Meet the WGA’s new chief negotiator ahead of the union’s looming contract talks
In the spring of 2017, during tense contract negotiations with the Writers Guild of America, about 60 negotiators gathered at the Sherman Oaks offices of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
The union didn’t like the studios’ proposal on streaming residuals and turned to research guru Ellen Stutzman to explain why it would be bad for writers.
During her presentation at the bargaining table, Stutzman methodically laid out her union’s position. The rebuttal was so convincing it is still remembered by her colleagues.
“It’s a roomful of notetakers who just don’t want to look you in the eye and don’t have any interest in engaging with you, but she was impactful,” recalled Patric M. Verrone, a member of the union’s negotiating committee and a former guild president. “After seeing her make the presentation, it was as if she was born to do that sort of thing.”
The vote of confidence in Stuzman comes two weeks after the guild announced that she would stand in for the WGA’s chief negotiator, David Young, who was stepping down for health reasons.
Writers meet today to discuss the issues they expect will be at the center of difficult contract negotiations with the studios this spring.
The news stunned many in Hollywood. Young, a firebrand union leader who is known for his aggressive negotiating style, led the union during its strike in 2007-08. And some wondered whether his exit would leave the WGA without a strong leader ahead of crucial — and probably contentious — negotiations set to begin on Monday.
Colleagues describe Stutzman as more low-key and less combative than Young but say she is an effective negotiator who played an important role in the WGA’s high-profile and successful campaign to curb practices by talent agents deemed harmful to writers.
“Ellen is smart, tough and suffers no fools; she will do what is right for the membership based on what our needs are,” said one longtime WGA member who declined to be named because they were not authorized to comment.
In an interview Monday, Stutzman acknowledged the pressure ahead.
“We do have a big agenda this year. We’ve got a lot of issues that have been simmering for some period of time, and it’s on me and the negotiating committee to deliver for the members, so that’s a challenge in every negotiation,” Stutzman told The Times.
She said she isn’t planning a change in negotiating tactics or strategy.
“We go into negotiations with the backing of our members, and that’s what ultimately gives the [negotiating] committee power and is the only thing that companies respond to, so I don’t see it as a big change,” she said.
Many guild members and leaders have expressed support for Stutzman and her team.
“I actually felt a great degree of comfort in knowing that she would be stepping up to be the lead negotiator,” said Marc Guggenheim, showrunner for the TV series “Eli Stone” and “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.” “She’s very, very smart. She really cares about writers. Her command of the issues historically has always been incredibly strong.”
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A graduate of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Stutzman, 40, has worked with the WGA for 17 years.
After she graduated in 2004, Stutzman worked as a researcher and organizer for the SEIU-UHW.
She joined the Writers Guild of America West in 2006 as a research analyst. While employed at the union, Stutzman studied to obtain a master’s degree from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
Stutzman climbed the ranks at the union and in 2018 was tapped as assistant executive director. She oversaw agency, contracts, legal and research and public policy departments of the union.
“She’s adept at discussing both big-picture industry trends and the minutiae of [minimum basic agreement] contract language,” said John August, a former board member and current negotiating committee member. “There’s not a person better qualified on the planet to take this role.”
August cited the important role that Stutzman played in the last three bargaining rounds as well as the WGA’s fierce fight with talent agencies over packaging fees and affiliated productions.
During that campaign, Stutzman was known for educating members about agency financing, including the role of private equity investments in that business.
“Very few writers are going to be familiar with how private equity works, so it was important for her to explain what returns private equity investors were looking for when buying into agencies,” August said.
Thousands of writers “fired” their agents in 2019 to protest packaging fees and other practices. At one point, Young engaged in a war of words with William Morris Endeavor partner Rick Rosen, who accused Young of threatening him, a claim he denied.
Stutzman took a different approach.
“When we were in the room negotiating with the agencies, she was polite but direct about why we felt their ownership structure represented an unbridgeable conflict of interest,” August said.
Ultimately the WGA won that fight, with agencies agreeing to ditch packaging fees for assembling projects and to reduce their ownership stakes in affiliated productions to no more than 20%.
In recent weeks, Stutzman and other guild leaders have been meeting with members to discuss bargaining priorities. On Feb. 23 at Universal City’s Sheraton hotel, Stutzman gave a presentation to writers, with negotiating committee co-Chair Chris Keyser, about proposals the union planned to present to studios.
“She’s very patient, very engaged,” said one guild captain who attended the meeting but was not authorized to comment.
Stutzman stands out for her deep knowledge, said Verrone, citing her presentations in 2014 to members of Congress over the union’s opposition to the Comcast-Time Warner merger.
“She’s certainly the best-briefed [person in the room] and has the facts and figures at her fingertips, which I always found invaluable,” Verrone said. “She’s been behind the scenes of almost every one of our battles in the last 17 years.”
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