From on The Verge to on The Line
Returning to the scene where they were once considered developing writers, WGA members from NBC Universal’s Writers on the Verge (WOTV) program came together for an alumni reunion picket at Universal.
The 18-year-old program was created to prepare talented writers – many of whom from historically marginalized groups – who are considered a short step away from breaking into episodic television. Alumni who gathered for Wednesday’s picket ran the gamut from staff writers to showrunners.
“We thought what better place to have a reunion than here on the strike lines at NBC Universal where we all got our start,” said program alum Spiro Skentzos, co-chair of the WGAW LGBTQ+ Writers Committee, and co-organizer of the reunion picket, “which is one of the studios now keeping us from furthering our career.”
A member of the class of 2015-16, WGAW member Jordan Pomaville said the program was extremely helpful in helping him hone the craft of writing.
“It felt like graduate-level class, both in terms of what we were learning and the intensity of it,” said the Detroit-based Pomaville, who came to L.A. specifically for the WOTV picket. “I felt like in that six months, I got a ton better, my writing partner and I.”
“You can see from an event like this, there’s a lot of just solidarity across the different years of cohorts and people sharing experiences and supporting each other in the highs and lows of the business,” added WGAW member MW Cartozian Wilson, who, like Pomaville, is based out of town. “Overall, it’s very positive.”
WGAW member Omar Ponce hopes to see studios create a steady pipeline for writers of color. Programs like WOTV aid that effort, he said, by giving writers from historically marginalized groups the chance to meet each other and share opportunities.
“That’s one of the biggest things about this program,” said Ponce who was joined at the picket by his wife and seven-year-old son, “and to see four major DEI executives get laid off is so disheartening because that process is now either shuttering or rebuilding. That whole thing is going to affect the next generation of people who are potentially trying to get into a program that would allow them to do what Writers on the Verge did for us.”
WGA Negotiating Committee and WGAW Board member Robb Chavis (WOTV class of 2012-13) appreciated being part of a community of industry newcomers who could call on each other as they progressed through the business.
“You developed a group of people that you’re super tight with that you can carry throughout your career,” said Chavis. “So at the beginning of our careers, we were all just scrapping and giving each other notes and trying to figure it out, but at this point, there are showrunners and people who have been in the business for a long time and who are creating opportunities. So to stay in touch with those folks and to see all of those careers kind of evolve and grow up together is great.”
Where The Sidewalk End
Ongoing construction and the elimination of sidewalk access has made picketing a mess at Universal. As events of the last few weeks have shown, WGA members who picket at that Valley location are demanding that the studio installs K-rails to provide safe pedestrian access between the lot's five gates.
Sisters Melissa and Joy Blake know this territory well. Both are WGAW members who walked these very lines at Universal during the 2007-08 strike. For the current strike, they are both captains at Universal, and like the Guild and our growing community of supporters, they are angry at the situation.
“The studio is flat out ignoring the danger they've put us in. They don't care what happens at their gates, and I have to wonder why not?” said Joy. “The easiest thing they could do is install a pedestrian K-rail. They could do it in half a day. It's not a win for them or anyone if one more person gets hurt.”
On July 19, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board stating that the construction interfered with picketer’s rights to protest. While we wait to see whether our legal claims and a member-driven community petition bear fruit, the Blake sisters came to a construction petition-themed picket last week literally bearing fruit. The sisters and sometimes writing partners donated a fruit cart from Sanchez Farms to help picketers combat the heat this past Friday.
Melissa had spent several of the early weeks of the strike picketing production locations, including a couple of weeks at locations in Georgia. She was at back at Universal Friday fired up for the picket, which called attention to the construction boondoggle. The Universal lot coordinators hope to deliver the petition, which has more than 25,000 signatures on it, to NBCUniversal early next week.
“It is so hugely important that we get this dealt with at this studio,” said Melissa, “Also because it means SAG-AFTRA may use this as an official picketing site, and that would be huge.”
Earlier, Joy Blake was on Barham near Universal’s Gate 8, the site of the infamous “Treegate.” On Friday, the City of Los Angeles hit Universal with a $250 fine (the maximum) for illegally trimming a row of Ficus trees the previous weekend. Those trees had provided much-needed shade to Gate 8 picketers.
