State of the Union: Christopher Keyser

A playwriting class Christopher Keyser took during his second year in law school caused him to consider writing as a future profession. Now, as President of the Writers Guild of America, West, Keyser is on the forefront of the fight to keep media writing an economically sustainable profession.  

 

Breaking into television, film, and new media writing is undeniably a challenge, but once you’re in, standardized wages, required pension and health coverage, and residuals keep writers in business. Fighting for those benefits is the Writers Guild of America, a union that lobbies for adequate compensation for writers. Since 1933, the organization has made dramatic strides in improving career prospects for media writers, including establishing writer credits for media programs, creating contracts that enforce fair treatment, and collecting and distributing residuals to ensure that writers continue to receive payment for reuse of their material.

Christopher Keyser, President of the Writers Guild of America, West, knows first-hand just how important WGA’s work is. During his last year at Harvard Law, Keyser took a playwriting class alongside Conan O’Brien and future writing partner Amy Lippman that changed his career trajectory. Moving to New York then eventually Los Angeles after graduation, Keyser and Lippman used their legal expertise to pen scripts for L.A. Law and Equal Justice and serve on staff for the law series Eddie Dodd before co-creating the Jennifer Garner series Significant Others, and the popular ‘90s drama Party of Five. Since then, Keyser has kept one foot on set by serving as executive producer for series like Lone Star and writing the script for the Danny Glover film Highland Park, and one foot on the other side by sitting at the helm of the WGA, West.

Get In Media: You hold a degree from Harvard Law. Is it important for a writer to have a backup plan like that?

Christopher Keyser: No, I don’t think so. What people need to do is they need to have a life that they are OK living while they struggle to become a writer. In other words, if you’re doing things that you don’t like doing or you can’t stand or you’re living a lifestyle that you can’t maintain, then you’ll end up giving up. What you need is to somehow put together a life while you’re working toward [becoming a writer] that is sustainable, and I was able to do that. I had some advantages because I had somebody who was helping to pay my bills. I think probably the fact that I was a lawyer gave me some sense of security because I knew that I could have done something else, although I don’t know that security is always the best thing. Maybe jumping off a cliff is the best thing. When I talk to writers, that’s what I say. It’s going to take a while and you should do the kinds of things that give you a chance to write and live the kind of life, if you can, that you can imagine sustaining for a bunch of years, because it’s going to take a long time to get there.

GIM: For you, how long did it take to get paid as a full-time writer?

CK: I think about four years or so. I always tell people that they should expect four or five years. I had this very early success with getting an agent, which was important, and little bits of encouragement matter along the way. But still, even there, it took me many, many years to get paid for the first time. Much of it is about stick-to-it-iv-ness.

GIM: You’ve stated that [writing] jobs in the film industry have dropped off by 20 to 25 percent [due to fewer films being made and reductions in film development], but it’s compensated elsewhere. Where are the jobs?

CK: Television has obviously been pretty strong. Obviously, there are some things that are putting pressure on television jobs, reality television and smaller staffs, but that’s being offset by the number of outlets on the cable channels, the number of shows that are being done. Television employment is robust and, by the way, in general writers are doing well. We’re collecting more residuals than we’ve ever collected before, which indicates that total compensation to writers is going up. Some of that, of course, is concentrated in the most successful writers and [is] not necessarily being spread evenly across all the writers in the industry. That parallels, I think, what’s going on in the world in general, which is a somewhat shrinking middle class. The best-off are doing better and the worst-off are doing the least well.

GIM: You’ve stated that every writer in the current economy needs to be a jack-of-all-trades. How so?

CK: There was a period of time in which somebody might have thought, “I’m going to be a feature writer,” “I’m going be a television writer,” even “I’m going to be a network television writer.” Nowadays, that certainty is less certain … because I think the business, it lends itself to less certainty, so it’s much more difficult nowadays for somebody to say, “I expect to be on a writing staff for decades on network TV.” Certainly, it’s much more difficult to imagine a decade-long career producing features or at least getting hired to write features. Somebody who is looking at a career over the long term needs to think about the possibility that he or she may be working in features, working in television, working in new media. All of those things. … It’s just part of the new reality.

GIM: What’s the best way to break into television writing now?

