With just one day to go before their current agreement expires, the Writers Guild of America and Hollywood’s top talent agencies still have not reached a new deal and no new talks have been scheduled. And if the clock runs out, WGA will implement tough new rules on talent agencies that will likely result in writers firing their agents en masse.
The main obstacle to a new deal has been a very public disagreement between WGA and the Association of Talent Agents over the practice of packaging — in which agents collect fees for bundling talent they represent and bringing them as a package to a studio for film or TV projects. WGA wants agencies to end the practice; agencies aren’t budging.
On Friday, ATA Executive Director Karen Stuart said in a letter to WGA West president David A. Goodman that ATA is ready to resume negotiations, though it said also that that ATA considers previous guild proposals “unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, WGA said in a statement: “We’re focused right now on meetings with individual agencies and will meet with the ATA when they make a meaningful reply to our last two offers.”
“We received your latest proposal, which is identical in all material aspects to the last proposal that is unacceptable to us,” Stuart wrote. “The time is long past for simply pushing paper across the table. Let us know when you and your committee are prepared to have a negotiation that addresses all of the outstanding issues.”
Entertainment lawyer Jody Simon, a partner at Fox Rothschild, said the impasse isn’t likely to end before the expiration deadline passes.
“The odds for a deal are low,” Simon told TheWrap. “Given their positions, I don’t think there’s a lot of room for compromise. The WGA has a tendency for brinkmanship, but with the stance they’ve taken against packaging, I kind of feel like they can’t do that now.”
The WGA’s position is that package deals create a conflict of interest for agencies, shifting priority away from client representation and toward content production and ownership. WGA also attributes what it says is a decline in overall pay for members to packaging, and wants agencies to strictly adhere to the commission model of compensation. WGA also demands that Hollywood’s two largest agencies, WME and CAA, withdraw stakes in affiliated production studios.
ATA, meanwhile, says that packaging fees are necessary to agencies’ business model. And United Talent Agency asserted in a recent report that average writer pay is higher for packaged projects than non-packaged ones. WGA disputes that report.
“As the agencies get bigger and bigger it’s not a personal service business anymore, they’re sausage factories and that what the writers are starting to feel,” Simon said. “They’re the ones whose feeling are most hurt, and rightfully so. They typically get the least amount of respect, though they feel they’re the most important, and I don’t mean that to be sarcastic.”
On March 31, WGA members overwhelmingly voted to approve a new code of conduct that requires any agent or agency representing guild writers to cease packaging. The code will go into effect immediately after the current deal expires, at which point Guild members are expected to fire any agent or agency that does not comply with the new rules.
If that happens, how WGA’s new post-agency world will look is unclear. But according to Simon, the agencies may have the advantage over a long-term dispute.
“The big four agencies, they’re well situated enough that they can afford to ride this out,” Simon said. “They’re diversified in their businesses, not to mention they can package around talent, directors and showrunners. They have enough packages in place to sit by for now.”