Befitting the occasion, Joy was accompanied by her eleven-year-old daughter, Feiffer Meduri, who dressed as The Lorax, the iconic Dr. Seuss character who famously “speaks for the trees.” Feiffer is a huge fan both of The Lorax movie and of actor Danny DeVito who voices the character. When she saw a photo of the illegally butchered trees on Barham, she thought immediately of the Once-ler, the character who spends the bulk of the book cutting down trees and polluting the environment to get rich.
“She put together her Lorax look and joined me on the line Friday,” Joy said “She wanted to give picketers a reason to smile, and to spread the Lorax's message,”
“I actually have The Lorax, and the book The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends [both by Shel Silverstein] in my bag,” added Melissa, Feiffer’s aunt. “So it’s all very thematic.”
Sidewalks or no sidewalks, shade or no shade, the Blake sisters are firm believers in the principles of the WGA strike and its ramifications for future generations of writers. As an executive producer with more than 25 years of experience in the business, Melissa was able to move up the ranks from staff writer to build a successful career.
“I was able to train, rise and make good money with residuals because I was working for a lot of the broadcast networks who made 22 episodes of the shows that I wrote for,” said Melissa, whose most recent co-EP credits were on The Wilds and Based on a True Story. “But in the several years I’ve been working in streamers, not only am I, at my level, not even retained for production some of the time, but I see all of the lower- and middle-level writers not ever getting the chance to participate in production on their episodes, and therefore not being trained.”
“So essentially they’re not getting the skills that they so desire to get and deserve to receive,” she continued. “I don’t know how the studios are so short-sighted in so many ways.”
Joy, whose writing and producing credits include Next, Outlander, and The Resident, wholeheartedly agrees.
“I was a first-time showrunner in 2022, and when I was staffing the room, I was shocked at how many fantastic writers with producer-level titles had little to no set experience,” Joy said. “I was fortunate that my studio said yes when I told them I would be sending every writer, and the assistants, to set. But that should be the norm. I am so grateful for the years of on the job training I had coming up. There's no substitute. So I want that for all writers.”
For the Kirgo Sisters, It's Just the Fox
Whatever the year, whatever the weather, if the WGA is on strike, you’ll find the Kirgo sisters at Fox Studios, which has long been a home away from home.
Part of this is convenience. WGAW members Dinah and Julie Kirgo both live on the westside in convenient proximity to Fox. The lot was also Dinah’s base when she worked on The Tracey Ullman Show. Julie feels a similar bond with the studio based on her work on the 2007 documentary, Becoming John Ford which focused on Ford’s time at Fox and his relationship with Darryl F. Zanuck. Her late husband, Nick Redman was a music consultant who started preservation of film music in the industry, particularly at Fox.
“We have a lot of connections to this studio,” said Julie. “We love it here.”
The daughters of two-term WGAW President George Kirgo, Dinah and Julie were a writing team for ten years on shows like One Day at a Time and Hometown. Familiar with WGA strike actions, they walked the lines at Fox during the 1988 strike. On the first day of the 2007-08 strike, the sisters arrived at Fox’s Pico gate, asking how they could help.
“We said, ‘We’d like to work here,” said Dinah. “We didn’t want to walk the lines too much because we’re old. That was in 2007. Now we’re really old.”
“Very emeritus,” added Julie.
During 2007-08, before the convenience of electronically swiping a membership card, the Kirgo sisters helped sign members in for picketing shifts. For the 2023, they’re greeters, welcoming the lot’s regular picketers and newcomers, holding signs and occasionally joining the march. For the recent X-Files day, they showed up with cookies, accompanied by picket pup, Max.
“I do feel that people are going to pay more attention now that the actors have joined in,” said Julie. “I also know that the writers are the backbone of Hollywood unions. We are the ones who have fought and struck for all of the benefits that everybody receives. We are the ones who got basic minimums, health care, and pensions.”
Dinah harkens back to the section of the 1941 Bud Schulberg novel, What Makes Sammy Run, in which a studio head confides that he is willing to give screenwriters money, but not power.
“Now it’s worse,” she said. “Now they don’t want to give us money, and they certainly don’t want to give us power. It’s a psychological issue. You resent the people that you are dependent on.”