Writers Guild of America in Battle with Talent Agencies

The Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) is a labor union that, combined with the Writers Guild of America, East, forms the Writers Guild of America (WGA). In recent weeks, the WGA has been locked in a battle with the Association of Talent Agencies (ATA), the trade association that negotiates on behalf of Hollywood talent agencies.

At the end of March, more than 8,000 WGA members overwhelmingly voted to approve the authorization of the guild’s leadership to implement a new Agency Code of Conduct. For years, a process called “packaging” has involved agencies putting together elements of a show (writers, directors, actors, etc.) and selling it to a studio, which then pays the agency a fee directly. The WGA’s new code bans “packaging fees,” in which agencies take a cut of a project’s episodic budget as well as 10 percent of a show’s profits off-the-top (before anyone else). This practice creates an ownership stake in the work that writers create. Agencies have rapidly turned into profitable entities in part from this practice, and have expanded into production to become studios. In what has become a circular process, these agencies/studios become the bosses of writers, and therefore lack an incentive to negotiate on behalf of writers.

Showrunner Glen Mazarra (Damien) leads the discussion on what first-time staff writers need to know about working in a writers’ room | Photo: MC Foley

 

Previously, agents used to receive 10 percent of a writer’s salary. Income for agents has since shifted from a portion of the writer’s salary, to being paid by the studios. In turn, talent agencies have consolidated from several mid-level organizations to only four major companies: WME, CAA, UTA, and ICM Partners. This corporatization comes at the expense of writer’s wages, which have stagnated if not declined on average.

To take a stand for its members, the WGA attempted to hold talks with the ATA over proposed changes to agency agreements.  The negotiations ultimately collapsed, leading the WGA to direct their members to fire their agents. So far, more than 7,000 writers have fired their agents as the union campaigns against the agencies refusing to agree to their new Code of Conduct. A letter from the guild to its members says that as of April 22, “99% of the members who signed the Statement of Support have fulfilled their pledge by terminating their non-franchised agencies.” The WGA has also filed a lawsuit against the big four talent agencies over conflict of interest concerns and the illegality of packaging fees under California law.

Photo by Wenni Zhou on Unsplash

 

The battle between the WGA and agencies has ramped up just as staffing season—the time when television pilots look to hire—begins. As a result, the WGA has begun laying the groundwork for its members to find work without the help of agents. A new online system allows writers to make up to three submissions of their work directly to showrunners. While the guild recognizes that this system cannot fully replace effective agents, it does say that it will “help provide our members with continuing access to job opportunities if we have to walk away from non-franchised agencies.”

Though the decision to part with talent agencies seems like an unprecedented move, many writers and guild members believe that this solidarity is a necessary step in protecting the work and well-being of Hollywood writers.

 

Looking to learn more about this issue in a relatable context? Crooked Media’s politics and pop culture podcast Keep It! interviewed WGA board member, Angelina Burnett, on a recent show. The episode is a fantastic way to understand the ins and outs of the dispute.