Lisa Takeuchi Cullen: Journalist, screenwriter, union leader

ON THE PICKET LINE ­— Lisa Takeuchi Cullen and her Writers Guild of America colleagues participated in a strike that lasted more than five months, as they took on Hollywood studios. courtesy Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

Although the Writers Guild of America overwhelmingly voted to ratify a contract with Hollywood studios Oct. 9 after more than five months of striking, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s work is just getting started as the first Asian American president of the WGA East.

“With the role of president and with our historic gains in the contract, we now dive into the next phase, which is making sure that our members are protected. And after a brutally devastating five-month strike, that our members get back on their feet, that they get jobs again,” Takeuchi Cullen told the Nichi Bei News over a phone interview.

As the 4,000 or so writers return to work, the new guild president said they are still recovering, but she said members were “champing at the bit to get back to work” after ratifying the deal. Takeuchi Cullen, who has served as co-executive producer for “The Endgame” and consulting producer for “Law & Order: SVU,” said she hit the ground running as she returned to work with Universal Television under an overall deal.

Takeuchi Cullen, however, has her work cut out for her, as the Writers Guild of America East’s newly minted president as well.

She took over the guild from longtime president Michael Winship Sept. 21. This follows a restructuring of the organization, which represents some 7,000 writers who work as screenwriters for films and television, as well as broadcast news writers and, more recently, online media writers and journalists for publications such as Vice Media and Vox Media.

While newly minted as president, the Shin Issei screenwriter said she had been on the bargaining team during the strike as a vice president of the guild and noted that they were able to secure most of their demands. She said the biggest victory is the solidarity she felt as labor unions came together to fight for fairer wages. As the two Writers Guild of America branches celebrate their victory, the Screen Actors Guild continues their strike, surpassing 100 days Oct. 23 according to CBS.

Negotiations with television and film studios this year have focused on demanding fairer compensation from streaming services. While the unions had agreements for fair compensation to writers for shows broadcast on TV, the terms were not carried over to streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu.

“A ‘Law & Order’ episode that is shown in the domestic United States on its broadcast network might be re-aired overseas, or it might be re-aired on a cable channel. And when that episode is re-aired, the writers (and) actors receive a residual check,” Takeuchi Cullen said. “Those checks are lifelines for those of us in these creative fields, because we don’t have ordinary jobs where you are employed nine to five or whatever other hours on an ongoing basis.”

Takeuchi Cullen felt the union win this month was important also because of her previous work as a journalist for Time magazine. Born in Kobe to a Roman Catholic priest from Philadelphia and mother from Kochi Prefecture, the mixed race Japanese writer came to America to attend Rutgers College in New Jersey some 30 years or so ago. After attending graduate school at Columbia University in New York, she worked for 20 years as a journalist and spent 12 of them at Time magazine, including several years as a correspondent in Japan and Asia. She grieved for her time working in the “halcyon glory days of print magazine journalism” and would have stayed in the industry if she could.

“But then the industry changed, and print news weekly magazines, suddenly in the age of the Internet, turned out not to be a forever job,” she said. “That was a lesson though in our recent fight for fair wages in my new industry, because I had seen the decimation of my previous industry in journalism. And I know, because now we represent some of those workers in my guild, many reporters and writers who might have worked for Time magazine 10-15 years ago, now work for Vice or HuffPost, and their salaries are a fraction of what we made at Time. They don’t have perks, they don’t have benefits, they don’t have the job protections that we had, and so that’s where a union has to come in and help.”

With the new contract set, Takeuchi Cullen said the guild’s job is now enforcing the contract and ensuring that writers are hired and paid, especially as more minority writers like herself have made inroads into the industry. While the entertainment industry has generally been dominated by white men, Takeuchi Cullen said minority writers have found success in recent years, albeit they did so as streaming services have undercut writers and actors as a whole.

“People like me got to pitch and sell television shows and work in writers rooms and sell movies, because suddenly, with this much wider landscape, there seemed to be more room for stories like mine that perhaps were not represented in the past in Hollywood,” Takeuchi Cullen said. “But wouldn’t you know, that just when they started hiring us was also when they stopped paying us.”

She hopes that the newly secured contract will ensure that writers for shows like “Reservation Dogs” and “The Chi” not only continue to make these shows, but be fairly compensated for them. She also hopes that, with new minimum staffing requirements for writers’ rooms, shows can have more diverse input to make more authentic stories.

Takeuchi Cullen said she would have preferred not to have taken on this thankless volunteer job, but felt called to serve by those who helped her become a leader, such as the previous presidents Winship and Beau Willimon, or other writers like Jenny Lumet and Bonnie Datt.
As the first Asian American and third woman to be president, she now hopes to continue maintaining a pipeline for diverse leaders in her union.
“I have a council with 10 people of color,” she said. “When I first joined the council seven years ago, there were three people of color including me. And there are more women. There’s more LGBTQ representation. There is greater age diversity. And I intend to leave a council full of representatives who could step into this role.
“I also intend to pull more people into a position where they could run for this elected, but unpaid, volunteer job. We just had our first council meeting last night under my presidency, and I was thrilled and really moved to tears, to look around the table and see a community of my peers, online media journalists, broadcast news journalists, and screen and television writers who represent many different walks of life and backgrounds, income levels, levels of career achievement. Almost all of them are rank and file members, as opposed to big shot, famous screenwriters or show runners.”

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