The Writers Guild of America will stay the course on its ongoing fight against top Hollywood agencies and packaging fees, as its membership has reelected President David A. Goodman to another term after a heavily contested campaign against challenger Phyllis Nagy.
It was a landslide victory for Goodman, receiving 77% of 5,677 votes counted with 4,395 votes to Nagy’s 1,292. He will continue to serve alongside Executive Director David Young, Vice President Marjorie David, and new Secretary-Treasurer Michele Mulroney, who has previously served as a board and negotiating committee member.
Of the 9,988 WGA members who were eligible, 58% voted in this guild election. That is the largest turnout in the guild’s history and more than double the 2,475 votes received in last year’s election.
The campaign between Goodman, Nagy, and their respective election slates unfolded alongside the increasingly litigious battle between the WGA and the entertainment industry’s top four talent agencies: CAA, UTA, WME, and ICM Partners. After negotiations fell through between the guild and the Association of Talent Agents, the WGA’s members approved the enforcement of a Code of Conduct requiring agencies to give up packaging fees in order to represent writers.
Packaging fees, which are payments from a studio to an agency in exchange for packaging talent for a project, have been called a conflict of interest by Goodman, whose leadership has now taken the Big Four agencies to court. The WGA filed state and federal lawsuits claiming that packaging fees are a violation of labor law and of agents’ fiduciary duty to clients by serving as an illegal kickback payment from an employer — the studios — to an agent that’s supposed to represent the employee.
In response, CAA, UTA and WME filed their own lawsuits against WGA, claiming that the WGA was participating in an illegal boycott by having its members terminate their representation with any agency that refused to adhere to the Code of Conduct. The WGA dropped its state lawsuit last month and consolidated the claims in that suit into their federal litigation. “Cold Case” creator Meredith Stiehm, who is one of the writers who attached her name to the guild’s lawsuit, was reelected as a member of the WGA’s board of directors, receiving the most votes of any candidate with 4,115.
The standoff between the two sides has left thousands of writers working without agents, with the WGA encouraging members to use their managers, lawyers, relationships, and a new online database to find staffing positions. But this stance drew a vocal opposition within the guild that rallied behind Phyllis Nagy and the Writers Forward Together slate.
Nagy criticized Goodman’s approach as harmful to writers, threatening a stalemate that could last months and leave lesser-known writers without representation. If elected, Nagy promised to have the guild return to the negotiating table, an approach that was endorsed in a open letter send to Goodman in July that was signed by hundreds of guild members. Among the members were prominent names like Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, and “Chernobyl” writer Craig Mazin, Jr., who briefly campaigned as Nagy’s running mate before withdrawing for family reasons.
But Goodman supporters and vocal opponents of packaging fees rebuffed Nagy’s approach. Some, like “Adam Ruins Everything” creator Adam Conover said that Nagy has not provided specifics on how exactly they would achieve the WGA’s demands to eliminate packaging fees and provide better compensation for lower-tier writers , nor on what they would do differently at the negotiating table.
“The Wire” creator David Simon, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of packaging fees, noted that top writers like Murphy who have spoken against the WGA’s tactics have profited from the current packaging fee system, which he says “systemically advantaged showrunners and A-listers at the expense of younger, less established writers.”
With Goodman’s resounding victory in an election that became a referendum on his leadership, the WGA is all but likely to continue its current strategy of seeking out legal victories against the top agencies while trying to negotiate with smaller agencies on an individual basis.
The guild has come to terms with three agencies affiliated with the ATA: Pantheon, Kaplan Stahler, and Buchwald, making deals that will see those agencies drop packaging fees after a certain time window. Several other non-ATA agencies have also agreed to adhere to the Code of Conduct, including literary agency Verve.
But along with continuing the push against packaging fees, Goodman and the WGA have another big challenge on the horizon. The guild’s master deal with the studios expires on May 1, 2020, meaning that it may have to fight negotiating battles on two fronts as it prepares to enter talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers next spring.
In his campaign statement, Goodman said he was confident about the position the guild was in heading into the AMPTP negotiations, considering that a writers’ strike would severely hinder production of shows that are being developed by AMPTP companies for new streaming services like Disney+ and WarnerMedia. He also rebuffed claims from Nagy that the guild needed the agencies help in the talks.
“I’ve been involved in four WGA MBA negotiations, and in all of them the agencies offered no help, in fact abandoned us and worked against our goals by describing us to their clients as intractable and unrealistic,” he said.
“The AMPTP companies understand that, if they pushed us to a strike, the threat that Netflix or another company would make an interim deal and keep producing new product is very real. The billions that the AMPTP companies have invested in their new streaming services would be at risk. That doesn’t mean that the AMPTP is going to roll over, but they have too much at stake to just push us around because they think we’re ‘tired.’ On top of that, we have shown that we are willing to take on an issue that everyone in the business (except the agencies) hates, but was unwilling to do anything about.”