We live in some very uncertain times, and now more than ever it seems that the TV industry is bracing itself and tightening their belts for the unknown that lies ahead. At the same time, the industry is finally turning an eye inward and trying to address issues of diversity and inclusion at all levels. Unfortunately for many working in the Canadian TV industry, those belts were already pretty tight, the pockets weren’t very deep, and the industry not all that diverse. This is why members of BIPOC TV & Film started a Change.org petition on Friday, June 5, 2020 asking the Writers Guild of Canada to protect the script/story coordinator position under their agreement. BIPOC TV & Film is a collective of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in Canada’s TV and film industry dedicated to increasing the representation of BIPOC both in front and behind the camera.
The petition detailed how story coordinating, once an entry level position, has evolved greatly over the years to include many more roles and responsibilities, all while keeping the pay and benefits at a minimum. Despite story coordinators being an essential position to writing rooms, the petition detailed how pay increases only come when a writer is able to get a Story Editor credit or higher on a script. This then also brings along the benefits of being part of the WGC. In recent years, fewer Canadian TV scripted originals ordered by networks have led to less writing work all around, and therefore many coordinators can be forced to stay in the position, with low pay and no benefits, for many years. It’s quickly evolved from a position always held by entry level writers into one held by professional writers with agents of their own.
When news of the BIPOC TV & Film petition broke, many current Canadian TV showrunners and writers took to Twitter and other forms of social media in support of the petition. From Tassie Cameron (Lady Dicks, Mary Kills People), Jeremy Boxen (Imposters), Aaron Martin (Another Life, Slasher), Morwyn Brebner (Coroner), and more, writer after writer showed support for the petition and shared stories of how they too had started at the story coordinator position. In response to the petition and the social media outcry, the Writers Guild of Canada sent a formal response out to its members on Friday, June 19.
This response came after the WGC said that it had conversations with many showrunner members of the WGC, its governing Council, and meetings they have held with script/story coordinators in different production sectors in the past. The WGC said that it does not consider or treat the position as a writing position. The Guild said they had a call with BIPOC Film & TV to understand the context and the urgency of the petition on Friday, June 12, 2020. Present at the call was WGC Executive Director Maureen Parker and WGC Councillors Alex Levine and Marsha Greene, who is also the WGC Diversity Committee Chair, and it took place with representatives from BIPOC Film & TV. Following response from that news, the WGC issued yet another statement on Thursday, June 25 stating a commitment to continue looking at the story coordinator role and that they would be approaching the “CMPA to discuss the inclusion of Story Coordinators in the Independent Production Agreement with a new definition.”
To understand why now was the right time to raise the issue in this petition, as well as hear the response to the WGC’s statement, The TV Junkies spoke with petition organizers Gillian Müller and Keavy Lynch, along with BIPOC TV & Film founder Nathalie Younglai.
The TV Junkies: Just for clarification purposes, who is behind writing this petition and bringing it to BIPOC TV & Film?
Keavy Lynch: This initiative was started by Gillian Müller, a writer and director who is on the Visioning Committee of BIPOC TV & Film, and runs Communications and Outreach for the organization. Gillian and Nathalie Younglai, the Founder and head of BIPOC TV & Film, are working in conjunction with many former and current story coordinators, and with the support of several senior writers and showrunners. They approached me because I worked with BIPOC TV & Film to deliver a free panel and workshop about story coordinating. It was so popular we had to move to a bigger venue. This is a really competitive position because it’s regarded by many as the way into a writers room.
Gillian Müller: Because BIPOC TV & Film was built from a ground up as a grassroots organization that responds to the needs of our most vulnerable members, we are really tapped into the realities of what we, as BIPOC creatives face in terms of hurdles and obstacles in the industry. I was lucky to be able to join the WGC with my first script for Travelers, but I worked as a Coordinator for the next few years. I was so devastated to see my benefits disappear even though I was still working in television writers’ rooms. Even though I was in the Guild and paying dues, I was no longer protected by them. It didn’t make sense and we want to do something about that. It was a natural fit for BIPOC TV and Film’s behind-the-scenes advocacy work.