CK: Some things have changed over the years. It used to be that to break into television, the spec script you would write would be versions of television shows that are already on the air, and that has diminished over time. Now people tend to write spec pilots or screenplays. People want to read original material. That doesn’t mean that people can’t get jobs off of a great spec of an existing television show or an old television show, but that’s changed somewhat.

A lot of younger writers start out looking for jobs as writer assistants, and that’s certainly one way to break into the business, because you’ve got a chance to see what’s going on and you also develop a relationship with someone who may hire you. … I don’t think the business works substantially differently than it ever did, which is somehow through a connection or whatever it is you get your script on a pile and somebody reads it and sends it to somebody else and that’s how you get a job.

GIM: You’ve also stated that the film industry in general is becoming more global and that certain genres like comedy don’t necessarily translate as well. Is that something that screenwriters need to keep in mind when they’re crafting their work?

CK: At least for major studio releases, the economics suggest that they are looking at a global market, and that means that certain kinds of product work better for them. It tends to depress the number of serious dramas, romantic comedies, stories with other specific subjects that they feel don’t translate well. Sports movies, baseball movies might be one of them. In any case, it means that in looking at getting money from the global market, the range of product is smaller than it used to be.

But I would not want to be in the position of telling people that they should write what they don’t feel and don’t believe in. Obviously, you have to combine in some ways what you want, the artistic impulse to write, with the requirement at least for most of us that it pay the rent. [The WGA doesn’t] make recommendations to writers that they should write only big, action-y tent pole movies. By the way, I think people who do that best are people who do it not solely for economic reasons, but because that’s the stuff they’ve always loved and they write it with the same kind of passion that you would write any genre of film. I think one thing that ends up happening is that people who want to write some things that movies are not or are less frequently nowadays, they find those opportunities potentially in television. Certainly, people who want to write dramatic character-based stories are more likely to find work in television now than they are at least in big studio movies.

GIM: [Keyser picketed in the 2007-2008 writers’ strike]. In your opinion, do you believe changes lobbied for in the writers’ strike have been lasting?

CK: The critical issue during the strike was jurisdiction over new media. It’s clear that the opportunities in new media, both for original work and for reuse of our work on new media, are going to be critical to the economic success of writers, so the fact that we were able to establish that [new media] jurisdiction is and will be enormously important. It’s a very positive development, at least it’s a hopeful development. Other things have happened in the business since that time, some of which are good and some of which are less good, that aren’t specifically related to the strike, but it has much to do with the way in which companies have reorganized, at least in features, to limit the amount of production they’re doing, to limit the amount of development they’re doing. On the flip side of that, in television [there is] rapid growth of cable channels and now online production, so those are all good.

GIM: WGA published a study, which shows that only nine percent of television pilots have a minority writer on staff and less than a quarter have a woman on staff. Are those demographics shifting? Are you seeing more diversity?

CK: We’re working hard on those diversity questions, but it’s slow going. I think there is progress. … I think you would find that, for example, the number of women on staff is probably rising. Though we’re still too low … when it comes to how many women are running shows compared to the number of men. …

I think, for example, if you look at the number of writers of color who work in features, that’s not getting better, or at least it hasn’t gotten better in the last couple of years, which might, by the way, be the result of the fact that there’s a lot of pressure on the business in general. In a world in which they’re making fewer movies, the people who are doing better continue doing better and it’s harder to break in. You would expect that to be a very difficult sector of the business to make improvements in diversity.

We really are working as hard as we can within the realm of what is possible for the Writers Guild to do. We have the Writer Access Project [which seeks to increase hiring of groups that have historically been underemployed in television], the Feature Access Project, which is our attempt to bring to the attention of … feature producers diversity writers who are particularly talented. We have a relationship with The Black List [script hosting service] that’s intended to do the same thing, and there are a whole bunch of other things we do. Our diversity committee and our diversity advisory are meeting with studios and networks and agencies and also writers to talk about what can be done to increase the diversity of the writer community. 

GIM: For new writers, what is the advantage of having an organization like the Writers Guild of America?

CK: Why is it a good thing? It’s a good thing because standing together, we have in the past and continue to set those standards that make it possible to have a career as a writer, so minimums and residuals and pensions and health, working conditions, all of those things are part of the progress that writers working together have made through the Writers Guild of America, West and East, and that continues. We have forced contracts. We get you your residuals. It’s not a question of would it be a good idea. It’s essential for all of us, if we want to have a long-term career, to be united in the fight for those kind of standards that make it possible.

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