After talks with agencies collapsed on Friday, many members of the Writers Guild of America had their form letters ready to go at the stroke of midnight, informing their agencies that they could no longer represent them.
As a period of uncertainty sweeps over Hollywood, writers sent a loud message of solidarity on social media, with the hashtag #IStandWithTheWGA becoming one of the top Twitter trends in the U.S. Friday night. The general sentiment was a mix of frustration and conviction, as many writers posted screenshots of their form letters with messages that often mirrored that of comedian and WGA member Patton Oswalt:
“I have an amazing agency that represents me,” Oswalt tweeted. “But I have an even better guild which stands for me.”
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) April 13, 2019
— Timothée Doyle (@FlakedAndFormed) April 13, 2019
Other writers who posted the hashtag made an effort to establish the same distinction between the strong personal relationships they have with their agents and their frustration at industry-wide business practices they argue have given top agencies greater wealth and influence over Hollywood at their expense.
“My agent of 20+ years is a great friend and fighter for my career,” wrote former UTA client and “Big Fish” writer John August, who just this past week signed on to pen the script for Paramount’s “Grease” prequel “Summer Loving.”
“I would give him a kidney tomorrow. But this isn’t about him or any single agent. Until agencies put clients over conflicts we can’t work together. Simple as that.”
Both the WGA and its members have argued that the practice of packaging fees — in which agents are paid for bundling talent and bringing them as a package to a studio or network for film or TV projects — have pulled agencies away from their primary responsibility of representing them in favor of arranging deals that provide the most lucrative packaging paydays for themselves.
That usually involves forming packages with A-list directors, actors and, yes, writers, but can exclude lower-level writers who don’t have a showrunner credit to their name. As staff writer salaries beyond the guild minimum have stagnated, television revenue for the top agencies — CAA, WME and UTA — have exploded in the era of streaming.
In the case of WME and CAA, this increased profit has led to the creation of affiliated production companies, which the guild says creates further conflicts of interests, as agents can make deals on behalf of their clients with studios that the agencies they work for already own.
The Association of Talent Agents’ (ATA) counter-proposal to preserve packaging fees did little to ameliorate the guild’s complaints. Made public less than 36 hours before the agreement deadline, the ATA offered to provide the guild with a fund made from an unspecified percentage of packaging fees received by agencies, 80% of which would go directly to writers, while 20% would be invested in efforts to increase writer diversity.
But guild members panned the offer on social media, saying that by making the counter-proposal public before any agreement was made, the ATA was not taking the negotiations or the guild’s complaints about conflicts of interest seriously. In addition, the percentage offer was deemed too vague and did not expressly detail how much of a pay increase writers would see from the proposed fund.
Writers of color also expressed anger that promises to promote diversity were being used as “bargaining chips” to protect packaging fees, a sentiment that was reflected in the WGA’s official statement rejecting the counter-proposal.
“While we applaud your willingness to confront issues of diversity and inclusion, it shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip. You should know the comment of the diverse members of this committee upon hearing your proposal, was ‘We’re not pawns,'” WGA West President David A. Goodman wrote.
“And if you really feel that the program you proposed would make a difference, you are free to spend the money you pledged outside of this negotiation.”
Exactly how many of the WGA members will walk out remains to be seen, but thousands are expected to do so. Two weeks ago, when the guild held an authorization vote on the Code of Conduct, more than half of the guild’s membership took part with 95% — roughly 7,882 members — voting yes. Writers have also started another hashtag, #WGAStaffingBoost, encouraging showrunners to comb through it for staff writers looking for a show to join this spring.
If the solidarity the writers are now showing holds strong through staffing season and possibly beyond, it could be the start of a seismic shift in how TV shows and movies are developed in Hollywood. Agencies are digging in their heels against the WGA’s demands to return to a commission system that the guild says will tie agents’ pay to what they negotiate for their clients.
Whether such a system actually comes to fruition or packaging fees do end up getting shared with writers, either way would likely create ripple effects through the rest of the agency system. While SAG-AFTRA and the Directors Guild of America have done little beyond closely monitoring this conflict, any changes to how agents make deals for writers could likely lead to changes for directors and actors as well. It is uncharted territory that Hollywood is about to enter, but the WGA is so displeased with the status quo that it is ready to march into it.
“With everything happening w/ WGA & ATA right now, instead of afraid or scared – I’m excited and hopeful for what this wave of change will be, thanks to those with more power paving the way,” said “My Little Pony” writer Kelly Lynne.
I hate that it’s come to this. I love my agents and I love my agency. But this isn’t about that. This is about fighting for a system that works for all of us and not just for some of us. #ClientsOverConflicts #IStandWiththeWGA pic.twitter.com/iOQ7F4K0J1
— Natasha Rothwell (@natasharothwell) April 13, 2019
— Luvh Rakhe (@luvhrakhe) April 13, 2019
I didn't want to fire my agents. I REALLY like them. Plus, I need a job a month from now and I'm not sure having the phrase "Twitter do your thing" be my agent is gonna work. But I am pro-union, pro-labor, and pro workers getting a piece of the pie they make so #IStandWithTheWGA pic.twitter.com/XadUryPxNI
— Ashley Nicole Black (@ashleyn1cole) April 13, 2019
— josh feldman (@ItsJoshFeldman) April 13, 2019