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‘A fight can be worthwhile.’ What lessons WGA learned from its battle with agencies

David Goodman speaks at Comic-Con
David Goodman speaking at “The Orville” panel during 2019 Comic-Con International at San Diego Convention Center.
(Amy Sussman / Getty Images)

It seemed an improbable win. When thousands of writers fired their agents in 2019 in a protest against perceived conflicts of interest, the outcome was uncertain. But lawsuits, the pandemic and the possibility of a strike didn’t derail their campaign.

Last month, WME became the last major talent agency to sign a deal with the Writers Guild of America that restricts the agency’s ownership in related production businesses and bars the long-standing use of packaging fees — practices deemed to benefit agents at the expense of their writer clients.

The pact marked the end of a rancorous, nearly two-year fight that led to costly court battles and heightened tensions inside the union.

David Goodman, executive producer of Hulu’s “The Orville” — who ends his two-year term as president of WGA, West in September — believes the win has galvanized the membership as it faces an uncertain time in the streaming era.

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The 58-year-old writer, best known for his work on “Family Guy” and “Futurama,” recently spoke with the Times by telephone from his Pacific Palisades home office. He talked about the ramifications of the landmark agreement, what it means for writers and the future of the union as it tackles other pressing issues for members.

Below are excerpts from the interview, which has been edited for clarity and space.

The end of the agency fight was a big win for the union. How do you view it?

It’s emboldened the membership. We showed very clearly that we set out to do something [and] we won.

The guild has won a lot of battles in the past. We won the battle for coverage of the internet in 2007. But the difference was that when we won that fight at the end of the strike, there was no streaming.

This is a case where we started a fight laying out a set of demands and we ended the fight pretty much getting all the demands we made, and so that tells our membership that a fight can be worthwhile.

It really does say something about not just the power of this union but the power of all unions and that when they are properly organized and they have solidarity around their issues they really can improve the lives of their members.

How have the lives of writers, your members, been impacted by these deals with the agencies?

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I have heard stories of agents fighting harder. I do know, as a matter of fact, that because the guild is now getting writer deals from the agencies, we’re getting all that paperwork. The guild itself has been pursuing very aggressively late pay claims, and we’ve collected thousands of dollars. I think it’s over $70,000 in late fees that has gone directly to writers.

And part of this fight was having the agencies share this information for us so that the guild could be the bad guy and chase down these late pay claims. That’s a real positive. That’s already happened because of the agency campaign. We’d already collected a lot of that money even before any of the big four agencies signed [the franchise agreement].

The other positive thing that I’m hearing from a lot of members is a change in attitude in terms of how they look at their representation. In 2019, more writers worked than the previous year — and that was the year nobody had an agent. So what that told us was writers and the town discovered pretty quickly how to work around not having agents in the middle.

The one concrete thing that I have seen is an improvement in terms of how a writer looks at themselves and their value next to their representatives, that the representatives work for them, and that to me is going to be worth a lot to a lot of writers going forward.

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Paul Audley, president of FilmLA, answers questions about Hollywood’s return to work and the organization’s own challenges.

Are you surprised the campaign was successful?

I had no idea it would go on this long. What I was more than pleasantly surprised [by], and proud of, is how long the membership held together on this. I can’t guarantee that members are going to have solidarity over an issue, but they recognized the importance of what it was we were fighting for, and they held together for this fight.

There really was no moment where I thought we had to pull the plug. There were moments of doubt during my reelection campaign.

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I was fairly certain we had overwhelming support of the membership but I couldn’t be sure. That election was very, very difficult. But all the way through, I got a pretty strong sense that the majority of the members were still with us.

And then, of course, the election proved it because it was a referendum on the agency campaign. That was probably the most difficult time. And then when COVID hit, suddenly we’ve got to be there for our members in a different way, and you wonder, “Is this going to negatively impact the agency campaign?” But it didn’t. People still held together on it.

A coalition of medical professionals and TV writers believe shows could help educate diverse audiences toward wearing masks and getting vaccinated.

Have most writers gone back to their old agents or is there still a level of mistrust?

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I think some writers have gone back [who] were anxious to go back and had good agents and good agent relationships and wanted to get back with them.

Some writers haven’t. What writers discovered was that they have some flexibility, that they have some choices.

Did you go back to your agent at UTA after you fired him?

