We’re bringing you a special episode of OnWriting all about the Made in New York Writers Room—a fellowship program from the WGA East, the New York City Department of Small Business Services, and the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.
The fellowship elevates emerging writers with diverse backgrounds and view points by providing career development training from established showrunners and television industry leaders.
This special episode features showrunner and Made in New York Writers Room mentor Michael Rauch, our guest moderator, in conversation with New York City Commissioner Julie Menin, and the Writers Guild of America, East Executive Director Lowell Peterson.
You can learn all about the program and how to apply by visiting wgaeast.org/writersroom
In this special episode, @LowellPeterson, @JulieMenin, and moderator @Michael_Rauch talk about improving diversity in the entertainment industry and discuss the Made in NY Writers Room—the fellowship brought to you by @WGAEast, @nyc_sbs & MoME https://t.co/PNan5KyRbk
— OnWriting (@OnWritingWGAE) November 21, 2018
OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. Season Two of the podcast is hosted by Caroline Waxler. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.
If you like OnWriting, please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to podcasts, and be sure to rate us on iTunes.
Thanks for listening. Write on.
Caroline Waxler: I’m Caroline Waxler, and you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media about their work. From pitching to production, from process to favorites lines, and everything in between.
Today I’m pleased to introduce a special episode of OnWriting that is all about the Made in New York Writers Room, which is a fellowship program from the Writers Guild of America East, the New York City Department of Small Business Services, and the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. The Made in New York Writers Room is a paid fellowship that elevates emerging writers with diverse backgrounds and view points, by providing career development training from established showrunners and television industry leaders. You can learn all about the program and how to apply by visiting wgaeast.org/writersroom.
For this episode, showrunner and Made in New York Writers Room mentor, Michael Rauch will be our guest moderator. He’ll be in conversation with New York City Commissioner, Julie Menin, and the Writers Guild of America East Executive Director, Lowell Peterson. Here’s Michael.
Michael Rauch: Hi, this is Michael Rauch, and I am a native New Yorker. Born here, raised here, got my Master’s in Fine Arts in Film at Columbia University here. Have been lucky enough, I’m knocking on wood, to have worked my entire career in the entertainment industry in New York City, starting with a feature film I wrote and directed, which we shot in Brooklyn. Then I wrote and directed the pilot off of it, called In The Weeds, which we also shot in Brooklyn. I directed a concert film of Eric Bogosian’s Wake Up and Smell the Coffee down at the Jane Street Theater in Manhattan. Wrote and we shot a TV show for CBS called Love Monkey in New York City.
My next show, Beautiful People, unfortunately while it was set in New York, we shot it in Toronto for New York, which still hurts to this day, and I think creatively hurt the show since we were unable to ever capture the energy, the texture, and the authenticity of this city. Then I did Life Is Wild, which we actually shot in South Africa, which was incredible, but our writers room was in New York, and a show called Royal Pains, which was written in New York and LA, and produced for all eight seasons here in New York. I’m now doing the CBS show Instinct, which again is written, we have our writers room here in New York, and we film it in all five boroughs of New York City.
Why this is important to me is that I love this city. As a New Yorker, it is, to me, the most incredible place in the world. I think that that is a part of the storytelling that I like to do in TV shows. To be able to shoot outside on the streets of New York, again in any borough, and capture the energy, and the texture, and the feeling of this city really adds to the storytelling. It’s a very special place that can’t be duplicated anywhere. Thankfully it seems like studios and networks are understanding that, and enabling us to do more shows here.
The show I’m on now, Instinct, has the distinction of being the first network drama with a gay lead. This was a very important thing to me, and to Alan Cumming who’s the lead. It’s really why I wanted to do the show. Because diversity and inclusion is such an important part of the reason for being of the show, it continues on to our cast, to our crew, to the writers, to the producers, to the directors. Half of our episodic directors are diverse, our directing producer is diverse, our writers room is diverse, and our crew is as well. Again, it’s not just because it’s the right thing to do, but it also is because it’s the best way to reflect what makes a city special, and to a lot of the storytelling to feel authentic, and to be real.
