Entertainment & Arts

Column: Maybe Jill Ellis could make the WGA and ATA play nice

United States of America v Netherlands : Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France
Jill Ellis, head coach of the World Cup-champion USA women’s soccer team.
(Richard Heathcote / Getty Images)
Culture columnist/critic

Jill Ellis, the U.S. women’s soccer coach extraordinaire, may or may not be part of the World Cup-winning team’s victory tour that may or may not kick off at the Rose Bowl in August, but it would be really great if she could make time to visit L.A. soon.

Because someone needs to step the heck in on this whole WGA v. the talent agencies freak show.

Seriously, with lawsuits and vitriol flying on a near-weekly basis, the Writers Guild of America West and the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood have reached that stage many couples know so well: when you finally decide to go to therapy to either save the marriage or figure out the best way to end it.

Statistically, it is usually the latter. And though no doubt most writers would prefer to have their agents back, it must be said that the mass firing demanded earlier this year by the WGA when the Assn. of Talent Agents refused to accept its new code of conduct, did not, despite dire predictions, bring on the apocalypse, or even disrupt staffing season much.


But clearly we cannot go on like this; with the WGA suing the major agencies for violating California’s fiduciary duty law and portions of the Taft-Hartley Act and the agencies suing the WGA for violating antitrust laws the only people actually benefiting from the process are the lawyers.

Eventually, the extra burden of open-submission staffing will take its toll, especially on showrunners, while many younger or less-known writers will feel the loss of a personal advocate. More important, the role, and power, of talent agencies in modern Hollywood needs to be decided. Are they even talent agents anymore? And if not, what are they?

There is far more money to be made in television production than in representation, but doing both represents a clear conflict of interest — even in marriage counseling, the first rule is: Do not use a therapist one of you has been seeing individually.

The question is, who could sit in the big chair in the middle and either find a compromise between the WGA’s “Yes you will” (stop packaging and working with “in-house” production companies, and go back to representing like we’re paying you to do) and the ATA’s “No we won’t” (because we’ve been packaging for years and this is how the business works now) or figure out how to tell the kids and divide the assets.


If it’s a therapist that’s needed, I’d vote for Dr. Reisman, the gently steely, clear-eyed therapist played by Robin Weigart on “Big Little Lies” except 1). She’s a fictional character and 2). Given that she appears to be the only therapist in Monterey, Reisman probably has an agent or a TV show in the works, possibly both.

And that’s the problem — so many people have skin in this particular game. Representation by one of the big agencies is often hard to get and can be a game-changer while the WGA is a powerful advocate for writers.

Packaging is complicated — on the one hand it absolutely is a direct violation of the client representation model; on the other, it is increasingly how business is done in this town — but the possible impact of taking one side or another is less so. Both of these organizations are famous grudge-holders and each has said straight out that they are taking names.

A while ago, Variety’s Claudia Eller observed that with uber-exec Lew Wasserman gone, Hollywood had no single well-respected “voice of reason,” a person powerful and persuasive enough to bring the WGA and the ATA into a room and not let them leave til some sort of compromise was made.

But Wasserman would not have been the right man for this job. He was an early advocate of breaching the line between representation and production; in 1962, his agency, MCA, bought Universal Studios. Only when then-Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy threatened to enforce antitrust law did Wasserman back down; he chose Universal and MCA ceased to be a talent agency.

With so much history and so many lawyers (not to mention acronyms) involved, the situation calls for someone with outsider objectivity, someone who understands business and unions but is not indebted to a talent agent, or working on a film/television project and does not cherish hopes of either thing happening anytime soon.

Which eliminates pretty much anyone who works in Hollywood, and a lot of people who don’t.

My first thought for master arbiter was an Obama, Michelle and/or Barack, but then I remembered that they have agents, books and a deal with Netflix, so how unbiased, one way or another, would even they be? Hillary Clinton is working with Steven Spielberg on a series about the suffrage movement, and the whole campaign-donor situation means that Kamala Harris and all the presidential candidates are out.


If only the actors and directors who lost their minds when the film academy proposed presenting Oscars in four categories off camera felt half as strongly about supporting Writers Guild members who overwhelmingly voted for their union to put an end to packaging fees, but ... see above.

Perhaps a local rabbi or minister could get involved. I know some excellent elementary school teachers with lots of experience managing conflicts that consist of each side calling the other a liar and using higher authorities (what are parents but early-life lawyers?) as threats.

In fact, the WGA did recently offer what is essentially a “time out”; its agencies would be given a year in which they could collect packaging fees before transitioning back to the 10% model.

Or maybe Jill Ellis can talk some sense into them. Certainly she is riding high as a manager and a strategist, a woman who sees the playing field clearly and has the ability to make the necessary adjustments.

When her team wasn’t working, she rebuilt it; when her strategy wasn’t effective, she re-thought it. She’s dealt with talent, ego, unforeseen circumstance, people who doubt her ability and criticism of every kind. You think it’s easy telling team captain Alex Morgan that Megan Rapinoe would be taking all penalty kicks, period?

Ellis isn’t interested in trash-talking or distracted by personalities. She never loses sight of her goal and uses all her resources in the way they are supposed to be used to achieve it.

Which is exactly what the WGA and the ATA need. If not Ellis then someone else who can dispense with the name-calling and lawsuits and absurdity of an argument that boils down to the Writers Guild wanting agents to go back to doing business the way they were hired to do it, and the agents saying they are not willing to do that.

These two groups need to figure out if their members can be a team in any real sense of the word. If so, then both groups need to listen to each other and establish new rules; if not, well, then both sides will need to shake hands, walk away and look around for new recruits.



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