Agentless Writers Find Early Success Crowdsourcing New TV Hires

ONE TIME USE ONLY-THR-writers illo-script-Illustration by Wren McDonald-H 2019
Wren McDonald

Amid a legal war on talent agents, many showrunners say interacting directly with scribes during “staffing” season is working, but others wonder if studios will be willing to do the same once the calendar flips to development.

Even as thousands of writers part ways with their agents amid an escalating legal battle over packaging fees, Cynthia Adarkwa is having the most successful staffing season of her career. After serving as writers' assistant on MTV's now-defunct Sweet and Vicious three seasons ago, she landed her first writing job with In the Vault, a mystery show on Verizon's now-shuttered go90 streaming service. Now Adarkwa is joining her first broadcast series, The CW's vampire drama Legacies, thanks to a new grassroots movement that is helping writers find work since many of them went agentless in early April.

"How did we find her, you ask? My office scoured the staffing grid," tweeted Legacies showrunner Julie Plec in revealing Adarkwa's hire May 2, referring to a widely shared Google Sheet of writers who have received referrals under a certain hashtag. "Who gets credit for giving her the boost via #WGASolidarityChallenge?... You guys now get to split a 10 percent karma commission."

As scores of new dramas and comedies are being picked up at the broadcast networks ahead of annual upfront presentations in New York starting May 13, many writers say that they can help one another find jobs — though larger questions loom once staffing season turns to development.

Showrunners have long relied on agent submissions as a primary source of potential hires, and some reps and producers tell The Hollywood Reporter that it's especially lower-level writers — those who haven't yet formed networking relationships of their own — who could be left out of the loop.

But for now, the Writers Guild of America has its Staffing Submission System, an online job board where writers can submit materials directly to showrunners. As of press time, the SSS has received more than 4,000 submissions from 2,000 scribes for about 90 series, while an expanding host of unofficial complementary efforts has also emerged. "The biggest opportunity for those of us who aren't on the WGA negoti­ating committee, who have no control over the outcome of this thing, is to build community," says Javier Grillo-Marxuach, co-executive producer of Netflix's upcoming Cowboy Bebop, who coined #WGASolidarityChallenge on April 6, the day the guild's franchise agreement with the Association of Talent Agents was to expire.

Both it and #WGAStaffingBoost, created April 10 by Into the Badlands co-executive producer LaToya Morgan, have encouraged writers to read the samples of more junior scribes looking for work. Several notable writers including Shawn Ryan, Better Call Saul EP Gennifer Hutchison and MacGyver EP David Slack have been consistent users of the hashtags over the past month.

"Across the board from showrunners to staff writers, everyone has just put their backs into [the efforts] and pitched in and devoted their time," Morgan says. This includes The Rookie co-producer Liz Alper, who created and constantly updates the #WGASolidarityChallenge grid where Plec found Adarkwa. Alper spends several hours each day monitoring the hashtag and updating her grid accordingly. Her document focuses on recommendations from upper-level writers, while other Google Sheets have sprung up dedicated to scribes of various stripes, including Native Writers (Native American writers), Bodies of Work (writers with disabilities) and The Rainbow Pages (LGBTQ+ writers).

Showrunners say that in the absence of agent-submitted lists, they've been exposed to more new talent. "We have over 700 submissions this year, 200 through the WGA portal," says Tara Butters, who has NBC drama pilot Emergence this season with writing partner Michele Fazekas. Fazekas adds, "The fact that we have hundreds more submissions this year than any previous year makes me wonder how many people we've missed out on in the past."

Lower-level writers agree that they have benefitted from increased direct access to showrunners, combined with other factors. "Last year, despite having a well-liked new sample and coming off a critically acclaimed series [The Bold Type], I didn't take a single network staffing meeting," says Lynn Sternberger, a former staff writer on the Freeform drama who has taken three network meetings in recent weeks. "I chalk the shift up to upper-level writers really going to bat for me — even floating my name in their own staffing meetings, awesome new managers, fresh samples and even my own comfort with networking."

Grey's Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff says that before this season, she rarely staffed writers who didn't come from a rep, but she's found peer referrals to be more efficient. "I’ve had to read less, because the showrunners listened to what I was looking for rather than sending me a stack of 30 or 40 people they hoped I would read," she said.

And contrary to concerns that underrepresented writers would fall through the cracks, Vernoff says that "with the largely white, cis, male gatekeepers on the sidelines this year and writers able to directly access showrunners," she's read the work of a more diverse group of writers this season.

While writers may be able to rely on their own ecosystem to populate rooms, as the calendar flips to development season and staffing season wraps heading into the broadcast networks' upfront presentations, the absence of agents may be more keenly felt when studios look to restock their cupboards with fresh material. Reps and producers alike say that when it comes to development, crowdsourcing won't help low-level writers without an advocate — like someone who has an overall deal and a studio's ear — land face time with execs to pitch a script.

"Getting an interview to get staffed requires fewer meetings than a pitch to become a series," notes one top developer. "You need an advocate. It's a much more intricate and much more lengthy process. It's a series of meetings about an idea, then getting a studio and network invested in the idea — all of these creative things along the way. Can people do it without agents? Yes. But there are a million times in that process that a writer would want to talk to their agent."

Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.

A version of this story appeared in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.