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The ATA’s response to writers’ concerns is simply insane

The ATA’s response to writers’ concerns is simply insane
CAA is one of four agencies at war with the Writers Guild of America. (Dreamstime / TNS)

In the early stages of the current war between the Writers Guild of America and the Assn. of Talent Agents, it was difficult for anyone who was not a writer or talent agent to get terribly worked up.

Screenwriters are not coal miners fighting for safety measures, and talent agents aren’t teachers who’d like to earn a decent living for once. This isn’t a strike; no one has to worry about late-night hosts ad-libbing through their scraggly beards.

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But now? Now it’s gotten completely insane.

For those of you who haven’t been following, the WGA (for which, until recently, my husband worked as a magazine editor) wants the talent agencies to sign a new code of conduct to ensure the agents do their jobs — getting their clients the best deals possible — and that’s it. No using clients as part of an overall package deal or working with affiliated production companies; too often, the WGA contends, these practices result in writers getting shafted.

The ATA says the agencies will not be signing any such code because the WGA is not the boss of them and writers actually benefit from packaging, which has been going on for years.

So the WGA instructed its members to fire their agents, which almost all of them have, and announced it is suing the four major talent agencies.

In response, the ATA accused the WGA of trying to throw Hollywood into “predetermined chaos” and instructed its members to keep a list of any writers trying to get work without using an agent because, according to ATA reps, this is illegal.

So just to recap: Writers are unhappy with how major talent agencies have been repping them. When confronted with this, the agents refused to make any changes, so the writers fired them. Now the agencies are saying the writers cannot do this because, according to them, writers are legally bound to be represented by people who they believe are shafting them.

Even by Hollywood standards, this is Absolutely Insane.

Writers are not indentured servants of talent agencies; they are the people who create the stories we all spend so much time and money watching and obsessing about.

Also, and correct me if I am wrong, when you pay someone regularly for their services, that makes you their boss.

Yes, there are some superagents in so much demand that it seems like they are the boss, and certainly agents can drop clients, which can be devastating.

But, and this is important, agents don’t pay their clients; their clients pay them. Which is why the writers were able to fire their agents rather than the other way around.

Talent agencies have been changing for years, as private equity firms made deep investments, and demanded steeper profits. This is not to suggest all agents are driven solely by dreams of big money. (Though it is alarming how many people apparently think of their agents as friends. Here’s the difference between a friend and an agent — an agent gets 10%.)

Many agents have made it their business to discover and support writers who otherwise would never get the chance to work in television or get their movie made or meet J.J. Abrams; that’s why they get thanked so often at the Emmys and Oscars. Many agents work hard for clients who do not make them money in the hopes that someday they will, and that someday doesn’t always come.

Many agents also may believe that, without packaging, their clients wouldn’t get as much work because studios increasingly want the writer, director, star and caterer on board before they give the green light (OK, maybe not the caterer). Or that having affiliate production companies in no way compromises their clients.

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But it doesn’t matter what they believe because the fact, which has been made very clear, is that those clients are not happy.

You can argue that writers are never happy and you would not be wrong, but this is a collective unhappiness specifically with the people writers pay to represent them.

You would think that agents would want to to figure out a way to make their clients happy, or as happy as writers get, because that is how this business works.

Instead the ATA continues to insist that the things making the writers unhappy are, in fact, good for them and that the writers really weren’t that unhappy until the WGA persuaded them, for reasons of their own, to throw Hollywood into “predetermined chaos.” (Honestly, I cannot get over this term.)

Yet despite what you may have heard, writers are capable of doing simple math. If they were benefiting from packaging and affiliate production companies, they would not be complaining about it to their union.

Likewise, if many writers had not complained to their union, the good folks at the WGA would be taking it easy, planning their showrunner training programs, settling arbitration disputes, handing out copyrights and thanking the good Lord their headquarters are so close to the Farmers Market and the Grove because who doesn’t love popping over to the Farmers Market and the Grove now and again?

Also someone needs to explain to me exactly what kind of packages those agencies are planning to put together without writers. Hollywood may be changing drastically in many ways, but there remains one fixed point: It is an industry based on storytelling.

That storytelling may require the hard work and talent of a wide array of people — hence all that packaging and dealmaking — but there is no denying that all of it, the whole Tinseltown shebang with every syndication right, international bundle, trademarked plushie, theme park addition and awards show thrown in, starts with a script.

I have been interviewing actors for more than 20 years, and whenever I ask what drew them to any given project, the answer is either “the script” or “the character.” Not the director or the cinematographer and certainly not the talent agency.

This is the baseline truth of Hollywood, the mantra the industry repeats to the world and itself: It all begins with the story. A series or film can, and often does, overcome a bad performance, lazy direction or bland cinematography, but it cannot overcome a bad script.

This doesn’t mean Writers Rule or that the proposed code of conduct was handed down from the Mount (mere moments before God made a deal with Netflix). But it does mean the agencies, which have made lots of money repping writers, should be taking the concerns of those writers seriously.

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And if they are worried, as many believe, that caving in any way to the WGA will lead to other unions making similar demands, well, how does such a blatant refusal to take one group of clients’ concerns seriously look to actors and directors?

Maybe a compromise can be found, or maybe the answer is a whole new way of doing business. Maybe the big agencies really can’t operate without packaging and producing, in which case they aren’t really talent agencies any more and writers will need to seek alternative representation.

But when a group of very important, or even not so important, clients are so unhappy with how you do business that they have fired you en masse, perhaps there is a better response than: “You can’t fire us because we are all that stand between you and chaos.”

With respect, if all that stands between anyone and chaos is a group of talent agents, then we are in way more trouble than we thought. So much trouble that the problems of two little groups don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

And I don’t need the WGA to remind me that somebody wrote that.

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