 years to break some ceilings,” Lorna said. “We feel that’s always important to support each other in this journey.”
Hundreds of writers, actors and supporters packed the lines at Warner to hear remarks from Merritt, Thomas, and J. David Shanks, an actor, writer, and executive producer. Like Merritt, Shanks also credited Thomas – who graded his thesis when Shanks was a student at USC – for helping him climb the ranks.
Relating an anecdote in which a producer told writer-producer-director Lee Daniels that “there are no Black writers in Hollywood,” Shanks exhorted the crowd to “look around” and to “take somebody with you” on your way up.
“We have got to make our presence known,” Shanks told the crowd. “I want you to understand why we’re out here. I want you to understand that we’re in the pool. We’re in the middle now. We’ve got to finish what we start. We’ve got to get to the other side. You’ve struggled, and you’ve sacrificed. Don’t let that sacrifice be for nothing.”
In his remarks, Thomas also honored the memory of WGAW member Nathan Lewis Jackson, who died last week.
See How We Run
Alumni of WGA’s 20-year-long Showrunner Training Program (WGA SRTP) filled the Amazon strike line Wednesday as they celebrated their successes, connected with friends, and picketed in solidarity with their WGA siblings in their collective fight for a fair deal.
Matt Aldrich, a Showrunner Training class of 2020 alum, co-planned the picket with fellow SRTP classmate Jenn Kao. “People are catching up with each other, trading emails, and growing stronger,” Aldrich said. “And that’s the insanity of the studios’ daring the union to strike because this makes us stronger. This actually unifies us.”
The program was created in 2005 by television writer Jeff Melvoin, who observed that the apprenticeship system, under which he studied, was disappearing, and the industry is feeling the effects of the loss. “Shows were failing, not necessarily for lack of talent, but for lack of expertise in how to run a show,” Melvoin said. “I felt there are many reasons that TV series fail, but ignorance should not be one of them.”
After almost two decades, the program has proven to be a huge success in helping talented writers take the next steps in their careers.
Yvette Lee Bowser, creator-showrunner-EP and SRTP Co-Chair, spoke about the importance of the program.
“We’re seeing now in our business this kind of tectonic shift where more and more of us need to have much more information about these huge jobs we take on,” said Bowser, who recently received WGAW's 2023 Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television Writing Achievement. “The role of a showrunner is all-encompassing, and what we try to do in the program is demystify what that is.”
Carole Kirschner, director of the SRTP, agreed. “We cannot help make better showrunners, but we can give you the information you need so you can make choices about how you want to do it.”
“Our program is more like Lamaze," added Melvoin. “Nothing can replace childbirth, but you can at least get prepared so that when you’re in it, you know how to handle it the best you can. Anybody who’s been a showrunner knows that there’s still a huge gulf when you cross the line and get behind the desk as a showrunner for the first time. But at least the training that we provide gives you a feeling that you’re not alone. People have been here before and you’re going to find your way home.”
Amongst the celebration, there was a strong sense of union solidarity as writers picketed in the heat with signs held high.
“We are not here to stick it to 'the Man' and put these companies out of business,” Aldrich said. "We want the studios to be making shows. We want to be running those shows, but we want to be running them in a responsible way financially, creatively, and in terms of equity and inclusion. Why not support those structures that exist that allow us to do that? Why not support those structures that we can leave the TV and movie business better than we found it?”
Kao agreed, emphasizing that the program is more important than ever. “The economic model right now is broken,” Kao said. “The showrunner training is vital because we need something that Guild members can do for each other that can help provide that education. The model needs to shift to work for writers to not have to struggle.”
During the event, the alumni were clearly happy to reconnect with each other, with lots of warm embraces and selfies taken in front of custom picket signs.
“I’ve made some really good friends through this program, and I have really found a community in this,” Aldrich said. “I think this strike and the Writers Guild in general is all about community. This is one of the wonderful services that the Writers Guild provides its membership, and I am just really proud to be a small part of that.”
“It’s beautiful to see all of these really creative, talented people come together, coalesce around a common cause, and the fact that we’re all here to get a fair deal,“ Bowser agreed. “A lot of people are working, making staff writer minimums. When they’ve taken on the task of managing an entire multimillion-dollar production on behalf of these companies, it’s only fair we get our fair share.”