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Grad René Balcer, successful writer, director and showrunner, reflects on the Hollywood writers strike and more

‘Some of the streaming companies have started to realize a few things about their business model that are not working’
July 3, 2023
By Ian Harrison, BComm 01

René Balcer and Jill Hennessy stand with a crowd holding picket signs. René Balcer on the WGA picket line in New York with actor and fellow Canadian and Law & Order alum Jill Hennessy.

Ever since Concordia awarded René Balcer, BA 78, LLD 08, an honorary doctorate in 2008, the versatile TV veteran has kept himself busy.

In 2010, Balcer, whose work as showrunner and executive producer on Law & Order garnered him an Emmy in 1997, wrote and directed what was then considered the finale of the long-running legal drama (it was revived in 2022). The New York Times described the episode as “The best finale of all … more moving and honestly emotional than the endings of Lost and 24.”

Balcer’s other credits include creating the hit spinoff Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the limited series Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders and the current CBS hit FBI: Most Wanted.

Aside from his contributions to the Dick Wolf television universe, Balcer also created a Paris-based police drama starring Jean Reno (Jo, 2012), wrote and produced a CBS pilot directed by Ava DuVernay (For Justice, 2015), and wrote and co-directed an award-winning documentary about Austrian Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai to escape the Holocaust (Above the Drowning Sea, 2017). He is currently preparing Seeing As, a survey of his photographic work from 1968 to the present to be published in fall 2023 by ACC Art Books (United Kingdom).

As the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike grabbed headlines and amid a slew of new projects, the Los Angeles-based Balcer recently sat down for an interview to discuss his career, streaming versus network television, Concordia connections and more.

René Balcer wears glasses and a blue shirt. He is sitting in front of a red background. René Balcer made lasting connections with fellow writers and filmmakers at Concordia’s Communication Studies program.

Although you no longer oversee FBI: Most Wanted do you have a sense of how the strike has affected production?

René Balcer: FBI: Most Wanted finished shooting the second week of May. They dodged our pickets in Brooklyn by sticking to their sound stages and shooting scenes on the roof. Since broadcast network shows generally end production in early May anyway, the picketing had minimal impact on their current season.

The greater impact has been on streaming and cable series. A lot of big features have also been delayed. As a result, shows like Billions, American Horror Story, The Last of Us and Blade Runner 2099 have been pushed, and they’ll keep being pushed for however long the strike is. The impact of the strike is gathering. And the more we eat into July, which is when all the writing begins on broadcast network shows, the more widespread the impact will be. Broadcast air dates are fixed in stone, they’re going to lose episodes. In an ad-supported medium like broadcast, every episode you lose is a significant loss of income in the present and also down the line in terms of repeats and syndication.

What’s your overall take on the strike so far and how it could end?

RB: The companies refuse to negotiate with the WGA because they want to negotiate with the Directors Guild (DGA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) first. Their contracts [were] up at the end of June, and they’re generally considered softer targets for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers [AMPTP]. The DGA has notoriously struck only once — for three hours and 42 minutes. SAG has struck once for three months a number of years ago — for context, I joined the WGA in 1981 and we’ve been on strike five times since then. This past week, the DGA reached a tentative and flawed agreement with the AMPTP and as we speak, the membership (including me) is voting on it. Also this past week, the members of SAG voted for a strike authorization by an overwhelming majority.

If either of those guilds strike, production stops dead in the water. My prediction is, the writers and the AMPTP will be back at the negotiating table by August. By then, the AMPTP will know whether it’s holding a pair of deuces or a royal flush. My guess is that they’ll be holding deuces.

How is this WGA strike different from the last one in 2007-08?

RB: Social media, for one. We’re much better organized from a tactical point of view. The guild can react more quickly to shut down location shoots, et cetera. And this time, I think the issues are more relatable. Not just within the guild or even within the entertainment industry, but across the board. We’re getting wide support from teachers’ unions, service workers, politicians, from people in all walks of life because falling wages, worsening work conditions and AI are problems common across all fields over the last 15 years. As unions have gotten weaker over the last two decades, corporate profits and income inequality have gone up. At this moment, the WGA happens to be the tip of the spear of the pushback by labour against corporate greed.

When you reflect on the success of Law & Order, what is it about that show that has allowed it to endure for so long and give rise to so many spinoffs?

RB: The main thing is every episode has a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end. So that’s always satisfying. That’s one aspect of it. The other is, the cases were very relatable. They weren’t all ripped from the headlines, but they touched on issues that people dealt with in their day-to-day. And the storytelling wasn’t predictable, at least in the original version. Plenty of twists and turns.

We tried not to sensationalize. Because a lot of the episodes mirrored real-life events, we never wanted to cheapen people’s lived experiences. We aimed for authenticity — the justice system was portrayed as flawed and biased, we resisted the embrace of ‘copaganda’ inherent to procedurals, at least under my tenure. We were ‘equal opportunity’ offenders. Finally, people just came to love those main characters like Briscoe, McCoy, Van Buren, portrayed by Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston and S. Epatha Merkerson, who, in my humble opinion, was arguably the best pure actor on the show.

I wonder if we could go back to your time at Concordia. What do you recall most fondly? Any formative experiences or relationships that stick out?

RB: Yes, a few things. Professors Dennis Murphy and Marc Gervais taught me to be, I hope, an empathic witness to my times. Another was the collaborative aspect of the Communication Studies program. You couldn’t do your film and video assignments by yourself. You needed your fellow students to help. Then those same people would need your help with their projects. So the collaborative experience of the program was remarkable, valuable and long-lasting.

I’m still in touch with many of my old collaborators. For example, the filmmaker Nicola Zavaglia [BA 77], whom I made Above the Drowning Sea with, right now we’re working on another documentary together. And Judy Palnick [BA 79], I was the TA in a film class she took with Marc Gervais. Judy is the one who introduced me to Dick Wolf’s production company in 1990, when she was vice-president of development for MGM. I’m currently developing a TV series with Judy and another Concordia buddy, Howard Shrier [BA 79], a successful crime-fiction writer I met working on The Georgian student newspaper. All of these important relationships started at Concordia.

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