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Company Town

WGA’s fight with agents enters Act 2, but there’s no end in sight

TV writer Rasheed Newson
TV writer Rasheed Newson is unhappy with the lack of progress in negotiations between writers and agents.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Like many of his peers, writer Rasheed Newson, a co-executive producer on the Showtime drama “The Chi,” was supportive of his union’s efforts to rein in some of the aggressive practices of talent agencies.

But three months after the Writers Guild of America told members to fire their agents, Newson is growing frustrated with the lack of progress in resolving a dispute that has consumed Hollywood.

“This aftermath has been so messy and people are riled up,” the 40-year-old Pasadena resident said. “Our agents, while not perfect, are often our advocates.... I don’t want this to be something that lasts for years.”

Fueling the anxiety is the fact that the sides remain as far apart now as they did in late April, sources close to the union and agencies say.

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The protracted standoff has wider repercussions for Hollywood because it could impede the staffing of shows and disrupt the flow of projects next year. Some analysts believe it could also portend a wide labor conflict next summer when contracts for all three major talent unions expire. And there are tensions within the Writers Guild about how to handle the stalemate and prepare for the fights ahead.

The conflict kicked off in April, when the WGA--objecting to several common but controversial agency practices-- ordered its members to fire agents who had not signed a new union-proposed code of conduct, one that replaced a 43-year-old agreement and ended those long-standing industry habits . So far, the guild says, more than 7,000 members have terminated their agents, out of 8,800 who had agents.

Since then, negotiations between the WGA and the Assn. of Talent Agents have stalled. “There is no back-channeling going on,” said an agency leader who was not authorized to comment.

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The latest round of talks collapsed last month and the parties have turned to the courts to settle their differences, with the WGA suing the big four agencies and three agencies so far -- WME, CAA and UTA -- suing the WGA back . (The fourth big agency, ICM, asked on Friday for the WGA suit against it to be dismissed.)

As a result, dozens of attorneys are now involved in litigation that could take years to settle and prove costly to both sides.

At issue are two agency practices: packaging, when agencies group multiple clients—say, a writer, director, and star—on a project and take a payment rather than their usual 10% commission, and affiliate production, when agencies or their parent companies own production companies. Writers say both practices present conflicts of interest. On the old percentage model, agents made more money when they got their clients bigger deals. These new income sources for agencies complicate those incentives, writers say.

The agency boycott represents the biggest labor dispute in more than a decade. Unlike the 2007-2008 strike by writers — which lasted 100 days and halted most TV production — the current fight has had a negligible effect on production, even though it came in the midst of TV staffing season. That’s because many writers had jobs booked before the mass firing, or relied on professional networks and social media to find work in the months after . Some writers have quietly returned to the agents they fired, risking opprobrium from the guild.

If it continues, the boycott could begin to disrupt staffing and development of TV shows by the first quarter of next year, industry insiders say. For now, however, the absence of an immediate crisis appears to have given neither side an incentive to resolve the conflict anytime soon.

WGA
Headquarters of the Writers Guild of America, West in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

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But the fight appears to be as much a struggle for power as it is a conflict over economic spoils.

Agents privately maintain that the WGA is not interested in making a deal. They cite the fact that the guild rejected its recent offer to increase revenue sharing for junior TV writers without a counterproposal.

They direct much of their anger toward David Young, the guild’s chief negotiator and former garment workers’ organizer who led the WGA during the 2007-2008 strike and remains widely popular in the union. They blame Young for demonizing agents by likening them to criminals. And they suspect Young is using the negotiations as a ploy to gain leverage over the major studios in upcoming contract negotiations, perhaps by sending a signal that the guild means business.

“They are not looking for a deal, they have always been looking only to run out the clock,” said one person involved in the talks who was not authorized to comment.

A WGA spokesman said Young was unavailable for an interview, but WGA West President David Goodman disputed the claim.

“They have a strategy, which is to say that we’re unwilling to negotiate, and they are hoping our solidarity breaks and that we fold our tents and go home,” said Goodman, a showrunner for the Fox TV series “The Orville.” “The fact is the agencies have not been willing to negotiate because they are hoping to keep the status quo, and they are doing that in the hopes of dividing our membership and convincing them that we’re being obstinate and that we’re not being realistic, when in fact that’s a description of them.”

Karen Stuart, executive director of the Assn. of Talent Agents, declined to comment.

