Celebrating the contribution of writers to film, television and radio, the Writers Guild of America’s two branches host two 55th annual awards events Saturday night. The Gotham edition will be held at the Pierre Hotel with the western event at the Beverly Hilton. Both coasts announce the same 16 major awards but add their own set of honorees.
“The tone of the evening is warm, irreverent and appreciative,” says Victoria Riskin, prexy WGAW. It’s also a fun night with a bawdy rep, capped by inspiring moments from the best speeches of any awards show (consider who’s written them).
Michael Winship, of WGAE’s awards committee concurs, “People come away feeling very energized over what we all do,” he notes. “As writing tends to be an isolated life, the event creates a good collegial spirit and partnership of writers in general. There’s a recognition that you’re not alone.”
The west will honor Mel Brooks and David E. Kelley with lifetime achievement awards. Meanwhile, the east lauds Nora Ephron with the Ian McLellan Hunter Award, the org’s lifetime achievement nod; producer-scribe James Schamus with the Richard B. Jablow Award for devoted service to the guild; and Martin Scorsese with the Evelyn F. Burkey Award, which honors “one whose contributions have brought honor and dignity to writers everywhere.”
Though founded 70 years ago, the guild began its kudofest in 1948. It’s doubtful that branches will ever combine the bicoastal events. Surprisingly, spoilers are rare, despite the fact that the eastern event ends approximately as the west’s begins.
In Gotham, comedian-writer Al Franken is the emcee. Between 300 and 500 will attend, with a mix of politicos and non-pros also in the aud. In years past, Winship says the east typically has many of the TV and radio news, docs and children’s winners in attendance.
Feature writers are more unpredictable as they tend to go back and forth between coasts. Accompanying the east’s event is a literary keepsake: This year’s themed program features well-known scribes ruminating about literary encounters and is entitled “When First I Met…”
The west expects 1200 at the Hilton. Vet kudocast producer Spike Jones Jr. of the Creative Emmys will be on hand this year, promising a streamlined show. He’s brought on latenight TV scribe Tony DeSena to pen much of the material. Jones expects some heavy-hitters as presenters, among them Carl Reiner, Steven Bochco, Thomas Schlamme of “West Wing” and Christine Lahti. There’ll be more video clip packages this year but no matter what, Jones is aiming for a 10 p.m. finish.
Dennis Feldman, chair of the WGAW Awards Committee and show, recognizes that it’s a challenge to create an event that is fresh and different, “but what does stand out is what people express,” he says. “The writers put together some great acceptance speeches and that’s the great drama of these shows.”
Promise of levity
In addition, the show can promise great levity. Presenting Christopher Knopf with the Edmond H. North Award for service to the WGA last year, sci-fi scribe Harlan Ellison wore a bathrobe and ascot — explaining he was adhering to the request for “business attire.”
There will also be a salute to the guild’s 70 years, putting the writer’s contributions in perspective. Clips will showcase some of film and TV’s most classic moments, in the vein of the guild’s “Somebody Wrote That” ad campaign.
Founded by 10 men and one woman in 1933, the guild was formed in response to studio demands that writers take a 50% pay cut. It took 10 years to ink the first agreement with studios.
As Victoria Riskin notes, not only will the event be a celebration, but it will also be an acknowledgement of these founders who were willing to put their jobs at risk by pushing for a union.
The guild’s principles are inherited from that first agreement hammered out decades ago.
Explains Riskin, “Everything is built upon that original foundation: minimum wages, working conditions and the right of the guild to determine whose name is on the script.”