The question really is, who has the power to make these things happen, and to start opening up the jobs to have a more diverse group of people who are creating shows both in front of the camera and behind it? For me it’s, obviously from my experience, show creators and showrunners have the ability to do that. Of course line producers, who are very heavily involved in hiring crew, studios who have people they like and they approve, and people they don’t like and they won’t to approve, but I’m also joined by two other individuals who have major stakes in creating opportunities for underrepresented people in our industry. Since this is OnWriting for the Writers Guild, we’re gonna specifically talk about writers. They can speak to what it means to be a part the New York television economy with a more diverse reflection of our writers.
First is Commissioner Julie Menin from the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. Hi, Julie.
Julie Menin: Hi. Thanks for having me today.
Michael Rauch: Just curious in terms of what I was saying, and if you’ve noticed a change in the makeup of writers rooms, of sets, of casts with all of the incredible productions going on New York at the time.
Julie Menin: Well absolutely. One of the big focuses we have in the administration is to focus on access and inclusion. I’ve been Commissioner of Media and Entertainment for about two and a half years, and we are very proud of the fact that we’ve launched dozens of workforce development programs really focused on diversity. For example, we have a five million dollar fund to help women film makers, and women playwrights. We have a TV writing script contest for women called Greenlight Her. We have a Made in New York Writers Room, which we are here to talk about today that we’re doing in partnership with the WGA East. We’re thrilled about that.
Really all of our programs have the main focus of trying to get to the root of the problems around access and inclusion, and trying to diversify the opportunities both for people of color and for women.
Michael Rauch: Also Lowell Peterson the Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America East. You’re obviously heavily educated in this whole department since you’ve educated me. I’m just curious what you think the Guild is doing, what we can do better, or how we can improve.
Lowell Peterson: There’s so many things we are doing, and so many things we can continue and should continue to do. Our membership reflects the historical tendencies in the industry. Really until very recently, those have not been particularly diverse. The audiences are more diverse than the crews, and the stories.
What we have found as a union is that this is a matter not just of social justice, but of industry self-interest. In order to improve the enthusiasm of audiences, you mentioned New York stories being diverse, being interesting, being inherently more dramatic, more entertaining, more engaging. I think that’s true both geographically and in terms of ethnicity, and gender, and background, and class composition.
In the long run, the work the union is doing in close conjunction with the city, I think is gonna make for better TV, and better movies, and our members get that. To a large extent, the historic exclusion hasn’t been just because of lack of talent. We did a survey of our members and said, “Why do you think there’s a lack of diversity in television writing in particular? Is it a lack of talent or is it a lack of opportunity?” Overwhelmingly people said, “It’s just the matter of opportunity.” We try to think about ways, as a union, to think about enhancing opportunity through a variety of tools.
Michael Rauch: I was lucky enough and honored to be a part of the Made In New York writers program last year. When you guys first mentioned it to some of the New York showrunners, it seems like such an incredible idea that it was hard to believe it hadn’t existed before. But with the current boom in TV right now, across the spectrum, not just in New York, but in New York as well, there are now over 40 shows being written and produced in New York. It felt like an absolutely necessary thing to do.
Before we even get into the writers program, I think one of the things that’s very hard for new writers, and of course I include diverse writers breaking into TV is that there’s no training wheels. When you get a job in TV in a writers room, you’re in. Then you prove yourself, and you stay, or you don’t. If you’re going in with no experience at all, the odds are very much against you because usually you get hired as a staff writer. That’s how we do it. The way it works is that your staff writer will be free for the first season if you give them a script. In a way, every wins there. The staff writer gets paid, we get a free writer, it’s like a gamble in terms of are they gonna be good or not.
Then the real issue becomes, in a season two, with that staff writer is no longer free. What forces you to want to keep that writer is what they’ve shown in the first season. So often the staff writers are people who have had other room experience, or other TV experience. They already have developed the muscles to prove how to be in a room, how to write a script, how to be on set, how to do all the necessary things that writers need to do to move up to become show creators, or EPs, or whatever their ambitions are.
It’s another reason why the Made In New York program spoke to me so much because it was for a large group of people who don’t have the opportunity based on, as you were saying Lowell, the way it’s been traditionally in terms of the makeup of writers rooms. If you’re not a part of that, you’re not getting those training wheels. To be able to have this experience where it was a meritocracy, scripts are submitted, it wasn’t just random, and there were judges who selected what they thought were the best ones, and then we as showrunners are able to work with those writers, it was an incredible experience.
