The Conversations From The Picket Lines series aims to spotlight the talented Hollywood screenwriters who are currently participating in the Writer’s Guild Of America strike. Our first guest is screenwriter and podcast host, Hilliard Guess.
GVN: Hello Hilliard! Thank you so much for taking time to speak with Geek Vibes Nation. Could you start by telling our readers about yourself and your career as a screenwriter?
I was born in Detroit, youngest of five, Military Brat, then we hopped over to Brooklyn for a few years before settling in East Palo Alto, California (Bay Area). This was the mid-70s when my neighborhood was considered one of the most dangerous places to live in America. I was raised amongst chaos, but the city molded me into the person I am today. Which is probably why I consider myself a “cool nerd.” The ‘hood has its way of toughening you up in ways that just – stick with you.
I literally went from breakdancing on the corners with my homies, to busting up Nazi Skinheads in the raging MOD/Rudeboy Punk Scene which was at its height in the Bay in the early and mid-80s. It was an intense, Reagan-era, rebellious time and our scene was poppin’ with vintage scooters, Shark-skin suits, Quadrophenia and Rocky Horror Picture Show, Punk and SKA music and kids showing off their most killer 60s fashion. Somehow, all of us misfits rode the storm together and had one another’s back. Hell, some of us have even remained friends decades later.
Back in the day, I was a triple-threat — so my career path was a montage of theater, commercials, spots on network TV and back-up dancing in music videos for some of the top artists in the 90s. But by the early 2000s, this gay black man penned a script that landed on the short list of one of those top competitions everyone’s always talking about, and my career path pivoted from center stage to behind the scenes as a TV/Film writer and since ‘09, a producer, director and even a podcast host of both the long-running, iconic Screenwriter’s Rant Room & WGAW 3rd & Fairfax.
I have always been an outsider/underdog type of cat, so it’s no surprise that I pen underdog, redemption stories set in the murder-death-kill-world.
Most recently, I’ve spent the last year as Director of Development at showrunner Ben Watkins’ Blue Monday Productions, collaborating closely with Ben and our amazing team, overseeing our amazing slate of projects, working with writers, developing pitches for TV/Film and even spearheading the staffing of two high-profile series that were in writers’ rooms right up to the day the WGA Writers Strike hit. Now, I produce project-to-project for BMP and develop my own projects and staffing.
In all the years that you’ve been in the industry, what would you say are some of the main issues that have led to the current Writer’s Guild of America strike?
Before I dive in, I have to clarify that a lot of my white writer friends have been through this as well. But I ‘ve got to be me and give you my perspective to help shed some light on the situation. I’ll keep it 100 — being a BIPOC, underrepresented, queer writer isn’t respected in Hollywood. There, I said it. Anyone in these categories mentioned above are the first to suffer. The first to feel the pain of a strike, the first to be axed from a staff or assignment, the first to be offered an “If Come Deal” (to write for free – if the project sells, then you are paid) beause most of us are barely making a living in this cutthroat business.
Even when we do manage to land a staff gig or feature assignment, they throw us in these Mini rooms or a give us One Step deals. Now, these mini rooms last about 10 weeks, and pay “scale.” Yeah, scale might sound like decent, middle-class money on paper (sure, if we lived in like Iowa or something). But let me break it down for you. Imagine you’ve only worked on one show that year, for ten weeks, at scale? What does that mean? After agent fees, manager cuts, lawyer’s share (that’s 25 percent off the top), and don’t even get me started on taxes. Tell me this, who the hell can pay their rent, let alone stash their savings with that kind of set up?
And that brings us to the ridiculous One-Step deal in features. Now, I’m mainly talking about the studio, network, and POD (Producer with Overall Deal) side btw, but back in the day they used to offer us Three Steps, with each step marking progress and a paycheck. But now, they only offer you scale for the gig and payment when you turn in the script. However, you might be waiting six months to a year just to see a single penny for your script. And then, watch this… After you turn in your draft, some producers have the nerve to ask you for up to ten rewrites or “polishes/little cleanups” as they like to call it. Before you know it, months and months have gone by, and you’re still broke as a joke. Producers know this game y’all. They know writers are passionate, artistic beasts, always striving for perfection in their work. They know we’ll go through hell and back to get it right, even if it means to remain in development hell (and trust me – I’ve been there many times, no cap).
