Writers vs. Agents: the fight that may bring Hollywood to its knees

The world was whipped in a frenzy because of the Red Carpet and Premiere of Avengers: Endgame. And the movie has gone on to smash pre-sales (ticket) records in almost every country, with Endgame looking forward to a $850 – $900 million first weekend at the box office. And it is everywhere. Facebook, Facebook Ads, Instagram, IG stories, Twitter and Twitter ads. It’s even trending on YouTube and Reddit.

On the other hand, the world is even going gaga over ‘The Game of Thrones.’ Two episodes of the fantasy-drama’s last season have already dropped and the world is gearing up for the final Battle of Winterfell. Fans’ ten-year anticipation to see who finally sits on the Iron Throne and if the Night King can truly be defeated has almost been satiated.

While all this is going on, Netflix is dropping series and movies one after another. Many of those either make it to the audiences favourites and others go unnoticed. Other video streaming platforms like Amazon’s Prime Video and Hulu are also creating unique content on a daily basis. And with Apple, Disney and WarnerMedia set to launch their own streaming services by the end of 2019, the audience will have no dearth of options to choose from.

But between all this noise, one tectonic shift in Hollywood is going unnoticed by the public. Either by design or by sheer happenstance. There is a war raging between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and talent agencies. Over 7000 writers, who are members of the WGA, have sent fired their agents. More firing is due to come in the coming days. And this war has been going on for the better part of this year. And you know nothing about this because, well, writers are the most understated performers in Hollywood.

What is actually going on?

Now that I have your attention, let me tell you a bit about what is actually going on. The WGA, the represents roughly 13,000 writers from the East and West coast, received numerous complaints from members that their agents were not representing them properly and keeping their personal interests above that of the client. But that’s not all. The complainants claim that the agents are not even able to fulfil their fiduciary duties that is a part of their contract.

So a deal was proposed by the WGA called the model ‘Code of Conduct’ that was to be applied replacing one that has been in place since 1976. Yep, more than 40-years-old. But this new deal was supposed to be more than a piece of paper. This new deal was supposed to bring structural changes in Hollywood, something that has been going around for the better part of the last few years. Alas, the talks between WGA and the agencies failed because the agencies refused to sign the deal and in turn presented a new deal. And the new deal was rejected by the WGA. It is imminent to note here that the agents who refused to sign the deal offered by WGA belonged to the bigger agencies in Hollywood. Some agents from the smaller, independent agencies agreed to WGA’s offer.

So, the WGA was at loggerheads with The Association of Talent Agents that is representing the interests of all agents. The association’s main constituents are the big four agencies: William Morris Endeavor, Creative Artists Agency, United Talent Agency and ICM Partners. But the bone of contention between the two parties is bigger than just representation. Because most agents belong to the same agency, the often fail to report a conflict of interest to their client.

Main bone of contention

The thing that has irked writers the most for the better part of their 43-year-old deal has been the idea of packaging and packaging fees that they (the agents) ask for. So packaging is the practice of  agents clubbing together multiple clients and offering them for a project. In this case they forego their 10 percent commission that they get from the individual client and instead get paid directly by the studio. And this is not a new practice. This has been going on for decades in the industry.

While the writers say that this practice goes against the core principles of their contract with agents who are supposed to keep the interests of the individual client above all else. The agents say that that is not the case and argue that most writers don’t get the concept of packaging. The writers say that they understand it just fine. They say that by practicing packaging they (the agents) keep their interests above those of the client and enrich themselves by inserting themselves in the production cost of the television serial or the movie. But the Agencies don’t buy this argument. They say by packaging, the interests of the writers and the agents are only aligned. Because agencies don’t make money on failed shows, the agents argue, they have the same motivation as writers in creating hits.

Once the negotiations between WGA and Association of Talent Agency began, the Agencies outrightly rejected WGA’s offer to let go of their packaging fees. In turn, they kept a counter-proposal in which they offered 1 percent fees to the writers of their packaging fees. This, the WGA claimed, was not a serious offer by the Agencies. And things just went south from there with things ending at an impasse.

Curiouser and curiouser

 

To maximise their profits and to get a bigger chunk of the game, these agencies have entered into the production business too. And that has not gone down well with the writers. According to the New York Times, “W.M.E., for instance, has an affiliate company called Endeavor Content. It was formed in 2017 and is a distributor of the show “Killing Eve,” as well as a producer of an epic drama coming from Apple TV Plus called “See.” C.A.A. also has an affiliate: Wiip. It is a producer of “Dickinson,” a comedy series that is also part of the Apple rollout scheduled for the fall. United Talent Agency is also getting in on production, with an affiliate called Civic Center Media. It has teamed up with M.R.C., the producer of “House of Cards,” to make new shows.”

But this is where things get really murky. So, many of these agencies then employ these same writers to make shows for them. And that is what has gotten the writers in a twist. They argue how can these Agencies represent their best interests and also employ them at the same time? Meaning they just lose out lucrative projects because they get employed for lower sums by their bosses i.e. their agents.

The Agents, on the other hand, argue that these production houses are really artist friendly and give the writers an opportunity to shine and showcase their talent and they would not get such an opportunity elsewhere. So it just boils down to a simple case of: he said, she said. And the Agencies are refusing to eject themselves from the production business. In turn they have offered to meet WGA four times a year to hear out their side of the story.

What’s the latest?

According to a report in the Hollywood Reporter: “That’s out of 8,800 current (i.e., active) members who had agents as of April 12, according to the guild. The WGA also said that most who haven’t signed are retirees or not actively working.

None of the major or mid-tier talent agencies are signatory to the guild’s Code of Conduct, making them off-limits to current members.

“The primary source of pressure on agencies to sign the Code of Conduct is their lack of writer clients,” said the announcement, an email to members from the WGA’s agency negotiating committee. “Therefore, adherence to Working Rule 23 [requiring members to be represented only by signatory agents] remains the main responsibility of all Guild members.”

But nobody knows what happens next. Most executives from movie and television studios are hoping that WGA will file a lawsuit in court, which can decide who is right and who is wrong in this case. Reports have been swirling that Agencies are waiting for cracks in the ranks of the writers so that they are able to get more people on their side. The WGA on the other hand, want more leverage and traction over the agencies, so that they can force them to sign the model ‘Code of Conduct.’But the two sides are at a weird impasse with neither side willing to budge from their stance. Needless to say, it seems like a dark shadow has been cast on the halls of Hollywood.  

 

 

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