The writer I worked with, a man named Ian Olympio, impressed me across the board, not just with his talent, but with his knowledge about writing, his curiosity about the business, and his willingness to learn. That helped me not just get a job, but once I get that job be able to stay in the business because circling back to the point I was trying to make, if that writer after season one all of a sudden costs money in season two, you don’t rehire anyone out of the goodness of your heart, because you have such a limited budget for your writers room. If that writer doesn’t feel like they have proved themselves, it’s a liability and they might not get hired again. If that happens two times to a writer, and they’re resume is two shows where they’re one and out, the odds are there’s gonna be fairly unfairly some stigma attached to that writer, ’cause you’re gonna look at their resume and say, “Why didn’t this person get rehired?”
In a way, it can become a cycle where you’re not given the opportunity to learn. You’re then all of a sudden thrown into a job that you might not be fully prepared full, you don’t get the next level. That’s why I felt my responsibility with Ian was not just to teach him what I know, whether it’s good or bad about writing, but just as importantly to prepare him for the opportunity to become part of a writers room so he can sustain a career.
Lowell Peterson: Yeah, you’ve touched on the hidden secret of the Made in New York program, which is we pitched it as partly as a training program, but mostly it’s an exposure program. In order to participate in the program, you submit a script, it gets read, it gets notes, you have to have some talent, you have to be able to put the characters and narratives together at a certain level. What you as a mentor in the program, and the Guild by offering programs around it, and the city by supporting this program generously and make possible, is exposure to the industry.
It’s one thing to have the craft. The folks who run the program have achieved a certain level of competence in the craft. But to really learn the industry, to learn as you say, what it’s really like to work in a writers room, what it’s like to talk to an agent, what it’s like to do a pitch, what it’s like to build a career is the secret of the program, the secret sauce. That’s why I think it’s so successful.
Julie Menin: One of the things that I would add is the scalability of it because as government, one of the things we always look at are metrics and scalability. One of the things I loved about this program, and why we are so thrilled to be doing it again is there were 500 scripts. Every single one of those writers received feedback on their script. The stories that we heard from that were really incredibly compelling. So many writers said, “I submit scripts all the time. I don’t hear anything, I don’t know what’s wrong with them, I don’t know if they’re bad, I don’t know how I need to change it.” By getting that direct feedback on their script, that’s incredibly value added.
Then winnowing down those scripts to the ones that receive fellowship, then they obviously are getting that intensive one-on-one mentorship that you spoke so eloquently about. But that really goes to the scalability of it, that we were able to get a large scale co-hort of 500 scripts, and each of those writers got some feedback on it.
Michael Rauch: It feels like, especially in today’s world, it’s so rare where everyone’s agendas all seem pure. In this situation it’s about keeping New Yorkers employed by having more TV and film written and produced in New York. How do you do that? It’s by keeping stories new, and reflecting different storytellers. It’s this really nice circle of everyone is working in the same interest, which is to be more inclusive in terms of types of stories we’re gonna tell, which will then reflect what TV has become, which is a more inclusive place because you’re not just dipping into one pool of an audience, which will then selfishly allow me to keep working in New York and have to move to LA.
Even my selfish agenda, in a way is about protecting the city, and protecting the TV business, which is by trying to do the right thing and really bring in different voices. There’s so many shows now, both made in New York and outside of New York that are so beloved because all of a sudden there are showrunners in writers rooms who are telling stories that haven’t been told before because they’re coming from a different background, because they’re coming from a different gender, because they’re much more true to certain experiences that are less just one experience told in different ways.
Lowell Peterson: One of our goals as a union and of this program is to build a critical mass for the future of New York television storytelling. The production tax credit has been enormously successful in attracting productions, and that’s offered us a real opportunity to also try to get the stories written in New York.