I never heard from them after that, so I didn’t go back to them. But I don’t know that they wanted me to. [Goodman’s current agents are at A3 Artists Agency.]

Do you think the campaign caused some writers to accept less favorable deals because they didn’t have agents to represent them?

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I have no doubt that sacrifices were made by individual members who gave up the representation of their agents during this period. That was part of the fight. If there are individual members who feel that they would have had a better deal if they’ve had their agency negotiating for them during this period, I feel terrible about it. But that was part of the sacrifice that members were willing to make to address these issues.

Are agents complying with the terms of the deals?

Right now, the agencies are fully complying with what we’ve asked them for. They’ve really stepped up. They’re being partners.

The whole point of this fight was not just to address conflicts of interest, it was not just to get rid of packaging fees and get rid of affiliate production; it was also to establish a franchise agreement that was vital, that had a way to address noncompliance.

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The old agreement, which was negotiated in the ’70s, was a dead letter. It had no teeth. Now this agreement has ways to address grievances and has real teeth, if for some reason agencies decide not to comply. But the fact is, we’re not seeing that at all. We’re seeing the opposite; we’re seeing real cooperation.

Do you have any concern that managers might be engaging in activity that poses similar conflicts of interest with their writer clients?

That manager conflict has been there. The issue that we took on with the agencies was that it was an oligopoly where they set a price for packaging fees and getting the money that they were getting and then building their own affiliate production companies. The management issue is an issue that some people have raised as potentially a conflict the guild might have to address. But that will be up to the members. There is no oligopoly among managers. They don’t control the business the way the agencies were.

As Hollywood’s two biggest talent agencies remain at odds with the Writers Guild of America, some agents are leaving to start their own management firms.

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Did you take any kind of break after the final agreement?

My break is to go back to just being a writer, which is a break. [“The Orville”] has started shooting again, and then I’m pursuing some other projects.

I’m really proud of the union and I mean that sincerely. I was the public face of the fight, but I mean the members themselves, top to bottom, stepped up to take this on and they won it. They said, “This is important.” They said, “We want this fixed” and they fixed it.

I can’t tell you the pride I have being a member of the Writers Guild — that we set out to do something, and we succeeded. That’s mostly how I feel — just this enormous sense of a pride in what the members did.

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How have the finances of the WGA been impacted as result of this long-running agency fight?

The union is extremely financially healthy. We wouldn’t have taken on the legal fight if we couldn’t afford it. We knew what the costs would be, and we knew that we could well afford it. We didn’t raise dues on anybody. Our pension and health plan is very healthy because our writers worked last year, even during the pandemic. And obviously the stock market did better than anybody thought.

Is there anything you would say about those who opposed this campaign and your leadership?

I’ve been in the guild leadership for 15 years. There’s always a group of people in the guild who disagree with fights that we take up. The guild is a true democracy. If we don’t have a real majority, a solid majority, we don’t do it. So the idea that we would expect that nobody would dissent, I’d be crazy to expect that.

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I’ve had honest, forthright engagements with the people who disagree with me. There may be some people who have hard feelings against me. There may be some people who blame me for things or think I was unreasonable. I did my best not to be unreasonable, to listen to all the members because it is important to me to know how members were feeling about this all the way through.

I have definitely gotten a couple of emails from members who did disagree forcefully with me, who’ve said that they were wrong and that they are happy that we came through.

We’re entering a period with a new administration that might be more pro-labor. What do you think that’s going to mean for Hollywood?

It obviously helps very much if the government is on your side, but the current administration also got a lot of donations from the companies we work for. It’s certainly better than it was. What it means for Hollywood? It’s definitely more nuanced for that reason.

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The writers in our industry rely on their residuals. ... As these companies move toward streaming platforms, become more siloed, finding out what a fair price is for the product you create — it becomes harder and harder. That’s where I would say my biggest concern is going forward for the union.

How has the experience of this agency fight changed your view of Hollywood?

It’s made me both optimistic or pessimistic at the same time. I’m pessimistic because I recognize that everything the union has can go away tomorrow: pensions, health benefits, residuals ... and that all those things require the union to exist minute to minute and be ready to fight at any time.

I’m optimistic because I really am always just amazed by how important this union is to its members and how hard individual members are willing to fight for it. And that keeps the pessimism at bay.

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