The L.A. Times, which actually knows about these things because, you know, company town, gives us the info we all need:
Golden Age of TV is not so golden for writers: Why the Writers Guild of America is moving closer to a strike
by David Ng
A decade ago, Hollywood writers brought the entertainment industry to a standstill when they walked off the job for three months in a dispute over pay for movies and TV shows distributed online. The strike halted dozens of TV and movie productions and sent shock waves through the Los Angeles economy.
Now, the Hollywood community is feeling a sense of déjà vu as the possibility of another strike looms large. After the collapse of talks with the major studios, the Writers Guild of America is seeking a strike authorization vote from members. While the union has until May 1 to reach an agreement, tensions are as high as they’ve been in years, say people close to the negotiations not authorized to comment.
The charged atmosphere is the result of a perfect storm of economic and digital changes bearing down on the business. Since the last writers strike, the industry has seen far-reaching shifts. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have transformed Hollywood and contributed to an unprecedented number of quality series being produced — a phenomenon often described as the new Golden Age of TV.
But times haven’t been golden for many writers for whom more is now less. Shorter seasons are the new norm, with many series consisting of 10 or fewer episodes on cable and streaming — less than half the length of traditional seasons on network shows. That has put writers in a financial crunch since many have exclusivity clauses that prevent them from working on multiple shows per season.
With reruns becoming a thing of the past, scribes are seeing smaller paychecks. As a result, they are contributing less to the guild’s health and pension plans at a time when more baby boomers are retiring and drawing on the plans.
“It’s getting more and more difficult to make a living as a writer,” said John Bowman, a TV writer-producer, and former head of the WGA negotiating committee.
Studios are equally dug in as more customers cut the cable cord in favor of streaming options. They’re also grappling with a dramatic fall-off in once-lucrative DVD sales and a flattening of attendance at the multiplex. They are releasing fewer titles a year, meaning fewer opportunities for screenwriters.
All of this has set the stage for conflict. A strike authorization vote is set to take place mid-April. The move is a typical negotiating tactic by unions, but the WGA said it’s a response to the hard-line position taken by the studios, which have so far refused most of their demands….
This month, Ghost in the Shell will be released with Scarlett Johansson, a white actress, cast as Japanese character: Major Motoko Kusanagi. This is a process known as ‘white-washing’: Hollywood’s long-standing racist practice of casting white actors as characters of color.
In the 1930’s, we had ‘yellowface’: ‘Predictably, Asian Americans actors would spend most of the war years cast as sinister Japanese, often in films now viewed with some embarrassment. There were still “good Asian” roles being written–but they were restricted to Caucasian actors while Asian Americans played the villains.’
Chloe Tze: The University of California School of Journalism put out this study. There was a report that said less than 4.5% of Asians were on screen in speaking roles over the span of six years. So we’re not represented. You’re more likely to see an alien on screen than an Asian female. (Queer Women of Color Panel @ ClexaCon 2017)
Why? There’s a whole raft of reasons why, but here’s a small snapshot: Writers aren’t writing roles for people of Asian descent. In the rare cases when we are, they’re being given to Caucasians.
When asked about the controversy surrounding her casting, Scarlett Johansson told Marie Claire magazine:
“I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive. Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that—the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.”
But, much as I love ScarJo, she is playing a character of another race, which is a problem precisely because there is so little inclusion in Hollywood. Kusanagi is a distinctly Japanese name. This is a Japanese character.
She’s right that there is a dearth of films with female protagonists. The same NPR study above shows that only one third of female characters on screen have speaking roles (let alone leading roles). Combine that with the incredibly low instance of Asians in speaking roles, and despite her intentions and her personal desires, Johansson has usurped a role where an Asian woman should have been cast.
But this is more on the casting director than it is on the actress. So, what did Steven Paul, a producer on the film, have to say about this choice to white-wash the movie?
“I don’t think it was just a Japanese story,”Paul told BuzzFeed. “Ghost in the Shell was a very international story, and it wasn’t just focused on Japanese; it was supposed to be an entire world. That’s why I say the international approach is, I think, the right approach to it.”
