The pitch seemed promising: a true crime podcast about a vengeful zookeeper from Oklahoma, starring and executive produced by “Saturday Night Live” comedian Kate McKinnon.
United Talent Agency assembled a “package” that included McKinnon and the rights to develop Wondery’s podcast into a TV show, and sold the series last month to a studio run by NBCUniversal. The series, called “Over My Dead Body: Joe Exotic,” did not have a writer assigned.
Seven months after thousands of Hollywood writers “fired” their agents to protest longstanding industry practices, talent agencies are continuing to package and sell shows at a brisk pace — often without writers attached. This marks a significant departure from recent years in which the vast majority of packaged TV shows included members of the Writers Guild of America.
As Hollywood’s biggest labor dispute in a decade continues with no end in sight, some talent agencies have found a workaround: They are not selecting writers before they sell new TV projects to studios. Instead, they are building shows around popular books, podcasts, English-language adaptations of foreign-language shows that are attractive to buyers because they come with already proven ideas.
“The major agencies have invested heavily in cultivating and procuring in-demand IP for decades and our job is to set those projects up and sell them to buyers,” said a senior agency executive who declined to be named. “The truth is, most movies and TV shows originate from underlying IP, a book, an article, a podcast, a format or an original character. The demand for valuable IP hasn’t changed whether we represent writers or not.”
Packaging shows around non-writing executive producers has precedent in some other countries, including the U.K. But the practice has alarmed some writers, who warn that not involving writers from the initial conception of a TV series sets a bad precedent and could limit their creative control over the series.
“If agencies can package without us and we’re pushed to the back of the line rather than the front of the line ... it would be tragic for us as storytellers because we would be executing someone else’s vision rather than our own,” said Ethan Drogin, who most recently was an executive producer on USA Network’s legal drama “Suits.”
Packaging is a longstanding industry practice whereby agents assemble writers, actors and intellectual property for a given project, then collect a fee from the studio when the project is sold (a portion of the licensing fee and a piece of the “back end”). Agencies argue that writers benefit from packaging because they do not need to pay the typical 10% commission fee to their agents. But the WGA argues such fees create inherent conflicts of interest, giving agents an incentive to put their own financial interests before their clients. The sides have turned to the courts to settle the dispute.
Meanwhile, at least two major talent agencies said packaging TV shows has continued at the same pace as last year. One agency executive said that 75% of the company’s TV deals since April have been packaged, and that two-thirds of those shows were sold without guild writers attached.
WGA West President David Goodman criticized the agencies’ continued use of packaging.
“Writers continue to be the very heart of the television business and our value is because we write and run the shows, not because we’re part of a packaging agreement,” Goodman said in a statement. “For that reason, our focus is on banning the packaging fees for representing writers, so that writer pay and power will be a function of our true market value, not deals that the agencies and studios make behind our backs.”
Helping to fuel the continued flurry of deal-making is the insatiable appetite of streamers hungry for new shows. Many of those buyers are interested in building shows from podcasts or books that already have massive audiences, said Beverly Hills-based entertainment attorney Elsa Ramo, a managing partner of Ramo Law PC.
“There’s a perception that there’s a greater risk with something that no one’s ever made before,” Ramo said.
In some cases, buyers are willing to purchase shows without a writer attached because they may want to take a more active role in choosing who the writer is, Ramo added.
Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez said the “Joe Exotic” package was attractive enough to potential buyers without a writer attached.
“We structure the stories ourselves in the podcasts in a way that makes it more likely they will resonate with television viewers,” said Lopez.
Wondery has been successful at adapting podcasts into TV shows, including the true-crime podcast “Dirty John,” which it made in partnership with the Los Angeles Times and was turned into a TV series that aired on Bravo starring Connie Britton.
The increased demand for intellectual property has created new opportunities for talent agencies. WME sold a series in June based on the Asa Schwarz book “The Seven Keys” that will be produced by Yellow Bird and distributed by Netflix without a writer tied to the project, according to a person familiar with the deal who declined to be named.
In some cases, unionized writers join the project after the agencies sell the IP to studios. They enter the project through their attorney or through open writing assignments, where writers can apply individually to write episodic scripts for shows, according to people familiar with the matter.
Some guild members worry about losing their clout.
Raf Green, most recently a co-executive producer on the National Geographic drama series “Genius,” is concerned that U.S. writers will become more like “a hired gun” in TV.
“That’s certainly not just a loss of power, but it’s a loss of the creative integrity that has helped TV to be one of the most creative parts of the industry,” Green said.
Green said that when he raised his concerns about agencies packaging shows without writers at a member meeting in August, WGA West Executive Director David Young questioned the validity of his information. He was “very dismissive of my question,” Green said. Young declined to comment.
Some argue that it doesn’t matter when writers join a project, or whether they are part of a package.
“Madam Secretary” creator Barbara Hall said she believes that writers will always play a crucial role in developing TV series because they must conceptualize the IP from podcasts and books and make them into shows.
Hall negotiated for creative control over a series called “Clues” that she will executive produce and write with David Grae based on a popular Israeli series that will be developed for CBS. “Clues” was packaged by WME last month and will be produced by CBS Television Studios in association with Universal Television and Keshet Studios, but Hall said she was not part of the package.
“There isn’t a show until there is a writer,” Hall said. “All they have done is sell the rights to something. Owning a podcast is not a television series. Owning an article is not a television series.”
While packaging remains a contentious issue between WGA West and the talent agencies, both expect that the money made in packaging fees will decline as deep-pocketed streamers invest up-front in buying global rights to projects.
Still, Drogin, a former executive producer on “Suits,” worries that the practice of packaging shows built around existing intellectual property — and without writers — could make it even more difficult to pitch original ideas.
“We become adapters of material and that would be a loss because a show like ‘Suits’ would be less likely to happen in that kind of a world,” Drogin said.