When the WGA instructed its members to fire their agents in April, they did so with widespread support among rank-and-file members. Writers at all levels shared horror stories of how agents had allegedly put their own economic interests ahead of their clients’. And they had voted overwhelmingly in support of restrictions on their agents in March.

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But some guild members — including those who remain broadly sympathetic with the union’s criticisms of agency practices — openly question the guild leadership’s handling of negotiations with agents. Some have shared their dissenting views in a private digital chat room that has already amassed hundreds of members.

Meanwhile, “Chi” writer Newson and several other writers plan to challenge the leadership in guild elections in mid-September.

Candidates include some of the industry’s most prominent writers, such as Craig Mazin, writer-creator of the acclaimed HBO series “Chernobyl,” who is running for a seat on the board of the West Coast branch of the Writers Guild. Though Mazin has been critical of agency practices, he says the guild’s approach hasn’t worked.

“We’ve empowered the union to make a deal for us, and they’re not,” Mazin said recently on the “Scriptnotes” podcast he co-hosts. “Currently, the plan appears to be nothing.”

Veteran writer William Schmidt is challenging Goodman for president, going so far as to call the union’s campaign a “jihad against agents.”

The guild has said dozens of agencies have signed the new code, including the smaller literary agency Verve, but critics note that none have included the top firms. Abrams Artists Agency, a midsize agency, also couldn’t reach a deal with the WGA despite an offer to avoid packaging fees and affiliated production.

The union believes it will be hard to reach a compromise until the talent agencies admit that there is a conflict of interest with packaging and affiliate productions. That’s why the union did not engage with the Assn. of Talent Agents on its proposal to share revenue fees from packaging, Goodman said.

“This idea that we would want the agencies to just give us a kickback, based on money they make, doesn’t solve the problem,” Goodman said. “They are not even acknowledging the problem. It’s not a compromise, it’s giving in.”

Goodman said he’s not worried about the dissent. “The overwhelming majority are still on board with what we’re doing, but that might change,” he said. “If the majority of the members agree with those writers, they should vote me out and vote the leadership out.”

David Shore, co-chair of the union’s negotiating committee and executive producer of “House” and “The Good Doctor,” said it was premature to judge the guild’s outreach to agencies. “I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet,” he said. “We will continue to negotiate with anyone who walks through the door.”

Several union members said they continue to support the guild’s efforts. “The industry is changing in a lot of scary ways right now with media companies consolidating every day and nobody being exactly sure where their next job is coming from,” said Hayes Davenport, a 33-year-old TV writer in Los Angeles. “So if writers are going to survive this landscape, we need a guild that’s actively fighting for our interests.”

The guild has also offered its members a platform where they can apply for open jobs listed on its website and other assistance in finding work after members were instructed to fire their agents.

Nonetheless, many writers say the platform is no substitute for having an agent. “This is a business, right or wrong, that thrives on heat and momentum,” said Tiffany Romigh, a West Hollywood feature film writer and author. “When you throw a wrench in that, when your reps aren’t there to guide and push you, careers change, and, you know, I’m scared.”

Romigh says most of her income comes from so-called open writing assignments, on which writers may be asked to rework scripts. In a typical year, she could get three to five OWAs with the help of her agent, and this year she hasn’t landed any. She’s currently living off of her savings.

“I need to work, and I’m afraid that because other people who have more power than I do can afford to wait and just see how things resolve, I’m afraid we’re on their timetable,” Romigh said.

Brandon Camp, a feature writer who wrote and directed the Netflix reboot of “Benji” in 2018, said he would like to see negotiations resume between the Assn. of Talent Agents and the union.

“I do believe packaging and affiliate production are real issues. They are real problems,” Camp said. “But I also believe they are solvable problems that can be addressed with meaningful negotiations hopefully outside of courtrooms.”

After firing their agents, some writers have gone back seeking their services. If caught, writers could face penalties for doing so, including getting kicked out of the guild.

“I cannot not work for very long,” said one TV writer who sought their agent for help in finding work and declined to be named for fear of retribution. “I don’t know anyone well enough to be hired on the spot.”

With the upcoming election, the writer and others said they would be paying close attention on who is running. Newson, who is running for a board seat, said if elected, he would like to see Young no longer involved in future contract negotiations.

“We sort of got rid of agents and replaced that with the good old boys’ network, which you can imagine does not serve writers of color very well,” said Newson, who is African American.

Others are hoping for a happy ending.

“If this is a script, we’d be in the second half of Act 2,” Romigh said. “All the obstacles are piled up and it’s hard to see how we’re going to get out of this predicament.”


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