We have some thoughts about using a tax credit to incentivize hiring women and people of …
Lowell Peterson: Some thoughts about using a tax credit to incentivize hiring women and people of color to write and direct, but even without it, programs like the Made in New York Writer’s Room help us connect people to New York based productions. I think you’re right that we have a talent pool which unparalleled. We have people who write novels or who write plays, who write feature films, who’ve done stuff for online and being able to connect them to a sustainable industry is really fundamentally important going forward. And it’s great that the city recognizes this, this is a driver of the culture industry, which is one of the main job creators in the entire city and this state and it’s also a way to ensure the continued relevance of the New York based productions.
Michael Rauch: Absolutely, and the tax credit is such a giant part of this story. I mean, for the show I’m doing right now, we’re saving close to a million dollars an episode, which is a huge amount of what we spend. And when I first got into TV, which was right before the tax credit kicked in, you could write shows in New York, but if you wanted to shoot them here, you would kind of have this dream pitch of the 100 reasons why it made sense and then within a minute the studio person would give you a hard and fast no. They’d say, “Go to Toronto, Vancouver, we’re not spending that money.” And what happened with the tax credit is this slow growth from to now where the boom is so big that it’s hard to find stage space. And when we wrap our season, we’re keeping our stages and we’re keeping our sets up so that if we come back we don’t lose them because if we take it down, someone else is going to take them. It’s hard to find great crew. They’re all great problems to have because those studio people are no longer saying, “No, go to Toronto.” They’re saying, “Sure.”
Julie Menin: Well, that’s exactly right. I mean, production has never been higher in New York. I mean, just in the past year we have 60 TV shows that are shooting in New York that’s an all time high. We have over 300 films shooting in New York, and to your point about stage space, it’s one of the reasons why mayor Deblazio announced last year that the city is actually building a stage space and made a New York campus which will be at the Bush terminal and Sunset Park. We’re adding about 5% inventory to the existing 2 million square feet of stage space that exists in New York. So we think this will be incredibly value added and it’s really the city investing in the future to make sure that there will be enough stage space moving forward. But one of the exciting things about the production being so high is it really has allowed the city to focus on issues of access and inclusion. We believe there’s a responsibility as government to make sure that people are not shut out of the system, and so that’s why we’ve had a laser like focus on introducing workforce development programs to try to give training to people who have been traditionally left out or left behind.
Michael Rauch: And I think to that point, what has been an unfortunate legacy of the business is that at least for certain networks, there is a pool of approvable directors or writers and that pool consists of people they have worked with. There’s a logic to it so it makes sense. They have experience with them, they know what they’re going to get, but they’re the list that they will approve. So as a show runner or a show creator, you get a series picked up, that network will send you the list of people. Now, based on everything we’ve talked about, the odds are in the past that list was pretty much all white men. Not judging it for better for worse, but that’s who you would choose from.
So in terms of expanding the diversity of these lists what you’re finding is that, and again it gets back to why the Made in New York program I think is so incredible, is that when you start bringing in new people, they’re going to have much less experience and so the pressure and the stakes for them to prove themselves are much harder than people who are already on that list because they’re already recognizable names. No one has to do any research. If I present names to a studio for writers or directors, they’re doing their job to say either who are they, where do you know them from? Give me numbers I can call as references. It’s their jobs on the line too.
And so the less experience you have in that situation, the harder it is to justify why you want to hire this person. And I think having something that both comes through the writer’s guild and through the city of New York is a major plus in an additive in terms of being able to say they’re a young writer. Ian, for example, my mentee is someone I would have no problem hiring both because I believe he could do the job, but also if I ever get that call of water you want to hire him, it would be the easiest sell because I could walk him or her through my experience with Ian why I think he would be great for whatever show it is and how I have no problem putting my name on that so that if there’s a problem that comes back to me.
Lowell Peterson: Yeah. One of the inspiring features of this program is how enthusiastic our members have been to participate in it. You’ve been a terrific mentor and advocate for it. The city has been wonderful in supporting the program, but we have the members who gave these extensive notes when they read this part. We didn’t know how that was going to go. We didn’t know if they were going to just give a couple of lame cliched responses. In fact, people really felt a part of the process and Writers Guild members are really committed to this. They love the idea of developing new talent. They love the idea of sharing what they’ve learned from a life and the business, they love the idea of deepening the talent pool.
