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Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and other big-name writers back WGA dissidents in escalation of guild tensions

NAACP Image Awards | Red carpet arrivals
Shonda Rhimes is one of more than 300 writers who have signed their names in support of a slate of candidates who have criticized the current leadership in the Writers Guild of America West elections.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Some of the biggest names in Hollywood are challenging the leadership of the Writers Guild of America, exposing a widening rift inside the union over its extraordinary battle with talent agents.

Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and Ava DuVernay are among more than 300 writers who have declared their support for dissidents in upcoming board elections, injecting a new level of drama into a conflict that has created widespread unease across the film and TV business.

“Our union is strong enough to endure honest differences of opinion voiced by writers who are loyal to the guild and its mission, who are driven by their concern for our most vulnerable members, but who believe there is a different way to achieve our shared goals,” the group said in a letter released Friday morning.

Such high-level support gives a significant boost to challengers in upcoming board elections and highlights intense debates inside the 12,000-member union over tactics for combating widely unpopular agency practices.

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The statement reflects mounting frustration within the guild over the lack of progress in negotiations to end a three-month standoff that has pitted writers against their agents and threatened to disrupt the flow of productions early next year.

The letter was endorsed by dozens of prominent writers and producers, including “Modern Family” co-creator Steve Levitan, “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin, and “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

Whether the statement will precipitate a change in approach at the WGA remains to be seen, but it is certain to be a wake up call for guild leaders, industry analysts said.

“Obviously a union needs the support of its members to execute a strategy like this,” said Dan Stone, a partner in the litigation and entertainment and media groups of law firm Greenberg Glusker. “If the membership doesn’t stand behind the leadership of the union or starts to voice dissent, that causes a problem in the position that the union is taking. At the very least, it would lead the current leadership to reconsider their strategy.”

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When guild leaders instructed union members to “fire” their agents in April after the sides could not reach agreement on a new code of conduct, they did so with overwhelming support. Members voted by a 95% margin in favor of the union’s code that effectively banned such practices as packaging -- lucrative fees that agencies collect for assembling talent on TV shows instead of paying the usual 10% commission.

Writers had hoped by terminating their agents it would give their union more leverage in negotiations. But now some of those writers are regretting the action, citing the widening gulf between the groups.

The WGA sued the largest four agencies, and in return three sued the WGA back in a legal battle that could take years to resolve.

While the union’s talks with the Assn. of Talent Agents have stalled, the guild is negotiating with individual agencies and has gotten three ATA members to break ranks. WGA has signed up more than 70 agencies, but none of the biggest ones have agreed to the guild’s terms.

In their letter, the group of writers said while many agency practices are in need of reform, they “believe this present situation is best resolved in a negotiating room and not in a courtroom.”

The group has also expressed concern that the conflict with the talent agencies may not be resolved in time for the union’s negotiations with the major studios for a new film and TV contract to replace one that expires in June.

“We are facing a critical negotiation with the AMPTP [Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers], a fight that has huge financial consequences for our members especially in the area of residuals, and we believe this battle is best fought by a united, forward-thinking guild that is not entrenched in lawsuits.”

In an interview on Friday, WGA West President David Goodman defended the union’s strategy.

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“The guild is a democracy (and) these are writers expressing their choice in this election,” said Goodman, showrunner for Fox TV series ‘The Orville.’ “The idea that we should withdraw the litigation when it’s providing leverage in the negotiations with the agencies seems like a wrong strategy to me. We’ve had success signing on agencies. Our strategy is working, we are not going to abandon it yet.”

The dissidents’ group is pushing for Oscar-nominated screenwriter Phyllis Nagy to become the next president of WGA West, along with her slate that includes “Chernobyl” writer Craig Mazin as vice president and military veteran and writer Nick Jones Jr. as secretary-treasurer. Nagy’s slate is running against incumbent Goodman and Vice President Marjorie David.

Brandon Camp, a feature writer who wrote and directed the Netflix reboot of “Benji” in 2018, said he signed the letter because he believes Nagy is capable of unifying the union.

“We cannot allow ourselves to get distracted with populist disruption simply because it’s en vogue,” Camp said in a statement. “Phyllis knows which battles to pick, and how to rationally, yet passionately, fight them.”

Current Secretary-Treasurer Aaron Mendelsohn is not running for re-election. The union’s nominating committee has backed Michele Mulroney and Evette Vargas as candidates for secretary-treasurer.

In addition to Nagy, veteran writer William Schmidt is also challenging Goodman for president. While it’s possible that he and Nagy could split the votes of dissenters, Schmidt says how people vote will still send a message.

“If Phyllis and I get more votes than Goodman gets, that says something,” Schmidt said earlier this week.

Both Schmidt and Nagy are advocating for getting back to negotiations with the ATA and are open to exploring writers receiving a revenue share of talent agency packaging fees. In the past, union leaders have rejected the ATA’s offer for revenue sharing in part because they felt the ATA wasn’t addressing larger issues, such as the conflicts of interest that can occur when agencies are involved in productions.

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“For some of us it’s no longer reasonable, as time stretches on and people aren’t working even though this is not a work stoppage, " Nagy said in an interview. “It’s no longer enough to just be entrenched in a position.”

Some dissenting writers have also expressed concern about the impact firing agents has had on writers who do not have the networks that veteran writers do in finding new jobs. They say some of the vulnerable writers include women, people of color, disabled and LGBTQ+ writers.

“It is the height of hypocrisy to demand doors be opened for these writers, only to forcibly detach them from their individual day-to-day advocates once they step through,” Mazin wrote in a Medium post.

They’re also skeptical whether the ending of packaging fees will actually result in more money for writer salaries.

Goodman said he believes the majority of members are supportive of the current strategy, but he acknowledged that dissent has grown. The union has said that it has tools in place to help writers find jobs without agents, including an online submission system. Writers have also made connections through social networks like Twitter.

“I think it’s going to be a tough race for me,” Goodman said on Thursday. “I don’t think in any way it will be easy. I hope that the members support me and what I and the rest of the leadership have been trying to do, but you know, it’s their decision.”

Mulroney said she’s committed to “constantly examining and refining our strategy as the campaign evolves and to supporting compromise where it makes sense.”

“I very much doubt that that the AMPTP is looking at us and thinking we’re weak, that we’re pushovers who’ll settle for crumbs,” Mulroney wrote on her website. “Quite the opposite.”

The election results will be announced Sept. 16.


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