Beau Willimon has an ambitious new drama series launching next year on Hulu, and he has a Broadway play opening in late November. But a busy schedule has not deterred him from taking the reins of the WGA East at a tumultuous time for the film and TV biz.
In assuming the presidency of the WGA East as of Wednesday, Willimon said his goal was to build on the progress that executive director Lowell Peterson and his predecessor, Michael Winship, have made in fostering diversity initiatives for writers, organizing in the area of unscripted TV and continuing to improve relations between the WGA East and WGA West.
Willimon said his experience in serving on the WGA negotiating committee for the master film and TV contract deal reached in May was eye-opening. The guilds went down to the wire and were ready to walk if the studios hadn’t budged on key deal points.
“That showed the power of our solidarity,” Willimon told Variety. “We need to continue to build on that. There’s a lot of issues facing the WGA in the next three years.”
The WGA East has been increasingly proactive on efforts to expand the talent pool of working writers. The guild worked with the city of New York to institute a mentoring program that allows some 500 applicants to receive feedback from WGA East members on scripts. Twelve of those projects are selected for a more intensive six-month program with WGAE members.
The WGA East has also helped shepherd state legislation in New York to establish a first-of-its-kind tax credit program that would give production entities incentives for shows that maintain a high level of diversity among writers, directors, and other creative talent. These and other programs afoot are efforts to address the fact that the business of writing for film and TV remains dominated by white men.
“There’s no silver bullet that can solve the issue of hiring practices but efforts like these are taking us in the right direction,” Willimon said. “You can’t solve it with one sweeping gesture. It requires a lot of different tactics. We’re committed to pursuing these so that over time we can see real change.”
On the organizing front, Willimon said he’s been encouraged by the fact that younger people breaking into the industry through unscripted TV and digital news outlets have been knocking on the WGAE’s door. “That shows that labor is on the minds of young people who are just starting out in their careers,” he said.
Willimon sees that spirit as a good sign that the WGA and Hollywood in general will continue to be a heavily unionized industry — an increasing rarity across the U.S. economic landscape in general.
“We have an opportunity in our sector to keep expanding our movement,” he said. “We’re able to show that we have more power as a union to create a fair working environment for people. We can send a message about the labor movement to a younger generation that it is alive and well and we’ve got solidarity.”
Willimon’s ascent at WGA East comes as he is knee-deep in preparation for the launch of an ambitious drama series on Hulu, “The First,” about the first wave of pioneers to colonize Mars. He’s also preparing for the Broadway bow of his original play, “The Parisian Woman,” to star Uma Thurman, on Nov. 30.
Willimon was encouraged to become more involved in WGA East leadership, despite his busy work schedule, by his friend Tom Fontana. Willimon has admired Fontana’s commitment to the guild and its mission.
“Once I dive into something, I never do it halfway,” he said. “I’m happy to be able to use whatever influence and whatever experience I’ve gained in my career to help other people who are building their careers.”