Basically: this story isn’t focused on Japan exclusively, so therefore we cast a white woman as a clearly Japanese character.
“Here’s the thing. The great thing about anime is that it’s ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It’s intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No that’s just in our house. And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that’s what’s so beautiful about anime.” – M. Night Shyamalan
I mean, who could tell that Aang was a Tibetan monk, Katara and Sokka were Innuits, and Zuko was Japanese? Anyone with eyes. Anyone who watched the show. And also…
The creators of the original cartoon: Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino.
The thing is: Avatar was not an anime. It was an American cartoon in the vein of anime. Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino had a blueprint for how they created their characters – and that blueprint was distinctly based on Asian culture. It’s not like Shymalan had to guess. His excuses, like always when a movie is white-washed, don’t hold water.
Even though the creators of Ghost in the Shell back the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson, and even though I doubt these decisions were made on purpose to harm Asians, the impact stays the same: another clearly Japanese character will be played by a Caucasian actor. Regardless of intent, this film is now a part of the history of American white-washing.
It’s worth thinking about this both if you’re considering seeing this movie and when you sit down to write your own stories. What are you doing to combat this? Are you writing Asian or Asian American characters into your shows in an ethical way? Are you bolstering stories by Asian creators? Informing people about this issue? Sharing this and/or manyotherarticles?
When you sit down to write a story, have you ever thought about whether or not you’re telling it ethically? I don’t mean does it have a lesson at the end. I mean, do you think about your characters, who you’re depicting, and if you might hurt real live people in tangible ways if you screw it up? I mean, is that really a thing? It’s ‘just a story’, after all.
The panelists at ClexaCon’s Ethics in Storytelling panel have a lot to say about that, and they’re here to help you make better decisions in your stories (and just be really damn smart in the process).
March 3rd – 5th 2017, a group of 2,200 women came together at ClexaCon to share their favorite shows, meet their favorite actresses, talk about their representation in the media, support queer female creators, and, most importantly, to try to find a way forward.
ClexaCon is named after the ‘pairing name’ of Clarke & Lexa of The 100, as Lexa’s death was a tipping point in terms of general awareness of the ‘bury your gays’ trope that haunts stories that feature queer characters.
‘Bury Your Gays’: a trope that disallows happy endings for queer characters, also known as ‘Dead Lesbian Syndrome’ as it often results in, you guessed it, killing lesbian characters
So, with a focus on the depiction of minorities in the media, what is ethical and what is not?
If you’re going to talk about ethics in storytelling, you have to ask yourself first: are there cultural repercussions for bad storytelling? Are there cultural repercussions for depicting minorities in ways that are damaging? The answer is obviously yes.
Throughout the history of time, from the very beginning of recorded stories, our perception of people who are not like us is shaped by the stories people tell. I had the amazing experience to speak with some teenagers at a high school recently. I asked: where have you seen trans women on TV?
They were like: Law and Order: SVU. All of them.
In 2008, GLAAD started measuring the attitudes on marriage equality against the number of gay characters on television. What they found out, year by year, is there is a direct increase.
Every year half a percent more characters were gay, lesbian, transgender, and every year 2% more American supported equality. When GLAAD called, they said: ‘Hey, why do you all of a sudden support marriage equality?’ They’d say things like: ‘Because of Kurt Hummel.’
They saw these TV characters come into their life. They became like real people to them, and they were like: I think Santana and Brittany should be able to get married. It becomes very real to you. So the worst thing a storyteller could say is: it’s just a story. It’s not just a fuckin’ story. There’s no such thing as ‘just a story’.
I will get slightly technical here. My background is in linguistics, so stories matter partly because of the way our brain functions. Our brain is incredibly lazy.
That is because it is more efficient for your brain to be lazy. Stories create what I call ‘meaning pathways’. Linguistically, a word could have five different meanings. How do you know which one it means? Your brain remembers this one is used in this context, this other word is used in this other one. The more common words or meanings are going to have the deepest ruts in your brain.
