EXCLUSIVE: More than 400 writers packed the WGA Theater to overflowing today in support their union leaders’ efforts to reshape the talent agency business. No press was allowed inside, but applause could be heard outside on the street. Several writers leaving the meeting told Deadline that WGA leaders are prepared to ask members to leave their agents if a deal with the Association of Talent Agents isn’t reached. The current pact expires April 6, after which the industry could be entering uncharted waters.

The message from today’s meeting is that “Writers will walk away from the agencies” if a deal isn’t reached, a writer leaving the meeting told Deadline.

“Maybe we’ll be leaving the agencies,” said another. “That would be huge.”

The meeting came the day after the ATA expressed “serious doubts about the sincerity of WGA leadership’s desire for a negotiated solution” for a new set of regulations governing the relationship between writers and their agents.

The ATA’s statement “is pathetic,” WGA West executive director David Young told Deadline before the start of today’s meeting. “Misleading and pathetic.”

The ATA said in a message to its agency-members last night that the WGA’s proposals for a new franchise agreement would not only wreak havoc on the industry, but would be catastrophic for writers as well. “Under WGA’s proposal,” the ATA said, “more than 1,000 independent films would not have been released in the last five years.

The two sides met for the first time on Tuesday to negotiate a new franchise agreement, called the Artists’ Manager Basic Agreement, which hasn’t been renegotiated in over 40 years.

“There was a lot of saber-rattling going on inside,” said another writer after today’s meeting. “The guild is flexing its muscles. It’s a form of posturing that has a danger to it.”

That danger is that no one really knows what would happen if writers actually walk away from their agents in large numbers. SAG failed to reach an agreement with the ATA for a new franchise agreement back in 2002 over similar “conflict of interest” issues, and nothing happened. SAG still doesn’t have an agreement with the ATA, and yet, business continued as usual, and the big agencies have only gotten bigger.

The WGA, however, is more united now than SAG ever was back then. If enough showrunners walk away from their agencies, it could throw a serious wrench into TV production. And yet, the big agencies – short of a consent decree — aren’t likely to ever give up their packaging of the creative and financial elements of shows, or their growing interests in productions.

WGA leaders appear to think their members will prevail if it comes to a showdown with the ATA, telling their members today that a new survey shows that 76% of the guild’s members say their agents haven’t gotten them any work in the last year, and that the jobs they did get, they got themselves. The message is that writers can get along just fine without agents — at least until a new deal can be reached.

“Every job I’ve gotten in the last five years, I’ve gotten on my own, and my agent took 10%,” said another writer.

The WGA’s main goals, as outlined in its proposals, would ban packaging deals and prohibit agencies from being involved in productions, saying it’s a “conflict of interest” that violates agents’ fiduciary duty to their writer-clients.

The existing agreement, said another writer, is a “specious deal. It’s a code of conduct. How do you enforce a code of conduct? It’s the big four agencies that are the ones who control packaging and have private equity deals. This is directed at them.”

Another member called the meeting “upbeat and positive.”

TV showrunners, who would be the most impacted by any changes in the agency rules, have already met separately with guild leaders three times: on Jan. 30 and 31, and on Feb. 5. “Showrunners will play a critical role in this effort and stand to benefit greatly. We want to lay out the plan for you and get your feedback,” WGA West president David A. Goodman and executive director David Young told them in Jan. 18 email. “We want to get face-to-face with every showrunner in the Guild – starting now.”

A similar email was sent to the guild’s general membership two weeks later in advance of today’s meeting. “Our goal is to attain a new Agency Agreement that: Eliminates practices that constitute a conflict of interest: agency packaging fees and agencies functioning as producers. Requires the agencies to provide writer contracts, invoices and other information and work with the Guild to enforce contracts and protect writers’ interests,” guild leaders said.

The WGA’s proposals for a new agreement, which were delivered to the ATA in April, would effectively return the agencies to mere collectors of `10% commissions. A proposal that “no agency shall accept any money or thing of value from the employer of a client” would basically end all packaging deals. The guild also proposed eliminating commissions on scale and putting the brakes on the agencies’ ventures into film and television production by not allowing agencies to have “an ownership or other financial interest in, or shall be owned by or affiliated with, any entity or individual engaged in the production or distribution of motion pictures.”

Here are all the guild’s proposals:
https://www.wga.org/members/membership-information/agency-agreement/amba-proposals