Hollywood Writers Rally Together as Agency Dispute Hits Critical Week

With the Code of Conduct approved, writers get ready to stand together during a potentially agent-free staffing season

Last Updated: April 1, 2019 @ 6:11 AM

With the Writers Guild of America’s proposed code of conduct for agencies overwhelmingly approved Sunday, writers who have been crusading against agents receiving packaging fees are feeling confident.

But Hollywood is now bracing for a week that could end with a mass exodus from talent agencies just before TV staffing season enters full swing.

More than half of the WGA’s 15,000-plus members voted on whether or not to approve new rules requiring agencies to eliminate packaging fees in order to represent WGA members. Of the 8,274 votes that were cast, 95.3 percent were in favor of approval.

Another meeting between the guild and the Association of Talent Agents (ATA) has not been set yet for this week, but one is expected before the current writer-agency contract expires on April 6. After that, the new code will be enforced, and the guild will call on its writers to leave any agency that does not agree to a system where writers pay agents a 10 percent commission based on what they can negotiate, rather than receiving a separate packaging fee from the studio as their compensation.

With over 100 agencies pledging not to agree to the new code, a mass amount of writers may find themselves going into staffing season without an agent.

But while some guild members are concerned over how they will find work without agent representation, there are others who argue the potential hardship is necessary to end practices that have strengthened the largest agencies in Hollywood even as writer pay has remained stagnant.

Adam Conover, creator and showrunner for “Adam Ruins Everything,” told TheWrap he hopes that writers will show solidarity and help each other find work.

“The big concern that people have is that there is no guaranteed results. Honestly, it’s not about a guarantee. It’s about a more important business principle than that,” Conover said.

“You don’t want the person negotiating your contract to be paid by your boss. Agents, the only people empowered to negotiate for overscale pay on our behalf are getting paid by studios, by our bosses. “

“Now I cannot guarantee to anybody that [leaving agencies] is going to result in higher pay for every individual writer if we make a change, but I can tell you that the idea of the person representing you to a boss getting paid by that boss is not a good way to do business.”

Hundreds of WGA members, many of them prominent figures in Hollywood, echoed Conover’s sentiment in public statements and social media posts both before and during the approval vote. Over 800 writers signed a statement of support in favor of the Code of Conduct last weekend, including Aaron Sorkin, “Avengers: Infinity War” writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Shonda Rhimes and Barry Jenkins. After the vote opened, J.J. Abrams added his support as well in a statement sent by the guild.

But arguably the most outspoken writer has been “The Wire” creator David Simon, who has vociferously condemned packaging fees and Hollywood agencies, both on social media and an expletive-laden blog post outlining his history with packaging fees.

“Has it helped the writers on my shows to never be packaged? Not as much as it ought,” he wrote. “Why not? Because, quite obviously, the entire universe of screenwriters has had salaries and work-quotes depressed for decades by agents who have failed to do their fundamental duty and negotiate for better.”

“Only the end of packaging will restore a market in which writers are paid competitively for writing,” he continued. “And only an agent whose priority is having his client paid competitively is a means to achieving that result.”

With agencies steadfastly refusing to give up packaging fees, the guild has already provided members with a contingency plan outlining what resources will be made available to writers if they are required to leave their agencies. Among them is a database that will allow writers and shows to connect with each other to keep writers rooms filled this staffing season.

Meanwhile, showrunners and top writers are reaching out on social media to help their lower and mid-tier peers find work. Warren Hsu Leonard, a writer/producer on the Marvel show “Runaways,” put out a tweet calling on staff writers to reach out to him for help networking with head writers on shows they want to apply for.

“Right now, my biggest concern is helping those writers who would have had agents lining up staffing meetings for them this season, who now suddenly won’t,” he tweeted.

Among the writers who spoke with TheWrap on condition on anonymity, the mood is a mix of uncertainty over what is to come and a conviction in the guild’s goals. They echoed Conover’s reminder that through all the animosity and mobilization for what’s to come, this is not a strike.

“I do feel for those writers that just got representation and were hoping to submit to shows now and saw that as a big step up in their career. Those are the people that those of us in the guild are especially going to have to look out for and make sure they know we have their back,” Conover said.

“But even if the Code of Conduct goes into effect and the agencies can’t represent us anymore, there will still be many TV shows that need writers, and there will be just as many writers working on these shows. If ‘Adam Ruins Everything’ gets picked up for another season, there will be five guild writers working on our show, even if the agents aren’t involved in that process.”

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