They love the idea of building a critical mass of storytellers in New York. So it’s not just the union as an institution, but the unions membership that’s really all in on this program and I think for all the right reasons. As you say, it’s hard to build a career, people hire who they know, studios only approve folks they’ve had experience with which is a sort of classic barrier to entry. Programs like this help us overcome that and having deep and broad member support on our end has been very useful.
Michael Rauch: Yeah, and these are the show runners of tomorrow who will be hiring me and paying dues to you. So we need them to be doing a good job. Julie, you mentioned the space that the city is building and it kind of connects to another thing that I thought we should talk about, which is I know with Lowell and some other members of the guild have been fighting the fight to educate studios, networks and agencies who are LA based that the pool of writers in New York, while the quantity may not be as high because the writers rooms you have traditionally been West Coast, the quality is as high. And in terms of the quantity, there’s probably a lot of writers who would love the opportunity to either move back to New York or to write from New York.
And so to try to change the mentality that a show gets picked up even if it’s shot in New York. The writer’s room should be in lA because that’s where all the good writers are. So I feel like we’ve been battling it on two fronts. One is just changing the way people think, which is a slow process. But the more writers rooms we have in New York on successful shows, the more we prove our point. But also the financial side of it, which is a lot of times because New York real estate is very expensive. Writers’ rooms in LA typically are on a back lot, so the space is already there. And as we’re building more stage space, I know the company that I’ve shot over the last 11 years with, whenever he builds new stages.
I talk to him and say, “If you build writers’ rooms here, an office for writer’s room and then rooms for Pickerel, I guarantee you that they will be rented.” And he’s been doing it and that’s where our writer’s room is right now, it’s above our stages. And so the opportunity to be able to figure out ways to do that as we build new spaces, which will create, it’s a little bit more of a cost now but I think in the big picture it’s a savings because it’s bringing 11 jobs and all of the writers room staff to New York.
Julie Menin: Well, absolutely. I mean, one of the reasons why the city is building this Made in New York campus is to that point. We believe that there is the opportunity to lure more people to New York in the creative sectors, so whether it’s writers or other people. Because really one of the things that I think sets New York, there are many things that set in New York apart. We’ve got the best, most talented diverse labor pool, we have iconic locations. We also have advertising agencies, Broadway is the synergies that only New York can present, no other city can compete with. But the other thing that we think is tremendously exciting is also the city itself is investing and obviously focusing on making New York more affordable.
So whether it’s the affordable housing plan to build more affordable housing units. I mean, there’s many things that city government is doing to try to make New York City as attractive as possible. And right now the numbers on the TV and film side, as I said earlier, have never been higher. So our trend is very much going in that direction. And then lastly, I would just say we as an office, the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment we’re set up very differently than any other city. Most other cities have a film commissioner, we do not have that at all. Why don’t we have that? We don’t have that because again, our core belief is that all of the creative industries, whether it’s music and luring the grammy awards back because we negotiated that deal or whether it’s focusing on fedor or focusing on animation or digital content or the publishing industry.
Our agency deals with all the creative services, not just film and not just TV. And I mentioned that because of the unique synergies and opportunities there are and the cross pollinization between these different industries I think really sets us apart.
Michael Rauch: I agree 100%.
Lowell Peterson: And we’ve seen that sort of also in our membership. I mentioned surveys we do of our members. I don’t recall the exact percentages, but the number of Writers Guild of America East members who have also written novels or nonfiction books or plays or started in journalism and have moved into scripted television is really striking. The number of standup comics who work downtown and wind up on late night shows is remarkable. So yeah, I agree with that. And that goes to the question of critical mass. This is a city with a long and proud tradition as a cultural hub and I think that helps make better TV.
Michael Rauch: I agree. And I think it’s part of what makes New York so unique and so extraordinary. And I think as a New Yorker, a lifelong New Yorker and also a working New Yorker, it is a mantle that we should not just be proud of, we have to fight for every day. And when you read about other places that are giving higher tax credits, why don’t you go to Atlanta or why don’t you go … And nothing against any of those cities, but I don’t want to make good TV show in Atlanta because I’m not from Atlanta and I couldn’t tell Atlanta story the way I can tell a New York story. Instinct hired staff writers from LA and I had a genuine concern and spoke with him about this, about how I know staff writer fees, which are not gigantic, starting at the bottom of the rung and I also know living in New York and the expenses.
