Written By - March 1999
They Train Writers, Don't They?

A Closer Look at the Writers Guild Training Program

Written by Kathleen Fairweather

Ahh, the writer's life: waking up in the morning flush with ideas, brewing that cup of coffee, relaxing on the balcony with the newspaper before we sit down at the computer to whip out the sonnets and screenplays
that will, of course, make us rich and famous. While this scenario might be true for some writers, according to recent statistics, if you are female, disabled, a person of color, or happen to be over 40, you might find better odds for yourself playing the state lottery.

However, before you trade in your word processor for scratch-off tickets, take heart: Over the last 10 years, this dreary picture is looking a little brighter, particularly for writers of color and women writers (as long as they're under 40!). This is attributable to increased awareness among employers, and, to some extent, the Writers Guild Training Program.

In 1981, The Writers Guild of America, west implemented the Writers Training Program, as provided in Article 38.F of the WGA's Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA). This voluntary program seeks to increase the training and employment opportunities available to writers who are in the "protected classes" as designated and defined by the federal government, namely people with disabilities, racial or ethnic minorities, females, and/or persons 40 years of age or older.

Although the Guild administers the program, it does not match writers with companies, or companies with writers. Once a writer determines he or she is eligible, it is up to that writer to obtain a position as a trainee. This position should be with an episodic drama or comedy television series that is in at least its second year of production. While it is up to the writer to find an eligible production, producers themselves may also tap qualified individuals to participate as trainees on their shows.

Once the writer or producer finds a match, the company then contacts the Guild to request that the writer trainee be placed on the show under the terms of the contract. The writer is then hired as a trainee under the WGA's MBA for a minimum of six weeks (at $627.00 per week), with an option to extend another 14 weeks.

Shows that have participated in the trainee program include Moesha, Star Trek: Voyager, The Nanny, The Cosby Show, Amen, China Beach and Roseanne. Former Star Trek: Voyager trainee and Guild member Christiana Miller enthusiastically recounts her days as a trainee. "I learned the importance of breaking down a story before you start to write. Being a trainee improved my writingas well--I learned to write faster and better [within] the dynamics of a group writing situation. I also learned that theory is just that, and it doesn't really sink in until you are in the room and get to see the practical application for yourself. As a writer, [the training program] gave me a much clearer picture of the work, and a more visceral understanding of the whole process."

During his very first day as a trainee on the set of Star Trek: Voyager, Troye Jenkins described how he came to be involved with the program, "I sent the Executive Producer, Brannon Braga, a letter of interest outlining why this show was the best place for me. I am both a writer and cameraman, and I chose this show, because I had the occasion to work here, and am familiar with both the lot and the show."

Braga explained the production process involved in making the selection of a trainee as Jenkins listened, noting, "We receive many applications and look for a broad education and background. Our trainees do not have to be screenwriting graduates--although we would hire a grad if we thought it was a good match for our show. We look for a trainee who can fit into the creative mix and won't slow the process down.

"We have had some trainees who have gone on to writing careers or production jobs," he added. "We also have had some interns who turned out to be totally inappropriate. We now have a list of 'don'ts' for interns." For example? Braga leans back in his chair and laughs, "Don't ask me for a job on your first day."

Braga then outlined the program guidelines and duties that are expected of trainees and delivered a mini-sermon to Jenkins: "You are here to learn and observe and see what it is like to be a writer. You will not be required to do any writing, but that does not preclude you from pitching or working on something in your own hours. You are welcome to observe and sometimes participate in meetings including casting, production, budgets and creative story meetings." Braga wrapped up the welcome speech with an anecdote about a wayward former trainee, then sent Jenkins off to his first assignment, which was to review coverage and script submissions. (Star Trek: Voyager is one of the few shows that has an open submission policy.)

After Jenkins went to work, Braga summed up his view of the trainee program and its benefits, noting "We wouldn't have been involved with the trainee program if it wasn't beneficial to the show. We have had a lot of quality people come through here. I would encourage any producer who runs a television show to work with the WGA Trainee program."

Vida Spears, executive producer on the TV show Moesha, agrees. "I personally think it's a great program that encourages companies to hire new writers. These writers then get their foot in the door and really learn the business of writing. I think more producers need to be aware of the trainee program and these benefits. I believe the Writers Guild can help with that--especially in outlining the procedures for producers. We have had a wonderful experience with our writer trainees."

Moesha writer and soon-to-be producer Silvia Cardenas also has praise for her own participation: "It wouldn't have happened for me without the trainee program. This was a wonderful learning experience. I was allowed into casting, production meetings, sweetening and editing sessions. I got a real look at this business and a great opportunity to learn with professionals."

What do some of the trainee alumni have to say about the program? Guild member Paris Qualles recalls his experiences: "I was hired to do research for the television show Amen and got to know the characters very well. I wrote two versions of a scene on my own time, and showed it to the creative producer. He got
the ball rolling for me with the Guild, and I was invited to become a trainee. After I completed the program, I was hired on. I stayed for two years and worked my way up the ladder."

Qualles, whose credits also include episodes of China Beach, Quantum Leap and Law & Order is currently working on a civil war feature film for Whitney Houston and Laurence Bender. He also encourages television producers to hire trainees. "It's a lot tougher out there today; budgets and staff are smaller, leaving less opportunity for everyone. Writers who are members of the protected classes need that extra boost to break in."

The Employment Access Department of the Writers Guild is preparing a program outline in time for an April mailing to the executive producers of signatory television shows. The outline will contain guidelines as they pertain to the company's responsibilities, writer trainee recruitment and compensation. At present, each show may only employ one trainee for each episodic series (drama or comedy) and there may be no more than 75 trainees employed on an industry-wide basis in any calendar year. However, waivers are sometimes granted to allow companies to vary some of these requirements. The program is completely voluntary and the trainee's salary is to be paid from the company's production budget.

Zara Taylor, head of the WGAw's Employment Access Department, describes the training program in terms of the Guild: "It is very important that producers understand that this program is intended to train novices and allow them to experience what production is like. The goal is for them to create relationships, learn the craft, participate in writing exercises, sample script revisions and notes. Other writers can critique their work, and, if the trainee has real talent, they might impress the executive producer and eventually be offered a staff position.">

Taylor cautions that the trainees may not accept writing assignments that are intended for production on a show. "It is important that everyone understand that the purpose of this program is not to hire trainees to render writing services in the place of Guild members."

How do the Guild members feel about this program? Taylor responds, "Some Guild members have expressed concern about this program--that it offers opportunities for non-Guild members that are not offered to existing members, and they worry that it presents competition for them. However, no evidence supports this contention. Moreover, there are several other access tools and opportunities for Guild members as well."

Statistically, these groups are grossly underrepresented. "For example," Taylor points out, "only 1.4 percent of Guild members are Latino." Taylor believes that these statistics will change if shows reach out to available new writers--thus increasing the diversity in the talent pool--and she encourages employers to give greater access to diverse writers who are already Guild members. Taylor notes that out of 158 writers who have come through the training program since 1986, 56 (or 36 percent) have joined the Guild. Clearly there is much room for growth for this program to expand and meet the goals of increased diversification in the Guild, on the productions and, ultimately, in the programming itself.

Kathleen Fairweather is a documentary filmmaker and freelance writer whose work has appeared previously in Written By and DGA Magazine.

A description of the Writers Guild Training Program and a complete list of partcipating shows is available through the Writers Guild Employment Access Department by calling 323/782-4548.