Those are going to be harder to change, but we know they can change. Because the more you interact with a new meaning and a new story, it wears away at that rut, and suddenly you can change the meaning of something the more you interact with a new interpretation of it.
We can change the way people think. This is how our brains function. We know it scientifically. That’s why stories matter. Because stories literally change the way your brain functions and what you think about. If we can start telling more and more stories about ourselves, we change minds by telling new stories, and people interact with these stories in new ways over a span of time.
That brings us to the concept of the trope as well. That’s a term from literary studies. They’re these little pieces of stories that authors of literature have used for ages, that we all know and love – some of them. They’re shortcuts. The same sort of pathways. Pieces of stories we think of the same way as words that have snippets of meaning.
The opposite problem is that it’s hard to change those ruts that have formed once they’ve formed. That’s the problem we have with these tropes. They’ve been worn over for so many years. To actually create the capacity to change: that is what we’re talking about at the con in general.
What people fail to realize is that if you’re not subverting the story, you’re in some sense reintegrating that story. If you’re not consciously subverting it, your brain is going to keep going down that established pathway.
Right? How did Donald Trump get elected? He got elected by telling the story that we see on TV and then the story that Fox News repeats over and over and over again. When we see black men on television, 94% of the time, they’re criminals. Then you get Donald Trump saying ‘black on black crime’.
The New York Times did this article a couple days after the election where they had all of these people who write Muslim characters, and all of them write Muslim characters as terrorists. They asked: Do you feel responsibility for this? And they said: Well, the network wants terrorists, and they want them to be Muslim.
If you’re not subverting it, you’re allowing these monstrous situations to rise up. If you live in the middle of the country and you don’t know any Muslim people, and all you see on TV are Muslim terrorists, it’s just continuing to feed into that rut. It just gets deeper and deeper and deeper. Even though it’s not the truth it feels like the truth because it’s a lie that’s been told over and over again.
The absence of contradiction is in some sense a reinforcement. So even if you write a queer character, if you’re not giving them a happy ending, you’re not consciously subverting the narrative that queer people always have tragic stories.
That’s what makes it a trope is accrual over time. It’s not that any particular artist is participating in a trope, it’s just that the absence of subverting it or actively using it automatically contributes to it whether they have intention behind it or not. That’s something I wanted to get to in the panel today.
The thing about that is, whatever the author’s intention was doesn’t really matter because the impact is greater than the intent. That’s always the case.
What we’re saying is that once a trope becomes established it’s so easy to fall into it. Lexa was the turning point. There were a lot of factors that made Lexa the turning point, but when Lexa died, after that, 24 more lesbian and bisexual characters have died since then.
In the total of history of lesbian and bisexual women on TV, there have been 172 that have died. 24 in the last year, that’s 15% of all deaths just in 2016 since Lexa died. The thing is that it becomes so common.
I think when you have an established trope like “Bury Your Gays”, whether they want to understand it or not, this trope has existed for close to 100 years. This is not a brand new trope. This was a trope primarily in literature especially in the middle of the twentieth century where there was a lot of censorship in written media: things like comic books and novels. Where it was okay to depict a gay man or a lesbian woman so long as they did not get a happy ending.
The reason that existed is because giving them a happy ending was an endorsement. It meant that ‘this was now an okay thing for the children to do’, and they were not okay with that. So it was like: ‘Fine, have a lesbian romance, but both of them have to have some kind of tragic ending.’ Typically what would happen is that the lesbian character would get killed off, and then the other woman who was probably bisexual: she might go crazy, she might also die, or she might end up married to a man.
That was where ‘Bury Your Gays’ came from.
It was literally that if you wanted the stamp of approval from the Comics Code Authority you had to follow the written rule and the written rule was: No gay characters with happy endings.
Back to Kate G: So, folks, stories do matter. What you write can change minds and society (for good or ill).
We have a legacy of terrible tropes like ‘bury your gays’ that were originally aimed at hurting gay people. And we have a whole lot of bad storytelling that was done simply because folks didn’t care enough about how their depiction of LGBTQ people could affect real live people. Writers today have a responsibility to know what these tropes and stereotypes are and to not replicate them.
