Pilots will give way to series in about two weeks — and they’ll need writers, who no longer have agents
With no sign of resolution on the horizon in the ongoing dispute between Hollywood writers and their agents, the newly unrepresented community of thousands of writers has turned out en masse to help each other through the current broadcast TV staffing season, the mad-dash period each year when hundreds of jobs come up for grabs.
All parties agree that those jobs will necessarily get filled and that many writers will be able to find work, but what no one can say for sure is, once this staffing season is over, what comes next?
The coming weeks represent a critical time for the TV industry. Ahead of their respective upfront events in the first weeks of May — see Stephen Colbert (above) celebrating back in 2017, a simpler time — each broadcast network will order 10 to 12 new series apiece, and each of those shows will have to hire a staff of six to 10 writers almost immediately.
Compounded with staff turnover on existing shows, that leads to a very condensed three- or four-week period with tons of jobs open and not much time to close deals. Writers’ rooms can start up as early as June 1 for new shows to begin shooting in July.
“Jobs are gone, multiple offers are swirling — and it goes in two weeks,” one person with knowledge of staffing negotiations told TheWrap of the compressed timeline. “It’s chaotic even with the best of organizing abilities.”
In a typical year, writers are submitted for consideration by agents, and the showrunner handpicks a show’s staff after meeting with the best candidates. But this year, after more than 7,000 WGA members dropped their agents in protest of agency practices they say represent a conflict of interest. As a result, most writers no longer have agents to submit them.
Instead, writers are relying on their own networks, leveraging social media and assistance from the guild to do the work of their agents themselves.
On April 1, the WGA launched its Staffing Submission System, essentially an online portal writers can use to provide showrunners with information about themselves and upload script samples for staffing consideration.
The writing community has also created its own informal submission system, using Twitter hashtags like #WGAStaffingBoost and #WGASolidarityChallenge and member-curated spreadsheets to link up showrunners with writers trying to get staffed. In-person connections are being formed at member-organized events, including a recent “mixer” that nearly overwhelmed a Los Angeles-area bar and served as a strong show of solidarity in the days following the collapse of talks between the guild and the agencies.
“Members are helping members,” WGA West assistant executive director Chuck Slocum told TheWrap. “We’ve had people tell us they’re having the best staffing season in years.”
The guild also notes that a survey of its membership found that 75 percent of writers said they found their most recent job through someone other than their agent.
But while the guild, and the writers themselves, say they’ve seen success from the new systems have been and staffing meetings, agents still argue that they play a vital role missing from the process. Namely, serving not only as sounding boards and shepherds for writers seeking career guidance, but also as matchmakers and a legitimizing force for studios seeking quality candidates.
Those on the agency side predict that showrunners, inundated with submissions, will end up with less qualified candidates, or will be forced to fall back on existing professional relationships, potentially leaving less established writers out in the cold. One agency source described the current situation as a “complete s— show,” suggesting that this year’s staffing season could prove enough of a strain that guild membership might come out of it wanting to re-evaluate its position.
And while no one on either side objects to the simple concept of agents acting on behalf of their clients, the heart of the dispute — agency packaging fees — has proven objectionable enough that writers say they’re willing to go it alone for as long as it takes to get a new agreement.
WGA’s position is that packaging — in which agencies forgo the traditional 10 percent commission from all of their clients attached to a project in exchange for a portion of the project’s overall profits — creates a conflict of interest, and that it has contributed to a decline in overall earnings for writers. Agencies say that packaging is essential to their current business model, and that writers who participate in packaging earn more than they would otherwise.
The vast majority of current TV projects, including the very shows about to begin the staffing process, have some sort of package attached, but the WGA has demanded that talent agencies end the practice outright. The guild has not wavered from its position, and on March 31, WGA members overwhelmingly voted to approve a new code of conduct requiring any agency representing them to do just that.
“We want agents to be valuable allies for our members,” Slocum said. “We’re not trying to push out agents … but we have a new code and it’s in force.”
No major agency has signed on to a new agreement, and thus far neither side has shown any movement.
That raises an even bigger question down the road: What happens once development season comes back around, when packaging comes back into play because agents are particularly instrumental in matching up writers with projects, talent and studios?
“As we get beyond staffing season and we get into pilot development for next season, I expect all of the same things to be available,” Slocum said. “Writers helping writers, and the guild helping writers.”