Hollywood is in uncharted territory as writers fire their agents
Scores of Hollywood script writers woke up on Monday morning with no traditional way to find work after making the tough decision over the weekend to fire their agents and stand with the Writers Guild of America.
Writers have begun firing reps whose agencies refuse to agree to the WGA’s new code of conduct demanding that they put an end to the practice of packaging fees.
The WGA and the Association of Talent Agents have been in a public dispute in recent months over a now-expired 43-year-old agreement. The WGA’s main concern was packaging — in which agents demand fees for bundling talent they represent and bringing them to a studio for film or TV.
After heated negotiations, numerous public back-and-forths and a deadline extension, the two sides were unable to come to terms, catapulting the industry into uncharted territory and there are more questions than answers.
1. How many writers are now without agents?
On Monday, the WGA announced that “thousands” of its members had signed letters severing ties to their agents, but the exact number is unclear. When the guild announced the results of its membership vote approving the new code of conduct, the tally was lop-sided: 7,882 members voted in favor of the new Code of Conduct and 392 opposed it.
This week, the WGA is in the process of collecting firing notices from it membership and plans to send those to agencies.
Over the weekend, scores of writers took to Twitter to express their tough decisions to fire agents who in some cases have represented them for decades. Writers such as Andy Richter, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, John August, Natasha Rothwell, Patton Oswald and Stephen King, all publicly announced they had signed letters notifying their agents they could no longer represent them until the dispute is resolved.
2. Will writers still be able to get work without agents?
The Writers Guild dispute likely could not have come at a more critical time for writers, especially those who write for TV. Networks will soon make decisions on what pilots and shows they want for the fall TV season, and then showrunners will have to staff their writers rooms. Now that a bulk of writers are roaming Hollywood without significant representation, that could be challenging.
While well-established writers who’ve made names for themselves may do fine, the fear is that junior writers and those starting out will have a tougher time getting recognized without an agent to fight for them.
The WGA has set up a system where writers can submit their work and showrunners and producers can comb through their submissions to find staffers for their writers rooms, but it’s unclear whether that system will be workable.
And then there’s the question of negotiating pay and contracts if and when writers are hired. Last week, the Association of Talent Agents sent a letter to the WGA board and council members Friday disputing the belief that writers’ lawyers and managers would be able to represent them in employment negotiations. The association said it would consider legal action against those who partake in what it deemed “unfair competition.” As for deals that are already closed, those remain intact.
3. Have any agencies have agreed to WGA’s terms?
Yes. Upon announcing that its members would have to leave any agency that doesn’t agree to its new Code of Conduct, the WGA posted a list of 48 smaller agencies that have agreed to the new code and will not take packaging fees. These agencies include Media Artists Group, American Media Artists and Summit Talent & Literary Agency.
But these boutique agencies — many of which operate outside of L.A. and represent few or no TV or film writers — are a far cry from Hollywood’s Big Four: Creative Artists Agency, United Talent Agency, William Morris Endeavor and ICM Partners. Those four groups represent roughly 75% of WGA members, and all have refused to eliminate packaging fees or agree to the Code of Conduct.
Other mid-major agencies like Paradigm, Verve, APA and The Gersh Agency have also refused to abide by the code. That means that thousands of WGA members who dump their agents will effectively go without representation until the dispute is settled.
Though for many of them, finding a new agent was never an option as they have strong personal and professional relationships with their previous agents, ones that many writers acknowledged were separate from their grievances with industry-wide practices. Ideally, most writers are hoping to resume working with the agents that have represented them for years as soon as possible.
4. Will other Hollywood guilds try similar moves against the agencies?
As the dispute between the WGA and ATA has escalated, the other Hollywood guilds have been in a wait-and-see mode. Insiders at SAG-AFTRA and the DGA have told TheWrap that both guilds are closely monitoring the situation, but won’t be taking any action of their own anytime soon as dueling lawsuits are expected to be filed soon. (On Monday, the Director’s Guild said its writer-directors could still retain their agents for directing-only work — at least for now — even if they dropped their agents for writing assignments to abide by the WGA.)
In the meantime, SAG-AFTRA has released a public statement of support for WGA, applauding its efforts to improve wages for its members.
But if the WGA is successful in any way in changing how agencies represent writers, the ripple effects could soon affect all aspects of the industry. This would have been true even if the WGA had agreed to ATA’s counterproposal last week, in which it offered an unspecified percentage of packaging fees on a film or TV project to the WGA to be shared with its members.
If packaging fees were opened to writers, it would only be a matter of time before other guilds called for a share of those fees as well.
5. Will this all end up with lawsuits and counter-suits?
The dispute looks to be headed to litigation. Both sides have alluded to the possibility and individuals familiar with Hollywood agencies and the WGA said they expect suits to be filed in the coming weeks. One possibility is that the WGA could sue Hollywood agencies for shirking their fiduciary responsibility to represent writers and clients (which is the basis for the guild’s complaints).
6. How long can this go on? Are any new talks planned between the two sides?
It’s impossible to say at this stage, but both the agencies and the WGA are preparing themselves for a long battle. The final negotiations on Friday ended quickly and tersely, with WGA sending the announcement on the failed talks hours before the midnight deadline had lapsed.
In a letter to its members, the ATA said that it “will not be a willing participant to any further chaos.” In a similar way, WGA members and negotiators accused the ATA of not taking its complaints seriously, specifically on packaging fees and the affiliated production companies that major agencies like WME and CAA have created with the financial boom they have enjoyed from the boom in demand for streaming TV series.
With neither side feeling like further talks would be productive at this point, the main focus seems to be getting through TV staffing season. WGA is encouraging members to help each other find work through their new online database, social media and personal networks. Grassroots social media movements like #WGAStaffingBoost are trying to particularly prioritize writers that are still trying to get a foothold in the industry and to help them build the sort of connections that have helped many TV writers land gigs even without the help of an agent.
The ATA, meanwhile, is allowing its member agencies to come up with their own individual plans for next steps, but says it “remains committed to serving all member agencies and is available to help manage that process together with each member agency.”