And there was a conversation of you guys are moving, you’re going to find a place to live, you need to take consideration and they found a place to live that was affordable, that could walk to our writer’s room in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And it was one of those situations where as you mentioned Julie, just fit into the larger piece of being able to keep and sustain the industry going in New York in a way that’s affordable and also makes better television because these are diverse writers and it was important for me to have them because of their background being different from mine and be able to speak to the show and as staff writers could come and live here and work in the show. And it felt like one of those things where where all the pieces were fitting into place in terms of what we’re talking about.
Lowell Peterson: It’s a great place to expand your horizons. One of the things about New York, this is a corollary, is that it’s not really a company town so we have a lot of members of the Writer’s Guild of America East living and working in Los Angeles. Many of them love it there, they’re going to stay there. Many of them would really rather return because this is their roots, this is where their kids can go into shool-
Michael Rauch: Can we ostracizing, you want to name them?
Lowell Peterson: Well, and there are people who started in LA like the folks you’re talking about who have moved to New York and I kept their membership out there. The real question is having the diversity of experience and the ability to fit into a broader culture industry and I think that we cannot overemphasize that.
Michael Rauch: Yeah, I’m looking far into the future in terms of the Made in New York Program because I feel like once that campus is up and running, one of the things that would be great to do is to actually have a writer’s room there, a rotating writer’s room that you find three, four or 500 mini show runners that are willing to rotate and that way the experience that the people who are going through the program would have isn’t just hearing about it, but there’s nothing like being in a writer’s room to understand being in a writer’s room. And there was a mystique about a Writer’s room for a reason because it’s a very specific place with specific rules, specific behavior, a specific way to be.
And while every show runner runs the room differently, at the same time if you’re in a room with three or four different show runners individually, you’re going to get a sense of when you’re a staff writer, the best way to make a first impression. You’re also getting to get a sense of once you have your sea legs as a staff writer, the best way to make an impact on the room so that you feel like you’re getting the dynamics and more importantly, you’re understanding how to develop the muscle of being a writer in a room, which again, can be very intimidating. It can be overwhelming. Some people respond to it by shutting up, some people compensate by talking too much and just to be able to have the experience of literally putting a story together.
We writers by nature are lonely people who like to sit in a room with our computer and not talk to anyone. And all of a sudden you’re thrown into a room with 8, 9, 10 other people who the one thing they feel really good about life is their writing ego and it can be challenging. And so to have a creative experience with other people who are strangers, which is how it works when you start writer’s room and create feels like something that would be very valuable. And I think as we’re talking about, again, the goal of this program which is to sustain quality work in New York, I think it’ll help that with all developing these new voices. And I guess the segue is that probably isn’t a year two thing, that may be too ambitious for a year or two thing. But what you too are hoping for in the second year of this program.
Michael Rauch: But, what you two are hoping for in the second year of this program, since it’s such great news that the program’s getting a second year, and if there are thoughts on how you wanna be different from your one.
Lowell Peterson: Well, I think we’ve learned some things. I think we’ve learned the importance of having a lot of program to go along with the mentorship. We’ve had seminars and panels on pitching, on working in a room, on dealing with agents, on craft issues like deepening characters, and solving plot problems, and also lots and lots of networking opportunities. As you say, it can be a solitary profession. One of the things we emphasize as a union is opportunities, even for more experience members, to get together and swap lives, so to speak. Talk about career development, talk about story ideas, talk about aspirations and hopes, and just build a network of friends and colleagues.
Michael Rauch: Just to interrupt, I can say that that is true for mentors as well, because I had the opportunity of meeting, talking to, and becoming friends with other show-runners who I admired, but had never met before, who were mentoring in this program. That was a great opportunity, not just to mention meeting and getting to know other writers who weren’t my mentees, because I had read their script or gone to the reading of their script, or just started chatting at the cocktails and found something in common. It was a great networking way at every level.