TTVJ: What is the main issue you’re trying to solve with this petition?
GM: Protection for the most junior writers in a writing room. On a Canadian show, the story coordinator is the “entry-level” job through which many TV writers break into a writers’ room. Currently the position is not protected by the Writers Guild and as writers, that’s where we want to be.
Nathalie Younglai: Story coordinators are writers. They may not have a promise of writing a script or half script on a series, but essentially they are writers entering the system with the intent to work their way up to getting a script as a working screenwriter. Showrunners almost always read a coordinator’s writing sample before hiring them. If they don’t have a half-script to offer in that first season of employment, oftentimes a promise of a half or full script is dangled for the second season of employment. Many Writers Guild members work as story coordinators before and after joining the guild, but these workers receive no union protections and are unable to collect benefits on this work.
GM: The position is demanding and asks for a 24/7 commitment. However, because it has a reputation of being “entry level” it can be easy to underpay. But coordinators carry responsibility that effects production. We work in a business that uses money to qualify worth and when you have writers and showrunners showing their support and demanding that coordinators be paid fairly and treated like the integral members of the writers room that they are, it should be a no-brainer to work towards that goal.
NY: New coordinators in particular often don’t have agents yet and can be unaware of industry standards, so many are taken advantage of. Compound that with racism and unconscious bias that emerging BIPOC writers must face and you’ve put a writer in an extremely vulnerable position. It is essential for the Guild to support these most vulnerable writers by providing them with benefits, set fair pay minimums and clear expectations for the job.
TTVJ: On any given TV show, I’m not sure many know what all goes into story coordinating. Can you give us a brief overview or maybe what a typical day looks like?
KL: In Canada, there is usually just one person doing multiple jobs: taking notes in the writers room, proofing outlines and scripts, getting lunches, snacks, office supplies, liaising with various production departments, as well as managing the showrunner’s schedule, research, tech support, and whatever else might be required of them that day. And the coordinator is doing all this while they’re also pitching story ideas and helping to break episodes like the other writers. A good coordinator has to be an incredible self-starter and make a thousand small decisions a day to take pressure off your showrunner, but keeping in mind that any mistakes you make can be expensive for the production – it’s very stressful! Because you’re often the only assistant performing all these tasks, days are easily 12 hours long, and during production you always have to be on call – even on the weekends – in case there are new script pages to proof.
NY: A big part of the story coordinating role when you’re in the writing room, in addition to taking notes and scheduling meetings and making sure the snack cupboard is full, is the actual writing part. As a junior writer, you are splitting your brain between taking notes, and also contributing to the room creatively: pitch solutions, story ideas, jokes, lines, season arcs, tracking storylines and character arcs. And since this is often the only role that brings in a sole BIPOC writer into the room, you’re also expected to be the race police and speak for all BIPOC experiences, which is an unfair burden to place on one junior writer.
TTVJ: To people on the outside the industry, it’s a little hard to decipher what full writing credits, story credits, or half credits all mean. Why do credits matter so much in the Guild and why’s it often so hard for coordinators to get any despite contributing to ideas and stories in the room?
GM: All the WGC-eligible positions in the writers’ room come with a title, starting from story editors at the bottom and going up to executive producers / showrunners. All of these titles are currently covered under the Writers Guild, but the story coordinator title is not. In order to join the guild, a writer must have either a story editor credit or a writing credit (which could be a credit for co-writing a script with someone else or writing on your own).
NY: Years ago, it was common for shows to have 20+ episode seasons, so the most junior people in the room had a chance at getting to write or co-write a script and advance their TV writing careers. Reality is, these days broadcasters are commissioning shorter seasons of 10, 8, or even 6 episodes, so there aren’t as many episodes to go around, and they are quickly assigned to upper-level writers. This means that story coordinators can spend years working in writers’ rooms before they get a chance to move up, join the guild and most importantly, get the significant wage increase that comes with a TV writing credit.