Now, some writers might survive this madness, but a lot of struggling writers end up having to bounce back to their moms’ crib after landing their first gig cause they couldn’t keep up with the rent or plain and simple – live. It’s a jacked reality we’re facing, but with this strike and all of the beautiful unity expressed by so many, it’s time we rise up and demand what’s rightfully ours.
What’s the ideal resolution the WGA would like to see moving forward? How will the WGA make sure these resolutions are honored in the long run?
I want to say first off that these are only my sole beliefs and not representative of the WGAW.
Ideally, I would love to see the WGA score a big win, getting everything we’re asking for from AMPTP. There are lots of issues and fears on both sides and negotiations aren’t a piece of cake. You have to find that sweet middle spot on the big stuff or agree (or not) on the smaller ones (unless there’s clarity and a force majeure). And here’s the difference from past strikes that I’m so amped about. We have the full support of the DGA, IATSE, SAG-AFTRA, TAG, Labor Union and a whole bunch of supporters backing us up. Without them in motion, the whole town and business could shut down. So, as the DGA and SAG-AFTRA go through their own negotiations, I hope and pray there will be no ripple effect to what we’ve proposed. Because the AMPTP is looking for any loophole in our game to use against us.
So, what’s the positive side of the strike? First, it does bring writers and other artists closer. It forces us to talk, to work together to find solutions, to catch up over lunch, to read one another’s’ materials, and to march and protest to help slow down production. And that’s what happening right now. Things just feel different this time. The support I’ve seen on the picket lines and social media by members of our sister unions has been so uplifting and everyone’s filled with nothing but love and respect for one another ‘cause we all agree, for example, that if we don’t stop AI — we could all be obsolete.
What is the best way for allies, both in LA and outside of it, to support the WGA during this time?
First off, if you’re in an area where talented WGA writers are protesting, one of the best ways to show you’re down with the cause is by hitting up that picket line. Simply grab your crew (or go alone), head over to your nearest location, and join in the party. The more people the better! Oh, and guess what? You don’t have to be a guild member to walk the line. Everyone’s welcome, so please bring good vibes and let’s make some people take notice!
Now, if picketing isn’t your thing, all good. No sweat. There are other ways to lend a hand. You can stand guard at a gate, help keep the traffic flow in check, or hook everyone up with some much-needed sustenance. That’s right. It gets hot out there some days as the weather warms up here in LA. Trust me, there are never enough supplies, so anything you contribute is appreciated. Just remember, if you’re donating grub or drinks, please make them easy to carry like finger food or portable stuff. We’re out here battling heat or cold, so let’s keep it convenient.
You can also donate to the WGAW Strike Fund. That’s where the magic happens y’all. Swing by https://www.wgacontract2023.org/strike-hub and you’ll get all the details about the 2023 Writers Strike and how you can make a difference.
Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters who are watching this strike play out and hope to break into the industry someday?
Well, as the Co-chair of the WGAW Committee of Black Writers as well as the Writers Education Committee, I would say to aspiring writers that I understand how the climate may feel like a slow death — when your career hasn’t even begun. Just know that the WGA always comes out of the strike/negotiations with the business in a better place. There are plans in place that not only benefit us writers in the guild, but future guild members and the entire entertainment community. Perfect, no. But better indeed. Also, please know that we almost never get everything we ask for in our contract.
But no matter whatever happens, it will be that much better for them than it was for us. And it won’t be all in vain. These contracts negotiations are always about the future, and that means we are for sure thinking about the next generation. For example, if we didn’t add Streaming to our last big negotiation in 2007-2008, we’d more than likely be in a worse place, and they’d have even more power over us. But good things are on the table; we have made ourselves clear as a union and we are united. And we plan to hold fast as long as it takes!
Where can our readers connect with you online?
You can find me everywhere on social media @HilliardGuess and can check me out on Screenwriters Rant Room or WGAW 3rd & Fairfax podcasts everywhere you listen to podcast.
Writer. Video Essayist. Film/TV Critic. Pop Culture Enthusiast.
When he isn’t writing for Geek Vibes Nation or creating content for his YouTube channel, Tristian can be found typing away at the young adult novel he has been working on for three years.