Writers on the Line

On the Line
Flipping the Script
How WGAW members Joelle Sellner and Sara Bibel helped turn TV City’s Fairfax gate from neutral to picket-ready, WGAW member Deon Taylor hooks up with Hollywood Creative Alliance for a lively Amazon picket, and indie filmmaker Dan Mirvish bakes tasty scones to feed striking writers
Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Un-Neutralizing Fairfax

Joelle Sellner and Sara Bibel at TV City. 
When the WGA strike began, longtime friends Joelle Sellner and Sara Bibel became picket buddies. The two WGAW members live close to each other, and they regularly carpool to the lines, often choosing their studio based on what is taking place on the lines on a given day.

“We’ve kind of been all over the place,” Bibel said during the recent WGA Supports Maui picket at Television City. “I’ve met a lot of interesting new people who worked for shows or wrote movies that I’m a fan of. It’s really inspiring that they’re always friendly. It’s nice to realize, ‘Oh, wow, these creative geniuses are actually nice, normal people.’”

“When we run into friends, it really makes our shifts go by a lot quicker,” added Sellner, who has written several holiday-themed and romantic comedies for TV. “We like to follow the themed pickets around. They’re a lot of fun.”

TV City is the closest lot to both members’ homes, and when the TV City lot coordinators were looking for neutral gate observers to collect data on who was coming in and out of the studio’s Fairfax gate, Sellner and Bibel offered to help.

At the start of the strike, the TV City studio owners designed the Fairfax gate as a “neutral gate,” meaning a gate that cannot be used by any person going to the lot for a struck company's business. Picketing is not allowed at these gates, and individuals who work for companies that aren't involved in the strike are allowed to go in and out of these entrances without crossing picket lines.

But at TV City, Lot Coordinator Bill Wolkoff suspected that production was indeed taking place and that “non-neutral” people involved with production were “cheating” by improperly entering the lot via a neutral gate.

They received a tip that the cheating production was the daytime drama, The Young and The Restless which made Bibel an ideal person to be a neutral gate observer.

“I wrote for The Young and the Restless for 16 years until our writing room was abruptly downsized in February prior to the strike,” Bibel said. “So I recognized a lot of the people who worked there.”

It took several weeks of Bibel and Sellner snapping photos and taking down license plate numbers in an effort to catch a neutral gate violator. One person in a flashy Jaguar convertible would regularly roll up, and say “Hello, ladies” as Sellner and Bibel snapped his photo. Several other people coming in and out got upset because they thought the observers were running their plates and potentially doing something illegal.

“We had to explain that we weren’t reporting anybody or getting anybody in trouble, that this was a Guild-sanctioned activity,” said Sellner.

Finally, the observation duo hit pay dirt: Bibel recognized an actor who had appeared on the series for many years. She took a photo of the actor and his license plate, which were forwarded to the WGAW Legal Department. That evidence proved that the studio was not playing by the rules and that the WGA could start picketing the Fairfax gate.

“Nothing against that actor personally. I’m sure he was a nice guy, and that he didn’t even realize what he was doing.  But the point is that that was a main gate that everybody used,” Bibel said. “It definitely felt good that knowledge I had was of use to the Guild.”

TV City studio owners are legally entitled to re-designate the Fairfax gate as a neutral gate at any point. But having recognizing the persistence of the WGA’s neutral gate observers, a representative of the TV City studio owners told WGAW Legal that they would not do so because they were sure that neutral gate observers would catch more non-neutral people using the gate. Since that day, WGA has picketed the Fairfax gate every day of picketing.

The story of the flipped gate at TV City is the subject of a recent Planet Money segment on NPR. In honor of that strike victory, TV City has begun celebrating “Wind-down Wednesdays at the Unfairfax Gate” during which Hump Day picketers can conclude their shifts by enjoying a post-picket bite or drink at one of the nearby eateries.

Scorching Solidarity at Amazon

The HCA solidarity picket at Amazon. Photo by J.W. Hendricks

Monday’s picket at Amazon had the flavor of a block party.

The lines were awash with WGA and SAG-AFTRA members and their supporters. A drummer positioned on the back of a flatbed pounded away, prompting dancing in the streets. Three food trucks distributed a range of treats, from soul food to gourmet fries to ice cream, and picket co-organizers also supplied cases of water and cookies donated by 7-11.

The idea behind the picket, said WGAW member Deon Taylor, is to represent in large numbers, and to get loud.

“A lot of people don’t understand that when you’re striking, making noise and being disruptive is how you make change,” said Taylor.

“Now when we get to this strike, the more people you can bring out and the louder you can get, the more solidarity you get with people,” he added.

Taylor and his Hidden Empire Film Group, Inc. organized the picket with the Hollywood Creative Alliance (formerly the Hollywood Critics Association). Jennifer Payne, a board advisor to the HCA and a diversity, equity and inclusion officer, said she hoped that the event would serve as a pick-me-up.

“As you can feel, it’s hot, and the writers have been walking for more than 115 days now, picketing in the hot weather,” Payne said. “We wanted to come out here, bring some food, water and snacks and say, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together.’”

WGAW member and Hidden Empire Films Co-CEO Deon Taylor. Photo by JW Hendricks

En-Scone-ced in Solidarity

DGA member Dan Mirvish

At a recent appearance on the picket lines at Amazon Studios, Dan Mirvish is all apologies. He’s wearing the wrong T-shirt, and he has arrived without scones.

In fairness, the shirt is appropriate to the occasion – Nebraskans Supporting Writers and Actors at Amazon – as it is from the Ruth Sokolof Theater, the movie house in Mirvish’s hometown of Omaha. But usually, when he is on the picket lines, Mirvish wears a shirt announcing his membership with the DGA.

“A whole contingent of us DGA members were at Sony yesterday. We had about 20 of us,” said Mirvish, a longtime independent film director. “So my DGA shirt is stinky. Otherwise, I’d wear it.”

“In the first couple of months, when it was just WGA on the line, I would come a couple of times a week,” he continued. “I would bake blueberry scones with just a hint of cardamom and bring them over to the WGA folks and wear my DGA T-shirt. I’m an indie film director, so it’s not like I deal with the studios or could get fired off a job. It was really important for me to really show some support early in the process.”

Branded a “cheerful subversive” by the New York Times and “Hollywood’s Bad Boy” by the St Louis Post Dispatch, Mirvish embraces the labels. In addition to writing The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking, he is the co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival and still serves as the festival’s co-founder at large.

He is rooting for the WGA writers and actors to win a fair deal because, among other things, payment for residuals is an ongoing concern.

“There’s the AI thing too, he said. “If I direct Richard Kind in a film, which I have done twice, and some AI version in 20 years learns from that performance and does another one, does he get a piece of that?” Mirvish said. “Do I get a piece of that for directing the performance? These are definitely real issues that affect all three of the guilds.”

Bottom line: Mirvish is happy to lend his support and pleased to be able to meet people  – old acquaintances and new – on the picket lines.

“As an indie filmmaker, you’re stuck in a room for five years at a time," he said. “This is the only way that I can actually meet people who – at one point anyway – had jobs in Hollywood and hopefully will in the future.”

“So I’m going to bake them scones,” he added. “My Mom raised me right, and it’s her recipe.”