To Victoria Riskin, Writers Are Kings

May 26, 2003  •  Post A Comment

In May 2004, the current Hollywood contract between writers and producers expires. Negotiations are always difficult, and the result often sets a benchmark for the rest of the industry’s labor agreements. The last writers strike was an industry-crippling battle, primarily over who would share in burgeoning video, cable and new media markets.
“Over the years,” recalled Victoria Riskin, president of the Writers Guild of America West, “members were increasingly frustrated because [new markets] had grown tremendously and there were no increases in residuals to speak of, and creative rights were not getting dealt with. So there was a groundswell, pressure from inside the membership, to have a much more serious and full-on negotiation with the companies. And that’s what we did, I think to a beneficial effect.”
Ms. Riskin has held the unpaid but influential position of president for two years, and has to decide next month whether to run for another term and be part of that upcoming negotiation. She has already all but abandoned her producing career, although she is developing a feature film. “My background is in movies for television,” she said during a visit to her office in the WGA’s modern building near Farmers Market in Hollywood. “What I love to do is adapt classic American novels for the screen, things with a bigger historical or political perspective.”
In other words, all the kinds of things they are doing less of now. Ms. Riskin has been there to watch the parade of progress. She grew up the child of two parents in show business. Her father was a screenwriter. “My earliest memory of television is getting a set and seeing the McCarthy hearings and hearing, in my home, how our friends were being targeted as being communist. And the strong feelings of artists being blacklisted for their views and political interest. And how devastating that was. And feeling that we must do something about it.”
That is what drives Ms. Riskin: “This job is a great opportunity to at least begin a dialogue on issues, whether it is with our own members or members of the FCC. Or members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who are concerned about what they see on television. There is a personal concern about the impact it’s having on their families, on their communities.”
To her credit, Ms. Riskin has gone out to hear what they are saying. After 9/11, she made it a point to spend time with members of the Muslim community. “Some writers met to hear complaints about how Arabs are portrayed on film and in television,” she recalled. “It wasn’t hard to understand. I went to a movie that weekend where a video store is owned by a mustache-twirling Arab who was as awful a person as you can imagine. I didn’t have to be convinced.”
It seems as if writers should be able to do something about that in TV, where “they are kings,” Ms. Riskin said. “Writers run television. They create the shows, run the shows, serve as both producers and writers. Without a healthy source of talented and creative writers, television wouldn’t survive.”
Then why don’t they push up the quality? “The networks are part of major corporations,” she said. “They have to deliver a good bottom line to the stockholders year after year. They are competitive, and it’s very easy to forget that they should also have a responsibility to the American public.”
For a writer, it often depends on career status. “If you are on a hit show you have a good relationship with the network because they are happy to have you and are making bundles of money,” Ms. Riskin said, “vs. the shows that are on a cusp, and just trying to hang in, where writers often feel frustrated. There is often too much micro-managing from executives who are trying to do their job to keep the show alive but may not always know what the best choices are creatively.”
No issue hits home right now more than ownership of the airwaves, which will be part of the Federal Communications Commission vote June 2. To writers it represents not only diversity, but also a choice of places to work. It is their leverage. “I think the biggest issue right now, sort of on the bigger picture,” Ms. Riskin said, “is the concern that writers and the WGA have over what is the best landscape financially and creatively for developing series television.”
She credited the strong vision of individual showrunners for the success of many shows, and said group writing is acceptable in TV. “Particularly in comedies, that is just expected,” Ms. Riskin said. “Everybody pitches in. It’s a remarkable process, really, when you think of a bunch of people sitting in a room all getting along, week after week. They become like families.”
For many writers over the generations, the WGA has been like a family. It is a place to meet and share ideas, to gripe about everything from very real ageism concerns to discrimination against women and minorities to finding personal recognition and honors.
“Frank Pierson [who held both jobs] described the difference between being president of the [Motion Picture] Academy and the Writers Guild,” Ms. Riskin recalled. “He said being president of the Academy is like being picked up every day by a Rolls-Royce, and being president of the Writers Guild is like being given a racing car that you don’t know how to drive and then being put into the middle of a race. At times it can be pretty intense and high-speed.”
For someone fueled by a sense of service, like Victoria Riskin, it can be the ride of a lifetime.