If you aren’t subverting a damaging trope, you are reinforcing it. No matter your intentions.
Coming Friday: Part II – the non-television friendly model of the artist, who’s doing it right, and how much do the writer’s intentions matter?
Kathryn Graham is a Contributing Writer to TVWriter™. Learn more about Kate HERE
Great advice from a site by, about, and for pro s-f and fantasy writers…and all of us aspiring to, erm, same:
Advice On Landing a Genre TV Lit Agent
by Joshua Sky
For those interested in breaking into genre television writing, an agent is paramount. They are the gatekeepers into a very exclusive world with a limited number of buyers. Here are some useful tips to garner representation. Please keep in mind: There is no one way of becoming represented, and this is solely based on my personal experience.
The first thing a writer will need are two killer television scripts, in the same format and in their target genre. This may sound obvious, but is nevertheless true. The hardest part isn’t just writing your script, it’s getting someone to read it, which is why it has to be excellent because second chances with a script reader are rare. The reason the writer will need at least two samples is because the agent wants proof that the scribe can do it more than once.
The writer will need to be very specific about exactly what kind of scribe they are gunning to be. A Hollywood agent won’t want someone who is open to any genre. For example: someone who blithely says that they’ll write anything, or enjoys both comedy and drama. So be precise. For our intents and purposes, we are targeting the science fiction / genre market. The samples that got me my second TV agent were two science fiction pilots. I pitched myself as the kind of writer who understood high-concept genre fare and yearned to write one-hour dramas. Shows like Man in the High Castle, Westworld and The Expanse.
After you have the requisite samples, and only then, you can begin submitting and querying agents. But to be honest, referrals work best. In my ten years in the industry, I have never met any writers who have been able to obtain a reputable TV agent via email query. I’ve heard tales of that happening, but they are very rare, like people who sell scripts that don’t live in LA, it’s more the exception than the rule.
Speaking of locations, it’s extremely beneficial to live in Los Angeles since that is where most of the buyers and showrunners are based. I used to live in New York, and desperately wanted to make it from there. But after years of trying, it was clear that my goal was unrealistic. My first agent who signed me was based in Manhattan. Before the ink dried on our contract, she looked up at me and said, “When are you moving to LA?”
Which leads to another important piece of advice, get into the industry any way you can. It’s difficult to make the right contacts unless you are located in LA, and working in the business. Breaking into TV is a monumental task, especially in the early stages. Selling fiction is a very different animal than getting staffed on a show or landing a freelance script assignment. For one, you can sell short stories without ever having to meet the buyers, but LA is extremely contacts and reputation driven. The buyers tend to want to meet the writers, even if they secretly have no intention of buying. Though quality writing counts most, it’s unfortunately not the only deciding factor….
In the early days of Netflix, video rental companies like Blockbuster were the established opposition. Old media and distribution channels kept a watchful eye on the media-streaming newcomer, but felt no reason to be concerned.
That changed in 2002, when — just five years after it was founded — Netflix went public. It has been a hit ever since. Blockbuster, on the other hand, was absorbed by DISH in 2011 after filing for bankruptcy, leaving just a handful of franchise stores operating throughout the United States.
Times have changed, but ongoing public demand for innovative new access to entertainment hasn’t. Internet access and social networks have given consumers more options. Consumers, in turn, have started to play a bigger role in shaping the market. But now that we’re at a point where the entertainment and media (E&M) market is saturated with streaming offerings, the next logical questions to ask are: Where do we go from here? Is there still a place for media-streaming startups?
The short answer is… yes. The E&M industry is going through a lot of flux, and traditional pay-TV subscriptions are falling — one PwC survey from the fall of 2015noted that only 56 percent of viewers are maintaining TV subscriptions. In comparison, 23 percent are scaling back pay-TV packages, 16 percent have unsubscribed and 5 percent have never had a pay-TV subscription at all. Just two years ago, more than 90 percent of American consumers said they expected to renew their cable packages for another year, but that number fell to 79 percent in 2015….