A push for more N.Y. ‘writers’ rooms'

The New York writers' room on '30 Rock.' ()
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Nicole Levy

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When CBS bought the pilot she'd deliberately set in New York, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen had to negotiate with the network to staff the production in the city.

New York's TV-writing talent pool was shallow, she was told, but the former Time staff writer was skeptical: "While that may be true for known talent, I think there is a lot of untapped talent ... women, and minorities and people who look different than a lot of the writers in L.A., but who look like the rest of America," Cullen said.

As New York state lawmakers discuss the state budget that will go into effect April 1, the Writers Guild of America East is lobbying for a bill that would give film and television productions incentive to hire untapped writing talent.

"Including writers as a qualified production cost will create jobs for New Yorkers as well as preserve New York’s strong tradition as a creative center for entertainment," an AFL-CIO memo in support of the legislation said. 

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The bill amends the state's film tax credit program, which offers $420 million a year to cover mostly technical and crew production costs, like props, makeup, wardrobe, lighting and post-production. Under the proposed law, the credits would also reimburse writers' fees and salaries, up to $50,000 per project for qualified writers.

"The film and TV tax credits have been great—they've been extraordinarily successful in getting filming... even post-production in New York, but they haven't brought writing work to New York," said the guild's executive director, Lowell Peterson, who estimates that Los Angeles has eight times as many writers' rooms for television shows as New York. Tax credits in states such as Louisiana and Georgia already cover writers' earnings, he said. 

The incentive program has its critics, especially fiscal conservatives who consider it wasteful, but the state isn't backing away any time soon; last year, Governor Cuomo extended credits at their current cap to 2019. 

The prospective amendment to the program would allocate no more than $5 million of the $420 million tax credits to writers' wages.

"It's a small piece of the credit, so there aren't major interests that would lose out," Peterson said. He also argued, with Cullen, that more New York writers' rooms would create more diversity in television writing. "I think we would all gain, because, in the long run, having more diverse writing rooms benefits everyone."

Diversity among television writers has been a hot issue in the industry. A 2012 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that broadcast television shows employed women as 20 percent of their writing staff during the 1997-1998 season, and only 10 percent more during the 2011-2012 season. A 2013 report by the Writers Guild of America West determined that minority writers working for television shows subject to the union's oversight increased their share of employment from 7.5 to 15.6 percent between the 1990-2000 and 2011-2012 seasons.

"Starting with diversity in writing rooms ... means that in the next 15, 20 years, you'll have many more producers who are women or people of color," Petersen said.

Breaking into film and TV writing is a difficult task for anyone, he said. "It's hard to get the first five or six jobs; a lot of it is who you know."

"I think people like me have stories to tell," said Cullen, who is an Asian-American, "and I think we sound a little different and we have life experiences that are different from many of the writers who are working in Los Angeles today." Writers who know New York well will definitely depict the city as a setting more authentically than anyone else, she said.

The bill's sponsor in the assembly, Harlem assemblyman Keith Wright, is "very optimistic" about its prospects, a spokesperson said. "The clock is ticking, but we do have some time, and therefore we do hope that this will make it."