Julie Menin: Yeah, no, I think Lowell brought up some great points. The application process is gonna open on November 8th, so it’s right around the corner. We’re really excited about that, and one of the things that we’re going to try to focus more on is really preparing the fellows for how to join Writers Anonymous in New York, really giving them, as was discussed earlier, the skill set they need so that they can really hit the ground running. That’s going to be something that we’re gonna focus on. It’s our hope and intention that we can continue this program for many years to come, because there’s certainly no limit on the number of applicants that we feel would get so much benefit from a program like this.
Lowell Peterson: Yeah, and I wanna brag about a couple other features, and thank the city for it. I mean, we hear a lot of great things from the folks who have gone through the program. A couple of them to highlight are people are getting paid. The fellows are getting paid, that’s part of the program. That is so important to us as a union, and I think that people really appreciate the support that they’re getting. People think it’s really cool that the city of New York is behind the program. I mean, the combination of the informata of the Union of Professional Writers, and of the City of New York, really adds a lot of oomph to the program.
Julie Menin: Thank you for saying that. I mean, we have tried to approach these programs in a slightly different way. I think oftentimes when people think of government, they think, unfortunately, of roadblocks, and we’re trying to really change that dynamic by being creative and putting our money behind programs that are really value-added. This one is a perfect example, but we have also many other examples, and so the one that also comes to mind is our 5 million dollar fund for women filmmakers and women playwrights. We’re giving direct cash grants of up to $50,000 for women playwrights and women filmmakers to finish their work. I can tell you firsthand, there is no other city government in the country that is doing anything remotely like that.
We also launches a script writing contest for TV writers for work written by women, about women, for women, called Greenlight Her. We had 300 scripts, we winnowed it down to two. We shot two pilots, and then we put it out to public vote, and New Yorkers got to vote on which of the projects they wanted our office to green light. The project that one is by a woman named [Patty Cary 00:31:38], her show is Half Life. We’ve now shot five episodes and we’re gonna be airing them on Channel 25, which we own and operate.
Michael Rauch: I know Patty. I was aware of this when she was writing the script, and watched the pilot, and loved it, and was so excited that her script was the one that won.
I think, I can only speak to the main New York program, but what’s so impressive about what you guys are doing is it’s not just a financial investment, it’s not just the tax credit that you’re giving us to increase production here, and get writers here, it is helping to shape these programs, and helping to not just make it easier for me to shoot a show, but to make it easier for writers to be included in a process that has been a great challenge in the past, to be a part of. That, to me, is the best use of government, which is not just saying “Here’s the money,” but it’s also saying “Here’s the money, and here’s the mission of what we wanna do, and work with us to help us figure out the best way to do it.”
Lowell Peterson: Yeah, it’s been a real partnership, and there have been real successes. People have got jobs, people have learned how to apply to, for example, to Sundance Episodic Lab, so it’s been a real thing. We’ve been, together with the city we’ve been walking the walk, and not just talking the talk, which I think is really important.
Michael Rauch: Yeah, and it reflects the real world. It’s the right thing to do, but it also is what the city’s about in every way. It feels organically right to the city.
I can only speak to the Made in New York writer’s program from my personal experience as a mentee, but Lowell, I’m kind of curious, for me, but also for anyone who’s listening, what happens behind the scenes there? What happens if you are someone who’s been chosen, and what your experience is like?
Lowell Peterson: We actually offered a lot of detailed programs that were very successful, in addition to the mentoring, which was the centerpiece. We had monthly career coaching sessions, we had group meetings, which lasted throughout the period of the mentorship, and I can say that a lot of people kept meeting after the mentorship in this office. We had writer round tables, including conversations with, for example, Kyle Bradstreet, who talked about how to create a bible, which is an important part of crafting an entire series of shows. We’ve had, all of the mentees had access to the full range of Writers Guild of America – East programs. Panel discussions, networking events, there were special Made in New York events that were set up for them that were introductions to a lot of industry executives. The networks were eager to participate. We had meetings with executives at Disney, ABC, people at HBO, people at NBC. There were set visits, there was a set visit to your show, Instinct.
Michael Rauch: There was, yes. Everyone was incredibly quiet and well-behaved. It was great.
Lowell Peterson: That … don’t count on that happening. We’re gonna do that this year. In fact, we’re designing those programs into the program this year. They were sort of experimental the first round, and we found that they were surprisingly effective and well-received.
Michael Rauch: Each one of those were for the mentees, the people …
Lowell Peterson: Yes.