TTVJ: Why was now the time to raise the issue in this petition?
KL: Coordinators have been underpaid and taken advantage of for years, but after seeing many initiatives to improve BIPOC representation and working conditions across the industry and in different industries (including #PayUpHollywood), we feel that there’s now a desire among many people to be a part of the solution instead of the problem.
NY: We’ve been proven right by the tremendous outpouring of support. The petition received over 6000 signatures, and offers of support including from many showrunners.
GM: Guilds and Unions are working with the government to make the industry a safer place to work in after the pandemic, at the same time we are the middle of one of the biggest and most recent civil rights movement in history. BIPOC TV and Film is dedicated to advocating for a fair and responsible show business that protects our most vulnerable members – folks who might not be able to take the financial risk to enter the industry and the Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour who often hold this position as well as the being the “diverse” person in the room.
TTVJ: This seems like a position that many writers and current showrunners have probably held at one point or another. Why is it such an important step in a successful writer’s journey?
KL: What’s great about getting to work as a story coordinator is that you’re generally there from the beginning of the writers room to the end of production. While many mid-level writers’ contracts end before production starts, the story coordinator gets to see the whole process of creating the show and learn about how production works, what each department does, and what challenges can arise. That’s why former coordinators can make great showrunners.
TTVJ: The petition states that the coordinator position is often held by BIPOC writers. Why are they so often relegated to that position and what steps still need to be taken by the industry to get more BIPOC writers in rooms?
GM: The big reason is that television writers’ rooms in Canada have historically been very, very white. This means that most senior-level writers are white, and few BIPOC writers have the experience to be hired in a producer-level role. Now that more showrunners are making the effort to hire marginalized voices, we’re seeing an influx of new BIPOC writers working as coordinators. However, many of these talented BIPOC writers are set up to fail – with unfair pay, no training, a lack of resources and mentorship, and often relying on other coordinators to volunteer their time to show them the ropes.
NY: I cringe when I see the story coordinator is the token BIPOC writer in an all-white writing room. The solution is easy: hire more BIPOC writers, at all levels. And if the handful of mid-level and senior BIPOC writers are busy, then promote and nurture another BIPOC writer to that level and give them the support they need to succeed.
Story coordinators should join the Writers Guild of Canada. Till that happens, I promise: whenever I’m blessed with my next writers’ room, the story coordinator will get a WGC STORY EDITOR contract.
TTVJ: Where do things stand from here? What are your next steps?
NY: We’re glad that the WGC has changed their initial stance, and intends to work with us on bringing coordinators into the guild. We’ve had many great conversations with showrunners and producers on how to make this happen, and we are looking forward to continuing these conversations with the WGC. We want to make sure that the issue stays a priority for the guild all the way through to IPA negotiations in two years. We are not giving up until there is a long-term solution in place.
TTVJ: Are there any ways for people to keep helping?
GM: I am blown away by the creative solutions I am reading on Twitter and Facebook and the conversations we are having with those who support the petition. If you want to picture a different world get Screenwriters on the problem! The main thing for us at BIPOC TV & Film is to keep those conversations alive.
NY: It’s gonna take a village to move this mountain. Members and non-members of both the CMPA and WGC need to continue speaking up, using their sphere of influence to keep the pressure on to make change happen. It’s important to build a bridge between the CMPA, WGA and IATSE, for the sake of moving forward with making the industry more equitable to all and in particular, to BIPOC creatives who have long been shut out.
TTVJ: Is there anything I didn’t touch on that you wanted to get out there?
GM: This isn’t just about story coordinators, this is about taking a look at a system that favors the rich and powerful and holds the gate closed for anyone else. We can no longer live in a world that treats the folks who work in our entry-level positions as disposable because they are “paying their dues”. Show business is hard enough as it is, and we have to start taking care of each other or else we are not evolving. Status Quo is not an option, and we’re glad the WGC will be working with us to make that happen.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.