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Putting in a word for minority scriptwriters

A 60-year-old screenwriter whose talents go unused because his gray-haired image doesn't fit with that of a much younger-staffed production company. An experienced woman scriptwriter searching in vain for writing outlets more satisfying than the daytime serial that employs her.

Black, Hispanic, and Asian writers of all ages, whose ideas for film and television never get accepted because those in decisionmaking positions are mostly younger, white males.

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The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is out to end such discrimination affecting its 5,434 writers for the film and television industries. An 18-month, 200-page study released last week spelled out the extent of the discrimination.

Brian Walton, executive director, called for new programs to bring about needed change. ``The picture painted by this report is simply unacceptable in 1987,'' he said.

According to the study, based on guild figures from 1982-85, the percentage of women and minorities writing for film and TV was half the percentage of employed writers in the general population. Writers over the age of 40, who once enjoyed positions of power and wealth, are losing both jobs and salary.

Perhaps the most telling and compelling statistic, said the guild, is that 80 percent of movie and television writing jobs go to white males, mostly under age 40. Minority writers earn less than their white counterparts, because the work is frequently given to another writer for subsequent drafts or reworking. Women in the guild earn 70 cents for each dollar men earn. The bulk of minority writers write for a handful of series with minority actors in leading roles.

Lamenting his own conclusion that the stories viewed on America's screens are not fully representative of the country's diversity and richness, Walton said the problem was not conscious bigotry so much as stereotyping and closed-mindedness: ``No doubt the historical causes of racism and sexism and the growing phenomenon of ageism provide part of the explanation. No doubt the desire to tread the safe and familiar path in a highly pressured industry is another.

``But in 1987, we must transcend the pernicious consequences of the past and reach beyond the familiar to create a new blend in which all of America's stories are told by all of America's people.''

Part of the study's finding included the fact that women account for 44 percent of all employed authors in the United States, but fewer than 20 percent of employed screen and television writers. Minorities represent 6 percent of employed authors in the general population but fewer than 3 percent in Hollywood.

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The study's authors said the practices are as widespread as they are unintentional and gave two explanations: ``The first is organizational policies and practices - procedures for hiring and firing, supervising and promoting employees. Even when `rules of the game' appear sex-blind, race-blind, and age-blind, they can unintentionally place women, minorities, and older writers at a disadvantage. For example, recruitment channels may not reach these groups, and job assignments may place women and minorities in positions where they are less visible....''

The second factor, said William and Denise Bielby, researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara, ``is interpersonal dynamics. Most people are more comfortable around people they perceive as similar to themselves than around people they think of as `outsiders.' This is especially true in work settings, where important, risky decisions must be made quickly in contexts where the future is very uncertain. The `in-group' develops a sense of camaraderie that makes them less willing to admit outsiders....''

In line with the report's call for change, WGA's Delle Chatman asked the guild and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) to begin new programs and expand existing ones. Among those described:

A script submission program. Designed for experienced writers who are either female, minority, over-40, or disabled, the program accepts scripts from writers and submits them anonymously to production companies, who are required under contract to review a percentage monthly.

Writers' Training Program. Renewed emphasis given to a mostly voluntary program to bring new writers of varied backgrounds into the entertainment industry.

Internal and industrywide outreach programs. WGA will sponsor official forums, preferably in conjunction with the AMPTP, to share ideas and to sensitize producers, production company executives, development personnel, agents, and writers to the problems.

``What the study doesn't show is that there is a lack of good writers at all levels, period,'' says Jenny Neuman, a screenplay writer in Hollywood for the past 10 years. Since producers read scripts long before they ever meet the writer in most cases, she says, it's not a matter of race, gender, or age that results in closed doors.''

``Our policy here is to hire people that we believe are most qualified for a particular job,'' said Howard Lipstone, president of Alan Landsburg Productions. ``There is absolutely no deliberate attempt made to hire any particular group.''

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