Michael Rauch: Okay, great.
Lowell Peterson: There were some additional events also, and program opportunities for semi-finalists, which were also valuable. There were table reads, there were a lot of things that we added on as we kept building the program, that we’re keeping in the soup for the next year because they winded up being really important.
Michael Rauch: Yeah, when you had mentioned about set visit, for me it was now about the fun of going to visit a set, which is usually what set visits are, you auction them off. I firmly believe that writers need to understand how a set works, especially if you wanna have your own show, and again, it’s one of those situations where you’re there for a few hours, you’re not gonna get everything, but just seeing what it’s like to be on a set, if one of these writers gets in a writers room, and they write a script, and they are asked to be on set for their script, having already been on a set, just to see geographically what it looks like, what the hierarchy is, how people talk to each other, it’s a very valuable experience, and to be able to ask questions about it too. Again, it seems like something, well everyone goes to visit a set, when you’re looking at it as someone who’s actually going to be a part of that set, it’s a very important thing to have.
Lowell Peterson: Yeah, and building a career in television as a writer also means building a career as an executive producer, or a co-executive producer, or as you say, a show-runner, a show-creator, and learning all aspects of how a television production functions, how you work with talent, how you work with the studio, all of that’s really important for writing careers, because writers are, in many ways, at the center of the television industry. We create the concepts, the stories, and then run the shows. Having a deeper base of people who could do that kind of production work in our union is really important to us.
Michael Rauch: It gets back, for me at least, to giving Julie a giant spiritual hug, because as our show-runner, you obviously have to do many jobs. One is creating quality content, and the other is being on budget. If this tax credit didn’t exist, there’s no way we could product Instinct in New York. It’s just impossible. Even if we shaved it down, there’s no way. Having a tax credit keeps us alive here, as a producer in such an important way, and again, repeating the notion that this program then builds for the future.
Julie Menin: I’ll just interject one thing. I mean, on the tax credit, which the state administers, obviously we believe that New York City is incredibly competitive with any other city in terms of production, and so certainly the tax credit, the locations, the workforce, we’re also the only city that has a dedicated police unit, a unit in NYPD, for film and TV production. That’s important because we obviously always wanna minimize any impacts to the community because on any given day, and right now we have approximately 150 different productions shooting in New York right now, we wanna make sure that the impacts to the community are di minimus, and so the NYPD is obviously a key and integral part of that as well.
Michael Rauch: Those police men and women are also important to production, because a lot of times you get people that wanna cause disturbances, or do cause disturbances, or wanna bother actors, and they do an incredible job of very calmly, and very professionally, standing in the way and helping us diffuse situations that could get ugly. In terms of the state granting money, it’s true, but the department is so responsive, your department is so responsive to us, in terms of problem solving, and that is such an importation part because figuring out locations, when your doing TV, you’re picking giant locations a week before you’re shooting it. You’re not blocking off dates a year earlier. The way TV works, it’s very quick. Having the city be able to work with our production teams, and I can just speak to mine, one of 60, every day in terms of finding locations, streets, bridges, all the places that we wanna shoot to show off the iconic New York, it makes my head hurt just to think about having to get into that. Part of it is having a department that is so responsive, and wants to make it great for the city, but also easier for production, so that we can do the best job we can.
Julie Menin: Well, thank you for saying that. I think one of the things also that sets apart this particular agency from other cities, is it’s one stop shopping. In many other cities, as you know, if you go in Atlanta and you wanna shoot in Atlanta, you might be dealing with four different city agencies. You might be dealing with their Department of Transportation, their department of parks, their film department, myriad different alphabet soup of government agencies. Here, you’re really dealing with one office, and that’s us. We try to make it as streamlined as possible in terms of the process.
Lowell Peterson: I do wanna add that if you’re interested in applying, or learning more about the Made in New York writers’ program, you can go onto wgaeast.org/writersroom to learn about eligibility requirements, and to get the application.
Caroline Waxler: That will do it for this episode. On Writing is a production of the Writers Guild of America – East. Tech production and original music by Stockboard Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America – East online at wgaeast.org and follow the guild on social media at @WGAEast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. We appreciate your tuning in. Write on.