More than a hundred WGA members gathered this drizzly morning to hear their leaders discuss the union’s efforts to update its decades-old agreement with talent agents. Guild leaders say that one of the key elements of the pact they want addressed is the “conflict of interest inherent in production and packaging,” in which agencies produce and package shows in which their clients are employed as writers.
The agreement, known as the Artists’ Manager Basic Agreement (AMBA), “has not been renegotiated for 42 years and is completely out of date,” WGA leaders say. It’s so old, in fact, that the guild made the deal in 1976 with an organization that no longer exists – the Artists’ Managers Guild, which was succeeded by the Association of Talent Agents not long after the agreement was reached.
“We had a good discussion about how to make sure writers are properly represented,” WGA executive director David Young told Deadline after the meeting.
The guild, he said, had not yet reached out to the ATA about opening renegotiations on the agreement. “We’re figuring out if that’s the direction the membership wants to go.”
“The intention is not to go on strike,” a writer leaving the meeting told Deadline. “The intention is to update a 42-year old agreement to reflect today’s realities.”
One of the chief concerns is that the big agencies are getting so fat off their giant packaging fees that representing writers is no longer their main concern.
“Packaging is the key issue,” said another writer. “The agencies are getting really big and the concern is that they are turning into studio and are start producing things.”
He said this effects film and TV writers but noted that “TV is where the focus is.”
“The issues are really simple and clear,” a show runner said exiting the meeting. “If your employer is representing you, that’s not cool. I think every writer understands that.”
The WGA’s Code of Working Rules states that “No writer shall enter into a representation agreement, whether oral or written, with any agent who has not entered into an agreement with the guild covering minimum terms and conditions between agents and their writer clients.”
But the AMBA has never prevented agencies from packaging or holding ownership stakes in productions that employ their clients. Rather, it doesn’t allow agents to take their 10% commissions on projects for which they are also receiving a packaging fee.
Packaging has been a bone of contention for decades. The old Artists’ Managers Guild initially balked at signing the agreement, saying that it “raised serious antitrust questions which would lead to litigation “if that agreement [were] implemented.” The William Morris Agency initially refused to sign it because of the limits it placed on the receipt of package commissions, which even then generated a significant amount of the agency’s income.
A lawsuit – Adams, Ray & Rosenberg v. William Morris – ensued in which the WGA argued that the packaging commissions charged by William Morris were exorbitant, thereby depressing the wages received by writers employed to work on packages.
Similar allegations of conflicts of interest led to a falling out between SAG and the ATA in 2002 when they couldn’t come to terms on a new franchise agreement in a dispute over how much the agencies would be allowed to invest in or be invested in by ad agencies, advertisers and independent producers. SAG viewed such financial interests as an irreconcilable conflict of interest, putting the actor in the position of being represented by an agency that could also be his or her employer.
SAG – now SAG-AFTRA – has yet to resolve its differences with the ATA, and those same issues are now being played out as the WGA seeks to renegotiate its deal with the ATA.
Besides addressing what it calls the “conflict of interest inherent in production and packaging,” the guild also wants to renegotiate the AMBA to require writers to be paid at least WGA scale plus 10% before agents can charge a commission; agency cooperation to submit all contracts and invoices so the guild can carry out effective contract enforcement; incentives to increase agent advocacy for writers on TV/digital staffs, including fighting for title and compensation; a requirement for agents to protect writers from free writing, one-step deals and sweepstakes pitching, and a prohibition on referrals to jobs where the underlying rights have not been secured.
Today’s membership meeting is just the first of three the guild will be holding over the next 10 days.